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Harvard University is one of the most prestigious and selective universities in the world.
If you are applying to Harvard, it’s important to be knowledgeable about the application process.
In this guide, we’ll share important information about the university, as well as everything from application deadlines to essay topics.
Here’s everything you (and your parents) need to know about applying to Harvard!
Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest university in the United States.
- It’s also among the most prestigious: Professors include some of the world’s most brilliant minds, and the acceptance rate hovers around 5%.
Classes are notoriously challenging, but students say that the university has extensive advising programs to help freshmen adjust.
Harvard also provides access to a well-connected alumni network and the internships and employment opportunities that come with it.
Enrollment, Tuition, and Financial Aid
Harvard is a private Ivy League university with an enrollment of around 22,000 students “across the College, graduate, and professional schools located in Cambridge and Boston.”
- Harvard College, the undergraduate institution, enrolls about 6,700 students.
- Tuition costs $43,280 annually. For tuition, room, board, and additional fees, you can expect to pay $63,025 without financial aid.
- 55% of full-time undergraduate students receive some amount of financial aid from the university, with the average need-based scholarship award totaling $50,562.
According to the university, 90% of American families would pay the same or less to send their children to Harvard as they would a state school.
Parents making less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute to tuition.
“One in five Harvard families have annual incomes under $65,000 and pay nothing toward the cost of their student’s education,” says Sally C. Donahue, Director of Financial Aid.
Harvard, situated on 5,076 acres, is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, part of Boston’s metropolitan area.
- Students attending Harvard are in close proximity to restaurants, shops, and entertainment. Cambridge is also a hub for the art and technology scene.
- And with 50 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston alone, Cambridge and Boston are true college towns.
Downtown Boston is a 12-minute ride from campus, and students have quick access to public transportation.
There’s a subway stop at the center of Harvard Square, and students can also use buses or cabs to travel the Boston area.
Harvard is made up of 13 different institutes and schools. These include the top-ranked Medical School and Business School.
- Harvard also boasts a highly ranked Graduate Education School, Law School, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Popular majors include Social Sciences, Biology, History, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences. 74% of classes have fewer than 20 students, with a student-faculty ratio of 7:1. Students appear to be satisfied, with the freshman retention rate averaging 97%.
Student Body and Extracurricular Activities
Harvard’s student population is incredibly diverse, with students hailing from all 50 states and over 80 countries. Students span just about every ethnicity, religion, and economic background.
- Roughly 53% of Harvard students are male, with females comprising the remaining 47%.
- The school offers over 400 extracurricular, co-curricular, and athletic activities.
Whether you are interested in the arts, sports, journalism, science, or something else, you’ll be able to find clubs and activities at Harvard that feed your interests.
Harvard’s sports teams, the Harvard Crimson, compete in the NCAA I division, and they carry on a spirited rivalry with Yale University.
Freshmen at Harvard are assigned dormitories located in Harvard Yard, one of the best housing locations on campus. They eat meals in the historic Annenberg dining hall.
- After freshman year, students may be placed in one of the 12 houses on campus, where they will live for the remainder of their time at Harvard.
- Over 97% of Harvard’s undergraduate students opt to live on campus for all four years, creating a true college experience.
Each Harvard house has a dining hall, common areas, resident master, staff of tutors, and recreational areas.
Many houses compete in intramural sports together, and each house has its own unique traditions.
Applying to Harvard: Things You Need to Know For Admissions Success
Now let’s take a look at the most important information you’ll need to know as you apply to Harvard.
Average Admitted Student
Remember, Harvard’s acceptance rate is around 5%.
- This means that of the many students who apply to Harvard, about 95% will receive a rejection letter.
- The following statistics are intended to give you an idea of the average student who is accepted to Harvard. This can help you determine your chances of being among the elite 5%.
Harvard’s average admitted student has a composite SAT score of 2250 on the 2400 scale.
- On the new SAT, this corresponds to an average score of 1540 out of 1600. Based on the new SAT, Harvard’s 25th percentile is 1470, while the 75th percentile is a perfect 1600.
Essentially, this means that you should have at least a 1470 on the new SAT.
This is slightly below Harvard’s average, but it’s within the range of accepted student scores.
The average GPA for Harvard’s admitted students is 4.1. This means you need to be taking AP or IB classes, and you will need nearly straight As.
- You will also have to be very near the top of your class in order to be admitted to Harvard.
Depending on what grade you are in, it may be a little too late to overhaul a lower GPA.
If that’s the case, try to focus on studying for the SAT and boosting your test scores as high as possible.
- If your SAT score and GPA fall far below these numbers, your chances of getting accepted to Harvard are very slim.
Of course, you can still apply—just be realistic and understand that Harvard is a “reach school.” Make sure that you are also applying to less selective schools where your chances of acceptance are much higher.
Also keep in mind that, in some cases, your stellar achievements or unique experiences may offset a GPA or SAT score that is slightly below Harvard’s average.
Harvard states that in addition to these numbers, they also consider “strong personal qualities, special talents or excellences of all kinds, perspectives formed by unusual personal circumstances, and the ability to take advantage of available resources and opportunities.”
Harvard’s Early Action deadline is November 1st, and applicants can expect a decision by mid-December. Students who apply Early Action may apply to other public colleges or universities, but they may not apply Early Action or Early Decision to other private universities.
Harvard’s Early Action program is non-binding, meaning that you are not obligated to attend if accepted.
- The university also claims that applying early does not increase a student’s chances of acceptance.
- However, it does give the student an opportunity to hear Harvard’s decision early and make decisions accordingly.
Students may apply Regular Decision until January 1st.
These students will be notified by late March. The school does encourage students to apply as early as possible “to ensure full and timely consideration of your application.”
Within two weeks of receiving your application, Harvard will send an acknowledgment of receipt. Once decisions are received, those who are accepted must reply to Harvard with their decision by May 1st.
How to Apply
To apply to Harvard, you will need to complete the Common Application, the Universal College Application, or the Coalition Application.
Harvard’s Admission Committee treats all three of these applications with equal consideration.
If you use the Common Application (Common App), you must submit your portion of the application before any supporting materials can be released to Harvard. The Universal College Application doesn’t require the same process.
Below is a brief overview of the three applications accepted by Harvard College.
The Common Application is accepted by over 700 colleges and universities.
To fill it out, you will need to create an account and add a list of schools to which you would like to apply (including Harvard).
You will be asked to fill out general information about your grades, courses, activities, test scores, exam dates, and parent/legal guardian information.
In addition, the Common App has a required essay. There are seven topics from which to choose. In brief, the seven topics include:
- Meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent
- Lessons learned from a challenge, setback, or failure
- A time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea
- A problem you have solved or would like to solve (ethical dilemma, intellectual challenge, or research query)
- An accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth
- A captivating topic, idea, or concept that you find fascinating
- A topic of your choice
If you fill out the Common App, you will also be asked to answer Harvard College questions and complete the Harvard Writing Supplement.
Remember, the essay is critical for applying to Harvard, since it is the “tip” factor for competitive students with similar profiles.
The Common App also features a convenient dashboard that alerts you when key dates are approaching.
Universal College Application
The Universal College Application requires students to start by filling out an applicant profile with basic background information.
Students then add colleges, and they can find application forms requested by these colleges on their Applications page.
- A personal statement will be required for some schools, including Harvard. This statement allows students to write 650 words on a topic of their choice.
- Students are also given 100-150 words to write about one extracurricular, employment, or volunteer activity.
Supplements requested by students’ selected colleges can be found on the “Supplements” page.
Students who apply to Harvard will need to fill out the Harvard Supplement.
The Coalition Application is the newest option, and it’s accepted by 113 member schools. College tools and collaboration spaces (for students to connect with teachers, parents, or counselors) are also provided through this application. It also includes a virtual locker for students to enter their accomplishments and activities over four years.
As with the Universal College Application, students start by filling out a profile that can be automatically populated into their applications.
The Coalition Application also requires an essay. Students may write on any of the following five topics:
- An experience that demonstrates or helped shape your character
- A time when you made a meaningful contribution to others by focusing on the greater good
- A time when a long-cherished or accepted belief was challenged
- The hardest and best part of being a teenager now
- A topic of your choice
Again, students will be expected to fill out a Harvard Supplement in order to complete the application.
Which Application to Use
Harvard makes it clear that they view all three application options equally.
- That being said, the Common App is typically the most convenient.
- This is because the Common App is accepted by the largest number of colleges.
If you do opt to fill out the Common App, simply ensure that you and your parents both fill out your portions of the application in a timely fashion.
Materials such as test scores and transcripts can’t be released to Harvard until you submit your part of the application.
Although the essay portion of the supplement is “optional,” you should naturally provide as much information about yourself as possible for Harvard admissions success.
You will also seem more enthusiastic about Harvard—and more studious—if you complete all portions of the supplement.
Seriously, write the essay!
Prompts for the 2017-2018 Harvard essay supplement include:
- Unusual circumstances in your life
- Travel or living experiences in other countries
- What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
- An intellectual experience that has meant the most to you
- How you hope to use your college education
- A list of books you have read in the past 12 months
- A time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty
- How you would contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing Harvard’s mission (to educate students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society)
- A topic of your choice
Whichever topic you choose, it’s important to select a topic with content that is substantially different from what you’ve already written for your general personal statement or essay.
Additional Application Materials
You will also need to pay a $75 application fee, although this fee may be waived for financial reasons.
Harvard goes by the honor code, so you must simply inform the school that the application fee represents a financial hardship for your family.
Harvard also requires the following:
- ACT, old SAT, or new SAT, all with writing
- 2 SAT Subject tests (normally)
- School Report and high school transcript
- 2 Teacher Reports
- Mid-Year School Report
- Final School Report
Information About Additional Materials
The School Report is a form that must be completed by your counselor or another school adviser.
Your school must also submit an official transcript, and the Mid-Year Report should be submitted in February with your latest grades.
This means that even if you are accepted to Harvard, it’s vital that you keep your grades up.
Harvard will continue to check grades at the mid-year and end-of-year point, and your acceptance can be rescinded if your grades have dropped significantly.
Teacher Evaluation forms must be completed by two teachers who teach different academic subjects.
They should know you well enough to provide useful information to Harvard College.
- Harvard states that they “normally” require two SAT Subject tests, but that you may choose to apply without them.
- Similarly, students may opt not to take the two SAT Subject tests for financial reasons.
- As with most “optional” materials, however, it is best if you complete this portion of the application.
The school prefers that the two subject tests are on different topics.
For instance, it is best if you don’t take two math-related subject tests. Harvard also specifies that if your first language is not English, a subject test in your first language may not provide information that is particularly useful.
Harvard requires all test scores to be sent directly from the testing agency on your behalf.
If official test scores are not received from the testing agency, Harvard will not be able to make a decision on your application.
Misrepresentation of Credentials: Be Ethical When Applying to Harvard (and the rest of your schools)
Harvard stresses that students are not to misrepresent credentials in any form during the application process.
- Stay ethical and true to yourself — anything else is antithetical to applying to Harvard and the values for which the institution stands.
If you are found to have misrepresented any of your information, you won’t be admitted to Harvard.
- If you’ve already been admitted, your acceptance will be revoked. Even if you are already enrolled, Harvard will expel you.
Lastly, Harvard College will even revoke degrees if it’s found that the student misrepresented information in his application.
Although Harvard is extremely competitive, it’s best for you to be honest about all of your credentials.
Conclusion: Applying to Harvard
To apply to Harvard, you will need to complete either the Common Application, Universal College Application, or Coalition Application, in addition to the Harvard Supplement.
- Applications must be submitted by November 1st for Early Action or January 1st for Regular Decision.
- Harvard also requires the SAT or ACT with writing, two SAT subject tests, two teacher reports, transcripts, and a school report (along with updates at mid-year and end-of-year).
You have the best chance of being admitted to Harvard if your SAT is at least 1470 and your GPA is at least a 4.1.
- Harvard is an extremely selective institution, admitting only 5% of applicants.
However, you shouldn’t be discouraged if your scores are lower than what Harvard typically accepts.
Harvard does consider the holistic application, so you still have a chance, although it may be slim.
An acceptance from Harvard is never a guarantee for even the best “on paper” students, so put your best foot forward and take the chance.
If you decide to apply to Harvard even with lower numbers, just make sure that you also apply to schools where your chances of acceptance are greater.
If you are truly passionate about attending Harvard College, fill out the application and see what happens.
Applying to Harvard is supposed to be a challenge, so put your best foot forward!