How to Write Harvard's Essays (with Real 2023 Harvard Essay Examples)
AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education
16 min read
Getting into Harvard University is a dream come true for many high school students. But, the application process doesn't end with the Common Application - you'll also need to write supplemental essays. While it may seem daunting at first, writing these Harvard supplementals can be made easier by understanding what admissions officers are looking for and having examples of successful essays to draw inspiration from.
In this article, we’ll provide some tips on how to craft an effective Harvard supplemental essay and showcase real examples from 2023 applicants who were admitted into the university. With these helpful resources in hand, you’ll have all you need to start writing your own supplementals!
Harvard's Essay Prompts
Harvard applicants will have to write three essays in total. While two of these essays are technically optional, they are highly encouraged; students who don't complete those essays are put at a massive disadvantage during application season.
Prompt #1 (Optional, but Highly Recommended): Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (150 words)
Prompt #2: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)
Prompt #3 (Optional, but Highly Recommended): You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:
- Unusual circumstances in your life
- Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
- What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
- An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
- How you hope to use your college education
- A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
- The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
- The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
- Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?
- Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.
Writing Harvard's Essays:
Harvard's Additional Intellectual Activities Essay
Harvard's Prompt #1: "Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere."
Our advice for approaching Harvard's essay prompt asking applicants to list additional intellectual activities outside of their schoolwork is to first understand what "intellectual activities" consist of. Intellectual activities may include but are not limited to hobbies, academic projects, research, or any other activity that's helped you learn something valuable or new.
When structuring your response, make sure to keep it organized. Start by briefly introducing the activity, explaining what it is and how you became involved with it. Focus on the skills that you gained from this activity and how they have helped you develop into a well-rounded individual. Be specific when mentioning the activity or intellectual pursuit, and relate it back to your talents, abilities, or interests. Make sure to highlight how it has impacted your academic performance and personal growth.
Suitable intellectual activities to mention can include but are not limited to, volunteering, research projects, personal interests, internships within a specific field, or pursuing a particular subject on your own outside of a traditional academic setting.
Lastly, make sure to avoid cliches or generic statements that don't add anything new to your story. Rather, use concrete examples and showcase your uniqueness in your writing style. Here's an excellent example of this from Victor, who got into Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, and UPenn. You can read all of his essays, stats, and awards here!
Leisure Reading: Silent Spring—Rachel Carson; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—Douglas Adams; The Old Man and the Sea—Ernest Hemingway; Blood Meridian, The Road—Cormac McCarthy; Die Welt von Gestern—Stefan Zweig; Cicero—Anthony Everret.
Independent research: Used GIS mapping and Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System to analyze traffic collision data in my city.
Books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities—Jane Jacobs; The Color of Law—Richard Rothstein.
Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance—Andonia E. Lugo.
Historical research areas from hours perusing Wikipedia, YouTube, and scholarly articles: 19th Century Urbanism and the Sanitation Revolution; Implications of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the British betrayal of the Hashemites; Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’ nationalization of Mexican oil and foundation of PEMEX; Mercantilism and how it stunted Iberian colonies’ development post-independence; Fall of the Roman Republic; Norman Conquest of England; The Trial of Charles I.
Harvard's Extracurricular Essay:
Harvard's Prompt #2: "Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences."
To start, when choosing which activity or experience to write about, think about something that you are passionate about and have put in significant effort into. It should also be something that has had a meaningful impact on your life and that you can speak about in depth. This will make the essay more engaging and interesting for the reader.
Next, your essay should have a clear structure. Start by introducing the topic and providing concrete examples of what you did in this activity or experience. Explain any challenges you faced and how you overcame them. Lastly, discuss what you learned from the experience and how it has shaped you as a person.
When writing the essay, it's important to make it personal and reflective of who you are as an individual. Use specific stories to illustrate your points instead of generalizing your experiences. Avoid using cliches or generic phrases that don't add anything new to your story. Strive to make your essay unique and authentic in your writing style. Here's a great example from Gabby W, who got into Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Yale. You can read all of her essays and extracurriculars here.
I discovered Haven for Hope, a community rehab and homeless shelter, through GirlUp, an initiative by the UN Foundation centered around empowering women and developing leadership. In my first year, I became one of four tutors who visited the teenage girls at Haven for Hope weekly. We developed real bonds and strived to be consistent role models for these girls.
During my junior year, as one of five board members, my role in actively supporting the community grew significantly. Our chapter membership grew to 100+ students, and I managed the funds raised to donate 1200+ menstrual products for Haven for Hope women, stock neighboring Title I schools with feminine hygiene products, and hold a baby diaper drive for the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter.
My involvement with GirlUp developed into a profoundly fulfilling fight for female empowerment and equity, a battle I know will continue as I venture into STEM professions.
Harvard's Additional Essay:
Harvard's Prompt #3: "You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics."
We suggest approaching the additional essay prompt with intention and thoughtfulness. This essay is an opportunity to showcase something new about yourself that you haven't already discussed in other parts of your application. Think of it almost like a second personal statement (so stick around 500 words). You're giving the admissions department another look into who you are as a person!
To start, identify what you want to convey about yourself through this essay. It should go beyond your resume or achievements and showcase your personality, interests, values, or worldview. For instance, you could discuss a formative experience that influenced your personal growth or reflect on a specific value that guides your actions.
Once you've identified your topic, make sure you provide plenty of vivid details and specific examples to illustrate your insights. Use descriptive language to help the readers visualize what you're describing in your essay. For example, if you're discussing your favorite hobby, you might describe a particular moment when you discovered your passion for it or the sense of fulfillment you get when you engage with it.
As you write your essay, remember to use an appropriate tone that reflects your personality. You want to come across as authentic and relatable while still demonstrating your unique perspective. It might help to read your essay out loud to ensure that your voice and tone are consistent with your personality.
Don't be afraid to take risks and be vulnerable in your writing. Discussing difficult experiences or challenges can help showcase your resilience and growth mindset. However, you want to avoid oversharing or writing about sensitive topics in a way that could be perceived negatively. Here's an awesome example from Sarah, who was admitted to Stanford, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Columbia, UPenn, Johns Hopkins, and Brown! You can see all of her essays, awards, stats, and more here! Sarah answered the prompt "Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates."
As the other kids prepared to present their 3D-printed towers to students and parents, Nathan fretted, brow furrowed and arms crossed, deeply anxious about the prospect of speaking in front of the large audience. I was in my third year as an assistant teacher for a middle school weekend STEM class when I met Nathan, a student on the autism spectrum.
While the other students worked in pairs, Nathan adamantly insisted he work alone. I was happy to support Nathan as he designed a miniature CAD model of the Big Ben, but he was now tasked with presenting alone, without a partner, unlike the rest of the students. Though he struggled socially and shuddered at the thought of reaching out to his classmates, the other students failed to make an effort to reach out to him. I was perplexed as to why the other kids felt content in excluding Nathan, but as I honestly admitted to myself, I had been no better at their age.
Nathan displayed behaviors reminiscent of those of my older brother Stevie, who has severe autism. Stevie is the most affectionate brother, constantly projecting an infectious smile that has the enchanting power to put me at ease; yet so many people unwittingly deprive him of the fair chance to live a life free from prejudice—including my younger self.
When I was my students’ age, I felt a disgraceful degree of shame upon going into public with Stevie, embarrassed by his random loud outbursts and the disparaging stares we would receive from almost every stranger. However, growing up alongside Stevie, I sometimes observed genuine kindness that made me re-examine my outlook. I began to recognize that autism doesn’t make Stevie disabled; it’s how society accommodates his differences that dictates whether he’s disabled or not. Perceiving the barriers perpetuated by a world not inherently designed for people like Stevie, I felt progressively empowered to try to make life more accommodating for others.
I calmly assured Nathan that he would not need to present in person; instead, I recorded a video of his individual presentation to send to his parents, which alleviated his fears. In the subsequent classes, I put significant effort into connecting Nathan with the other students. I typically spent a majority of each class working with Nathan, trying to support him in any way I could.
I’m eternally grateful that Stevie has helped me become more compassionate and understanding of those around me, whether it’s Nathan or simply a random stranger I encounter in public. Beyond the interactions I share with others, Stevie has also shaped my aspirations for the future. I am drawn in large part to technological innovation because it provides the avenue through which I can continue to better the lives of differently-abled people. I plan to innovate efficient assistive technology, such as AI-powered robotic assistants, to aid those whom society often overlooks. I’m proud that I can serve as an advocate for acceptance and help those who need it most. As I endeavor to provide meaningful assistance to these individuals, I hope I can inspire others to act in a similar manner.
Here's another incredible example of Harvard's optional essay from Dev, who got into Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth. You can read his entire college application here! Dev answered the prompt "What you would want your future college roommate to know about you."
Dear future roommate,
I’m going to apologize in advance.
Sorry for always asking you and subsequently dragging you with me to satisfy my chocolate peanut butter cup and black raspberry chocolate chunk cravings. My friends and I have tried a new ice cream place twice a month for the last year, and I can’t stop my streak now (the best flavor so far has been banana cream pie, if you were wondering). I’m not afraid to admit my ice cream obsession and bring you along for the ride. It will be worth it, I promise!
Sorry for yelling at my laptop or the TV on select Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays. I always look forward to my Cleveland Browns finding some way to shock me or leave me in shock. But, they’re my unpredictable team, and I think you’ll find that I’m one of the most loyal people you’ll meet – whether it’s about a sports team or relationships.
Sorry for making you stand… rrrright there against the sun and keep four fingers in your pocket with your thumb out. I’ve been a hobbyist photographer for a few years now, and I will give you the Instagram-worthy photos you’ve been wanting. Still, it won’t come without a bit of precision and creativity, which I think is reflected in my personality. You would probably see that best in my closet.
Speaking of my closet, I'm sorry for all of the Amazon packages I’ll be dragging into the dorm. I am constantly refining my wardrobe, buying new sweaters, jeans, and shoes that I definitely do not need. I like to look “put-together,” however, and if I ask you for your honest opinion, feel free to tell me if this cable-knit patchwork Marino wool sweater looks like a bunch of chocolate bars strung together. Part of my put-together attitude is washing my clothes at least once a week, so, thankfully, one less worry for you is that I won’t smell.
Sorry for dropping every responsibility I have at exactly 10:00 PM during the week (and 6:00 PM on the weekend) because the New York Times just released its latest mini crossword. Don’t worry too much, though, as I won’t be separated from reality for too long – my average time is now below 25 seconds. I’ve been competing against my family and friends on the mini-leaderboard for a while, and I usually get the fastest time. Feel free to add yourself to my leaderboard and play along!
Sorry for sending you a new song that I think is really, really good when Spotify releases my Discover Weekly on Mondays. I may overplay it for the next week and then squirm if I ever hear its intro again, but I love listening to music with other people, so join me in ruining a song faster than you can sing the chorus to The Champs’ classic song, “Tequila.” I’d love to hear your music too. My taste is very diverse, so as long as we dance around death metal and psychedelic rock, I know we’ll be able to jam out easily.
Sorry for the exorbitant number of dad jokes I’m going to make. That’s it.
I’m not sorry for the ways that these quirks will bring us together; I can’t wait to be the friend that will stick by your side no matter what. I’ll be there to help you if you’re struggling in class, missing home, or conflicted about your love life. Whether you want to talk about the universe’s biggest questions or if pineapple belongs on pizza, just pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked, grab two spoons, and we can sit for hours figuring it all out together.
In conclusion, writing standout essays for Harvard University requires time, dedication, and careful planning. It's important to choose topics that highlight your unique experiences, personality, and skills, as well as to demonstrate your passion, curiosity, and resilience. Feedback from trusted sources, such as academic advisors or writing tutors, can be invaluable in refining your essays and ensuring their quality. Another helpful resource for writing strong essays is reading examples of successful college essays. Reading these essays can offer inspiration, ideas, and insights on what works and what doesn't, ultimately helping you write more compelling essays. That's why we highly recommend checking out our platform which offers thousands of successful college essays written by real students that you can read through and learn from. With the right approach, dedication, and guidance, you can craft essays that will stand out in your application to Harvard University.
Read the essays, activities, and awards that got them in. Read one for free!
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