How To Write The Harvard Supplemental Essays

Everything about the Harvard supplemental essay
May 23, 2024
7 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Harvard University is a highly selective institution. Therefore, you’ll want to do everything you can to boost your chances of acceptance. If you’re thinking about writing the Harvard supplemental essays, read on for tips, examples, and more. 

Writing the Harvard essays may be optional, but it’s an excellent opportunity to bolster your application. This is your chance to write about your character and demonstrate your intellectual competence and curiosity

With a 3% acceptance rate, Harvard is notoriously selective. However, writing stellar essayswill improve your chances of admission. Read on to learn how to write the supplemental essays and read Harvard essay examples.

What Are Harvard Essay Prompts?

Like every other college, Harvard has an application package. You may submit your application through the Common Application or the Coalition Application

However, neither application includes the additional Harvard application materials. While both applications will have required pieces of information, applicants also have the opportunity to provide the Harvard admission essays to boost their chances of getting accepted.

Harvard's application now has five required short-answer questions:

1. Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?

2. Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.

3. Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.

4. How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?

5. Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

Josef Durand, a seasoned admissions expert and Harvard alum, reminds students that while the 200-word limit may seem challenging to stay within, keeping your answers concise can make all the difference to the admissions committee: 

“By limiting the word count to 200 words per essay, it forces students to take a more direct approach, which heavily favors being unapologetically yourself, as aforementioned. So it would appear that even the Harvard essay trends echo this sentiment about being “unapologetically yourself” because their essay set limits you on word count in order to force you to say what you want to say quicker (leaving less room for “fluff”). What this also says is that Harvard is getting a lot of applications and they want to streamline the workflow for their admissions officers, so write everything with that in mind (these admissions officers have lots - even too many - applications to read, so how am I going to make sure mine sticks out in their minds?)”

Considering this, there’s no need to do any additional research for Harvard, as these questions are all about your own experiences. So, use this opportunity to reflect on your experiences and use them to craft an essay that demonstrates your individuality. 

Purpose of the Harvard Essays

First, it may be easier to consider what the purpose of the Harvard supplemental essays is not. 

These Harvard essays are not for you to show off your achievements—your application provides plenty of room for that. Still, the admissions committee wants to know you are a unique individual who can bring diverse experiences and perspectives to Harvard’s community. 

In its list of admissions tips relating to the supplemental essays, Harvard College says, "We encourage you to read over the prompts and respond to the one that most resonates with you." 

Though this may not seem like it provides much insight into what Harvard is looking for, it shows there is no specific answer. Nothing will automatically improve your chances of getting accepted. There is no correct answer because Harvard wants to use these supplemental questions to know more about you

Harvard wants to see what resonates with you and why to provide insight into your character and whether you will be a good fit. The Harvard essays are more than just another opportunity for you to flex your high achievements; they are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your character and passions. 

Along with showing Harvard who you are as an individual, it’s also important to stick to the Harvard essay requirements. This means staying within the world limit, and responding to the provided prompts. 

These essays play an important role in the admissions process, but they are often what otherwise strong applicants struggle with! 

Take it from Mia; she had a 3.9 GPA but felt her essay writing skills weren’t up to the task. When she struggled with main ideas, sentence transitions, and ensuring her narratives came full circle, she relied on our expert admissions counsellors for help. 

They helped her streamline her narratives, ensured her flow was clear and concise, and provided in-depth edits to make sure her Harvard essays would make an impression. With her stellar essays, Mia was accepted to Harvard through its restrictive early action program. You can read more about her success story here:

Top Tips for Crafting the Harvard Essays

So, how do you write the Harvard application essays? Here, we’ll go through them, one by one. But before doing that, we’ll go over the essay writing process. With Harvard essays the key is balancing authenticity and strategic planning. We asked Josef how he suggests applicants maintain this balance and here’s what he had to say: 

“The right balance between authenticity and strategic positioning is akin to “before and after”, or perhaps more fittingly, “before and during”. "Before” writing the essay is when you should do all the strategic positioning: discussing possible prompts, brainstorming what story to tell, outlining which activities to include, and dissecting the essay from multiple perspectives besides your own. Then, “after” doing the strategic positioning (or “during” the writing process) is when you should be 100% authentic. Write from the heart here, because that is what will resonate most. If you’ve already strategically positioned the content, you already know what’s going in the essay, but it’s a question of HOW it goes in the essay that makes all the difference. So if you’re writing too strategically, you risk not showing enough personality in the personal statement (big no no!). Instead, if you write authentically from the heart about the content you’ve already outlined, then your pathos will elevate that outlined content to levels that should catch the attention of admissions readers.” 

With this in mind, let’s break down each of Harvard’s essay prompts:

Prompt #1

“Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”

It can be tough to know how to start your essay or what topic to focus on. While students typically associate diversity with their upbringing, community, cultural heritage, or race, you can go beyond these topics. 

When we asked Josef to elaborate on the specific qualities that Harvard admissions looks for in the essays of successful students, he mentioned adversity as one of the most compelling traits to discuss. Here’s exactly what he said:

“Many students, especially those applying to a school like Harvard, are shy about their failures and tend not to want to share something that might make them look bad, but Harvard takes a different view on failure: they want to see how you respond. So instead of shying away from divulging any failures or moments of adversity, share the adversity BUT be sure to highlight how you overcame that adversity in order to showcase that you’re capable of doing so (without just coming out and saying, ‘I can overcome adversity’).”

Adversity can equip you with resilience, empathy, unique perspectives, and problem-solving skills, all of which can contribute to Harvard’s community. Whether you choose to talk about adversity or not, ensure you provide specific examples, explain how these life experiences have prepared you to contribute to Harvard's commitment to diversity, and remain authentic.

By following these steps, you can provide a thoughtful and compelling response that demonstrates how your life experiences have prepared you to contribute to Harvard's commitment to diversity and enrich its academic and social environment.

Prompt #2

“Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.” 

Like the other question, this one is meant to bring out an experience that’s personal to you. To get started, consider the following steps:

  • Choose a Relevant Experience: Select an intellectual experience that had a meaningful impact on your academic or personal growth. It could be a specific course, a book that profoundly affected your thinking, a research project, or a stimulating discussion.
  • Describe the Experience: Begin by briefly describing the experience itself. Provide context and details to help the reader understand the situation.
  • Highlight Its Importance: Explain why this experience was significant to you. Did it challenge your existing beliefs, inspire a new interest, or help you overcome a particular academic obstacle? Convey why it stands out among your intellectual experiences.
  • Discuss Its Influence: Elaborate on how this experience influenced your intellectual development. Did it shape your academic goals, change your perspective on a subject, or inspire further exploration? Describe the lasting impact it had on you.
  • Reflect on Personal Growth: If applicable, touch on how this intellectual experience contributed to your personal growth and character development. Did it teach you resilience, critical thinking, or the value of perseverance?
  • Conclude Concisely: Sum up your response by briefly restating the significance of the intellectual experience and its impact on your intellectual and personal journey.

Keep your response concise and focused while effectively conveying the importance and influence of the chosen intellectual experience.

Prompt #3

“Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.”

Josef believes that expanding on your extracurriculars in your essays is a great way to provide the admissions committee with a fuller picture of who you are, but you have to do so strategically. He offers these words of wisdom:

“Bring your [extracurricular] activities to life in your essays by weaving your most important activities into your narrative. Don’t force it. Only include those activities that go along with the organic progression of your story, and, to help with this, you can even strategically plan ahead of time what to write about so you can outline exactly how to weave your most important activities into that narrative.”

Remember, you’ve already listed your extracurriculars on your application and resume. Use your essay to focus on one or two that are most meaningful to you and integral to who you are! Clearly articulate their importance. Did they introduce you to new perspectives, challenge your abilities, or expose you to different cultures and lifestyles? 

Detail how these experiences influenced your personal growth and development and explain how they have contributed to your overall character and the person you've become.

Prompt #4

“How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?”

Your answer to this prompt will be personal to your goals. However, there is a strategic approach you can take. 

  • Consider Your Goals: Start by thinking about your long-term goals and aspirations. What do you hope to achieve professionally, academically, or personally in the future?
  • Align with Harvard Education: Explain how a Harvard education is uniquely suited to help you achieve these goals. Discuss specific aspects of Harvard's programs, resources, or community that attract you and align with your objectives.
  • Connect to Your Field: If applicable, discuss how your Harvard education relates to your chosen field of study or career path. Highlight any opportunities for research, internships, or networking that will support your goals.
  • Emphasize Impact: Describe the positive impact you hope to make in your chosen field or in society at large. Whether it's through innovation, leadership, social change, or other means, convey your vision for how you'll contribute.
  • Personal Growth: Discuss how you anticipate personal growth and development during your time at Harvard. Explain how these experiences will shape your character and perspective, further enhancing your ability to achieve your goals.
  • Be Specific: Provide concrete examples and details to make your response more compelling and authentic. Show that you've done your research and have a clear understanding of what Harvard offers and how it fits into your plans.
  • Stay Realistic: While it's great to aim high, ensure that your goals and plans are realistic and feasible. Harvard admissions officers appreciate ambition, but they also want to see that you've thought carefully about your path.
  • Tailor Your Response: Customize your answer to your unique interests and goals. Avoid generic or one-size-fits-all responses. Highlight what makes your aspirations and connection to Harvard distinctive.
  • Edit and Review: After writing your response, review and edit for clarity, conciseness, and coherence. Ensure that your answer effectively communicates your vision and passion for using your Harvard education in the future.

Following these steps will help you write a clear and organized response that shows your excitement about using your Harvard education to reach your goals and create a significant impact in your chosen field or areas of interest.

To ensure you write essays that impress the Harvard admissions committee, here are three more tips from Josef on how to guarantee your essays stand out from the crowd:

“Firstly, the approach (content-wise) that I’ve observed works best is to say in each essay that which ONLY you can say and nobody else (or ONLY you and as few other people as possible). THAT will be your unique differentiator for that essay prompt and THAT will get you noticed by admissions officers.
Another great approach is to include a captivating hook sentence: something short, sweet, and to the point but punchy enough to get their attention. Onomatopoeia works wonders (i.e. if you’re a chemistry major about to write about a fun lab experiment that involves some sort of explosion, starting off with “BOOM!” will be sure to grab attention). And just like you have a great hook to start off, you want to end with a bang (I call it the “haymaker” because it’s intended to floor the reader after reading that last sentence). So, be sure to include a compelling “hook” and “haymaker” in order to make a great first and last impression.
Another way to increase memorability (without sacrificing too many words in the 200-word maximum count) is to include a short, snappy, and catchy title to the essay, something that says what the essay is about but simultaneously begs the reader to read more and find out what is meant by the title phrase. For example, the title of my Common App personal statement was “Mountain Climbing”, but I’m not a rock climber and have never climbed a mountain; rather, “Mountain Climbing” was the “Hard” difficulty setting on a video game I used to play as a kid, which I analogized to living life on “Hard” mode in order to learn more and grow more quickly from the increased adversity. See how “Mountain Climbing” says what the essay is about but also begs the reader to find out more (because once you read it, you find out that the title is actually not about the “Mountain Climbing” you think it’s about)? That’s what we’re going for! Remember: these admissions readers are people; people love to be entertained (that’s why people love stories), and one of the most gripping points in all forms of entertainment is the plot twist of a story. So, if you can have some sort of plot twist in your essay stemming from the title itself, that could then make the whole essay memorable, and your admissions reader will go around to the whole team, asking everyone: Hey, have you read this ‘Mountain Climbing’ essay yet?”

Harvard Supplemental Essay Examples

Here are Harvard essay examples that helped students gain admission. These excerpts are from essays submitted by Harvard applicants. You can use these supplemental essay examples to get inspired and guide your writing. 

Essay Example Excerpt #1

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.”

"When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't care about school or my education. I couldn't see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say 'how are you' in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn't see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn't bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was depressed. I stopped spending time with my friends and stopped enjoying the things I used to enjoy. I was feeling hopeless. How could I get through three and a half more years of high school if I couldn't even get through a semester? I couldn't stand the thought of feeling this way for so long – at least it felt so long at the time. 

After a few failed tests, one of my teachers approached me after class one day. She said she also noticed a difference in my demeanor in the last few weeks and asked if I was okay. At that moment, I realized that no one had asked me that in a long time. I didn't feel okay, so I told her that. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I was feeling disconnected from school and classes and just about everything at that point. 

My teacher suggested I visit my guidance counselor. So the next day, during study hall, I got a pass to visit with my guidance counselor and told her I was feeling disconnected from classes and school. She asked me what my interests were and suggested that I take an elective like art or music or a vocational tech class like culinary arts or computer coding. 

I told her that I wasn't sure what I was interested in at this point and she told me to take a couple of classes to see what I like. At her persistence, I signed up for art and computer coding. 

It turns out art was not my thing. But it also turns out that computer coding is my thing, and I am not sure I would have realized that had I not gone to see my guidance counselor at my teacher's recommendation. 

After taking computer coding and other similar classes, I had something to look forward to during school. So even when I still dreaded taking Spanish and Geometry, I knew I could look forward to an enjoyable class later in the day. Having something to look forward to really helped me raise my grades because I started caring about my future and the possibility of applying for college to study computer science. 

The best thing that I took away from this experience is that I can't always control what happens to me, especially as a minor, but I can control how I handle things. In full transparency: there were still bad days and bad grades, but by taking action and adding a couple of classes into my schedule that I felt passionate about, I started feeling connected to school again. From there, my overall experience with school – and life in general – improved 100%."

Why this is a good essay: The student answers the "personal development" part of the prompt by addressing their low grades, how the experience affected them, and how they got back on track to getting better grades in this college essay example. 

Harvard’s admissions committee will see the low grades from freshman year, but the student has preemptively explained them, making it a good essay.

Essay Example Excerpt #2 

Prompt: Unusual circumstances in your life. 

"When I was ten years old, my family was homeless for a little less than a year. It was extremely challenging. My mom was a single mother of three children, working two jobs to make ends meet. We went from my grandparents' house to my aunt's house and then back to my grandparents' house again before we finally had our own space again. 

At the time, I couldn't see how it would affect my life, but looking back, it was something that defined me. It was also an experience that unknowingly put me on my path towards higher education. I knew at the time that I never wanted to be back in that place, and I would do anything to make that happen. 

Fast forward to the beginning of my junior year of high school. My family was no longer homeless, but we were still struggling. I decided to start applying for colleges, and I really wanted to apply to Harvard. When I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to go to Harvard, I waited for her to laugh in my face. She didn't. She looked at my grades and extracurricular activities, plus my work experience and told me that I would be a good candidate. 

Having someone see me for my intellect instead of my monetary worth was a first in my life. Ever since we had been homeless, I was firmly rooted among the "poor kids," the kids who would seemingly never make it out of our small town. But I was determined." 

Why this is a good essay: Again, the student has answered the prompt directly in this college essay example. Harvard will see the type of student they are, and give the admissions committee insight into their educational goals and ambitions. 


Do you still have questions about how to write the Harvard supplemental essays? Read on to have your questions answered. 

1. Will Writing the Supplemental Essays Improve My Chances of Getting Into Harvard?

If you are a strong writer and you can demonstrate that you are a dynamic individual who will contribute to Harvard’s community, your essays can improve your chances of acceptance. They will give the admissions committee a better idea of your personality and passions.

2. Do I Have to Write the Supplemental Essays?

The Harvard supplemental essays are not required, but if you are set on attending Harvard, they are a good opportunity for you to bolster your application and improve your chances of getting accepted. 

3. How Does the Harvard Admissions Committee Decide Who Gets Admitted?

According to Harvard, "There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard. Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and personal qualities and character. 

We rely on teachers, counselors, and alumni to share information with us about an applicant's strength of character, his or her ability to overcome adversity, and other personal qualities."

If you’re stuck on how to get the ball rolling, consider seeking an admissions consultant’s help.

4. Can Writing Supplemental Essays Hurt My Application Rather Than Help It?

If you do not write these Harvard essays carefully, there is a chance that they could be harmful towards your chances of acceptance. However, with the support of your friends, family, and resources, your essays will be a great asset to your application. 

5. How Do I Actually Stand out in My Application?

According to Harvard alum Jay Chen, "What you want to do is write something very true to yourself. Don't be afraid to show your vulnerability. Talk about something difficult that happened and how you overcame it. You don't want to pretend to be invincible if you think that's what colleges want. They want to see that you're mature and that you're able to cope with hardships."

Ivy League acceptance rates are typically low, so you’ll want to do everything you can to boost your chances of acceptance.

Write the Essays, Reap the Rewards

Just like the rest of the Harvard application, the supplemental essays are no walk in the park. You must be authentic and demonstrate your specific strengths and positive characteristics. Whether you’re a parent prepping your child for the Ivy League or a high schooler getting ready for application season - understanding how to approach the essays is key. 

It may seem overwhelming to have another piece to add to your application, but these essays offer you the opportunity to demonstrate further why you are qualified to be there. Using these tips and Harvard essay examples, you now know how to write the Harvard essays and show the admissions committee who you are and how you can benefit the community and, eventually, the world.

Access 190+ sample college essays here

Access 190+ sample college essays here

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