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How to write the 2020-2021 Harvard Supplemental Essays

by Rebecca Acree, on Sep 15, 2020 12:19:41 PM

Unlike many other schools, Harvard’s supplemental essays are optional. It’s up to each student to decide if they have more to share beyond the information that’s already included in the rest of their application. And just to be clear, we believe that optional essays are generally a useful way to share a new part of who you are with the admissions committee. Applicants who decide that they want to write this additional essay are permitted to choose from a list of provided topics or choose their own topic. 

That may seem like a trap, but we guarantee it’s not — choosing one of the provided topics isn’t necessarily any better than coming up with your own. If you have another topic in mind that you’re really excited about, it’s always best to choose what interests you and let your passion shine through. But if you’re stumped, take a look at the provided topics and pick the one that speaks to you most! 

No matter what topic you settle on, we recommend keeping your response between 400-600 words. Harvard doesn’t provide a strict word count, but 400-600 words allow you to strike just the right balance of brevity and depth.

Jump ahead to:

Read on for our guide to answering Harvard’s additional essay topics!

Topic 1: Unusual circumstances in your life  

This is a great opportunity to tell readers about unique situations or challenges you’ve faced, but note that when they say unusual, they really do mean it! If something doesn’t immediately come to mind for this topic, that may be a sign that you should choose a different one. 

Topic 2: Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities  

This topic allows you to show readers that you can adapt to the challenges of life as a college student. Use specific moments to show how you’ve tackled new or unfamiliar situations! How did you learn, change, and grow as a result? 

Topic 3: What you would want your future college roommate to know about you  

For this topic, think beyond the typical “I’m tidy” or “I stay up late.” These things may be true, and even important to you, but readers can’t learn much about your character from them! Instead, think about why you’re tidy or why you stay up late. What drives those qualities?

Topic 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  

This is your chance to show readers how you’ve committed to pursuit of knowledge, thus giving them insight into what you’ll be like as a college student. If you’re particularly excited about a prospective major, tell readers the story of how that excitement was sparked! 

Topic 5: How you hope to use your college education  

Harvard wants to know that its students will be forward-thinking and ambitious. So what are your goals for life after Harvard? And how will you use the specific educational experience offered by Harvard to accomplish those goals?

Topic 6: A list of books you have read during the past twelve months  

This is a way for admissions readers to get to know who you are from a different perspective. Consider what you want readers to know about you based on your list, but be honest — don’t choose books that you haven’t read, or books that you wouldn’t otherwise read, because you think it’s what readers want to see! 

Topic 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.  

Again, being honest in your response is the best policy — that’s always true, but it’s especially important for a prompt about honesty! If a moment comes to mind when you didn’t choose to act with honesty and integrity, you absolutely can still write about that; just be sure to focus on what you learned as a result.

Topic 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?  

This question helps readers understand who you will be as a member of the Harvard community. How will your unique experiences and perspective make a positive contribution to the community? Use a detailed moment that demonstrates how you contributed positively to one of your current or past communities. 

Topic 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?  

If you can see yourself taking a gap year or time off during college, this is a great question for you! Whatever you may choose to do with that time, make sure to help readers understand while it’s meaningful for you — this will give them more insight into who you are and what matters to you most. 

Topic 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.

When considering whether to answer this question, remember that many other students might have a background similar to yours, with the same set of experiences. However, the moments that make up those experiences are always unique to you! Can you think of any standout moments that you’d want to share with readers to help them understand who you are and where you’ve come from? 

Ready to perfect your personal statement next? For tips on crafting a great personal statement and examples of what that looks like, check out our guide to personal statements! 

Topics:college admissions

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