How To Write The Harvard Supplemental Essays

Smiling black man holding several sheets of paper in each hand
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/22

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 supplemental essays may be optional, but it’s an excellent opportunity to bolster your application. The Harvard supplemental essays provide extra opportunities to write about your character and demonstrate your intellectual competence and curiosity

With a 3.4% acceptance rate this past year, Harvard is notoriously selective. However, writing stellar essays will improve your chances of admission. Read on to learn how to write the Harvard supplemental essays and read Harvard essay examples.

What Are the Harvard Supplemental Essays?

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 supplemental material. While both applications will have required pieces of information, Harvard provides the opportunity for applicants to provide additional information that may boost their chances of getting accepted.

The Harvard admission essay prompts on the application supplement for 2020-2021 are: 

1. "Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences."
2. "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."

Both of these questions only offer limited space (up to 150 words). However, the final Harvard admissions essay question has no word limit, and you can write on any topic of your choice. Here is the additional essay prompt:

“You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel 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:”
1. “Unusual circumstances in your life”
2. “Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities”
3. “What you would want your future college roommate to know about you”
4. “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”
5. “How you hope to use your college education”
6. “A list of books you have read during the past twelve months”
7. “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.”
8. “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?”
9. “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?”
10. “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.”

For international students, there is another 50-word Harvard optional essay: 

"What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive?"

Purpose of the Harvard Supplemental Essays

Infographic explaining the purpose of the Harvard supplemental 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.

Top Tips for Crafting the Harvard Supplemental Essays

Tips for Writing the Harvard Supplemental Essays

So, how do you write a Harvard optional essay? Let's go through them, one by one. 

Prompt #1

When answering this question, don't repeat something from your actual application. Remember, the supplemental essays are not necessarily about achievement alone. 

You only have 150 words for this question, so you should pick key aspects of this job or extracurricular experience that highlight admirable qualities, such as:

  • Leadership skills 
  • Teamwork
  • Determination 

Remember, this is more about you as a person than the experience.

Prompt #2 

This question also has a 150-word limit. Again, do not write about something you have already discussed in your application. 

Let's say you took an online summer course covering introductory computer science, and you haven't already mentioned that. Prompt #2 is a great place to include that experience! But, don't talk about the experience itself and whether or not you liked it. Harvard wants more than that.

Suppose you loved the course, marvelous! Go beyond that initial feeling and ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Why did you love it? 
  • What made you passionate about it, and what soft skills did you learn? 

If you hated the course and never want to learn about computer science again, that's also okay. Again, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Why did you feel that way? 
  • What did you struggle with, and how did you conquer that?

Harvard wants to see your passion for intellectual activity outside of school. So, it is not a bad idea to list several activities instead of going more in-depth on one (though including one or two details will be the best method of demonstrating how the experience shaped your character). You can list: 

  • Research projects outside of school 
  • Personal intellectual projects 
  • Any other important project you've worked on, professionally or personally 

This question is about showing initiative. Of course, you were successful in your high school coursework, but what did you do to stimulate your brain outside the classroom?

Prompt #3: Choose Your Own Topic

This Harvard optional essay is the most challenging because it is so open-ended

There are ten different prompts to choose from or the option to follow your own prompt. However, try to avoid this option unless you have something truly, incredibly unique to share. Considering how difficult the Harvard application is, you might be shouldering more weight than necessary if you choose your own prompt.

However, don't let this discourage you if you genuinely want to follow your own prompt and believe you have something important to share. Like Harvard advises: "Respond to the one that most resonates with you."

Now, let's go over tips for each of the other prompts that Harvard provides for this final Harvard admissions essay. 

1. Unusual Life Circumstances

Though this prompt may initially seem straightforward, there is no easy way to understand what Harvard means by "unusual." If you are considering this prompt, make sure to think about the diverse applications Harvard receives. Then, you can decide whether your circumstances could be considered unusual. 

With this prompt, it is easy to be drawn toward unfortunate or tragic circumstances you’ve experienced. While this is a valid option, remember that unusual circumstances don't necessarily mean bad circumstances. 

If you grew up speaking several languages, you could talk about how that was a blessing or a challenge. If you were a refugee at some point in your life, that is an unusual circumstance worth talking about.

Whatever circumstances you focus on, ensure you discuss how they have shaped you. Even if the circumstances were unfortunate or had a negative impact on your life, try to end your essay on a positive or triumphant note. 

2. Experiences in Your Own or Other Communities

Though this prompt does not specify that these experiences should be "unusual," they should be unique. 

Many students, and probably most Harvard applicants, have participated in some sort of service activity trip in their community, a neighboring community, or even another country. Writing about that experience won't necessarily help you. 

If you choose this topic, focus on how your experience helped you understand what you are passionate about and what skills you gained. 

3. Future College Roommate

This prompt is a great opportunity to showcase parts of your personality that may be a little peculiar. Try to avoid standard, positive personality traits such as, "I keep my room really clean," or, "I'm really empathetic, so I would want my roommate to know that I am always there for them."

If you choose to write on this, be authentic, and don't worry about making yourself seem like the perfect roommate. Maybe you have some interesting quirks or habits. Whatever you write about, keep in mind that you want to demonstrate that you are a dynamic, unique individual.  

4. An Intellectual Experience 

This prompt is another opportunity to expound upon your intellectual curiosity and pursuits. You could go in several different directions with this. You can discuss your passions relating to your future concentration at Harvard, or you can focus on something you are passionate about that you plan to pursue in addition to whatever you decide to concentrate on. 

If you want to study mathematics, what was the catalyst for that passion? Maybe you worked with one of your teachers to do a research project about a particular branch of calculus. Perhaps in doing that research, you realized it was your life’s calling. 

Maybe you want to be a biology major, but you wrote a paper on a poem in high school that helped you realize you love writing. You can discuss your passion for writing, how it started, and how it helped you grow.

The best tip for writing an answer here is to be genuine. This is more about the impact that the intellectual experience had on you than the actual experience itself. 

5. How You Hope to Use Your College Education

Like most of the prompts, you can take your answer anywhere. Unfortunately, there are also many cliché answers to avoid, such as "helping the environment," or "doing cancer research." These are wonderful goals, but they are too broad for this essay. 

The key to avoiding clichés in this prompt (or really, any of these prompts) is specificity. There are two main focuses to this question: your college education and your hopes.

So, be specific about what kind of education you plan on pursuing. What specific concentration are you hoping to study at Harvard? This is a good chance for you to demonstrate both your passion for education and your passion for Harvard and what it offers. 

Then, be specific about your career goals. If you want to do cancer research, what kind? Where? If you want to help the environment, what part? Do you want to study engineering to help develop machinery that can help clean fishing waste from the ocean? Or, do you want to study Public Relations to work with the public sphere and change people’s habits to be more environmentally friendly?

Though focusing on big-picture ideas may seem tempting, more specific goals will set you apart from other candidates.

6. Book List From the Past 12 Months 

This is a really great prompt if you are an avid reader. Even if you don't love reading, but you have read many books in the past year on subjects you are passionate about, this would be a great fit.

If you choose to answer this prompt, be honest. Yes, the more intellectual books will demonstrate your curiosity and passion, but the fun books will also show another side of your personality that books such as Aristotle's Metaphysics might not. 

However, don't submit a literal list for this prompt. Ensure you include details about why you read each book and its impact on you, but don't write a book review. 

7. Make a Choice About Whether to Act With Integrity and Honesty

Honesty and integrity are two of the most important qualities Harvard looks for. They will be looking for these qualities in your application, but this prompt is the most blatant, straightforward opportunity to demonstrate these qualities in yourself. 

Being a good storyteller is crucial for this prompt. Writing about how you could have cheated on a test, or did cheat on a test and regretted it, are pretty common experiences that won't set you apart from the rest of the Harvard applicants. Much like the last prompt, try to avoid clichés. 

You also have to walk a fine line in your answer. A situation that borders on unethical or illegal can make you negatively stand out as a liability. However, a situation with low stakes will be a less impactful example of your honesty and integrity. 

8. How Would You Contribute to the Lives of Your Classmates

This prompt is similar to the one that asks how you hope to use your college education, but is more people-oriented. If you have leadership experience or are passionate about an issue relating to the lives of your peers, this would be a great prompt for you.

It is also more vague than many other prompts because you are not limited to academic or intellectual pursuits. Consider writing about what you’re passionate about and have hands-on leadership experience in.

9. What Would You Do if You Deferred or Took Time Off During College?

This is one of the trickier prompts for a supplemental essay. You should be careful and write on this topic if you are absolutely certain that it is the best option for you.

Harvard wants to see you taking responsibility and showing drive in this essay, even though it is about a potentially deferred enrollment. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you were to discuss a certain research project you have been wanting to do or a familial responsibility that you want to make sure gets taken care of, you would be demonstrating care and authenticity.

Again, like every other prompt, be specific. Don't say, "I want to travel the world," say where you want to travel and what experiences and knowledge you hope to gain. 

10. Distinctive Aspects of Your Background, Personal Development, or the Intellectual Interests 

Much like the other prompts, you want to be authentic and specific. Your identity is multifaceted, so focus on what the admissions committee doesn't know yet. 

In this prompt, you can talk about where you grew up, your sexual identity or orientation, your ethnicity, race, socioeconomic background, etc. There are almost infinite directions that you could go with this prompt; try to pick a unique one.

You have numerous essay prompts for your Harvard application supplement. Most importantly, be unique and think about what would make you stand out from other applicants.

For the final question specific to international students, it’s important to be concise. You only have 50 words to communicate your plan for using your college education. Be as specific as you can about what concentration you plan to do and what career you want to pursue. 

Harvard Supplemental Essay Examples

Here are examples of Harvard essays that worked for the open-ended prompts. These excerpts are from essays submitted by Harvard applicants. You can use these supplemental essay examples to 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. 

FAQs: Harvard Supplemental Essays 

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

1. Will writing the Harvard 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 Harvard supplemental essays?

These 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. The third essay has no word limit—what word count should I aim for?

Try to keep your response between 500 and 700 words. Give yourself enough room to answer the prompt, but don't go overboard.

4. 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.

5. 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. 

6. 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. 

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 supplemental 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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