How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays 2020-2021: The Elite Guide

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Harvard University is one of the most recognizable names in American education, and it has an acceptance rate that hovers around 5%. It’s prestigious, selective, and difficult to get into.

Of course, that means that every portion of your application is important, including the Harvard Supplement.

In this article, we’ll give you all the necessary info on the Harvard Supplement, plus tips on how to complete it successfully!

Harvard Supplement Overview

The Harvard Supplement consists of an optional essay and two required questions. The required questions carry a word limit of 150 words each.

So do you actually need to write that optional essay?

Technically, no. But we highly recommend that you write it anyway. When applying to a selective school like Harvard, you should take any chance you can get to share more information about yourself and further impress admissions officers.

You may also notice that the optional essay has no word limit. This doesn’t mean that you should opt to write a quick paragraph or, on the other hand, a five-page essay.

Instead, we recommend writing around 500-700 words.

Harvard Supplemental Essay Guidelines

As you answer these questions and write your essay, keep in mind that you should offer information that can’t be found anywhere else in your application.

This means that your essay should be substantially different from the essay you wrote for the Common App.

  • So, if you’ve already mentioned that you’re the captain of the soccer team numerous times, write an essay that’s completely unrelated to soccer.

Instead of showing that you’re one dimensional or too well-rounded (yes, that’s a thing), use the essay to provide a new angle to your college application narrative.

  • If you were captain of the soccer team, write about another activity or project that demonstrates your leadership skills, go-getter attitude, and work ethic.

Provide new information, let your authentic voice shine through, and demonstrate why you would be such a great addition to Harvard University.

Harvard Supplemental Essay 1

First, let’s take a look at the required questions you’ll encounter on the supplement.

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

This is a pretty standard application question. Choose to discuss an extracurricular activity or work experience that you haven’t elaborated on elsewhere in your application.

You only have 150 words, so you might not have the space to talk extensively about all of your job responsibilities or everything you did as part of this extracurricular activity. Instead, choose to focus on a few key points.

Try to include information that highlights qualities about you, such as leadership, problem-solving, teamwork, etc.

Above all, show action and results. Use action verbs and numbers to tell a brief story of how you engaged your team or community and procured results. Results comprise of many things:

  • Winning an FRC competition
  • Raising group engagement by 15%
  • Boosting enrollees by a thin margin
  • Organizing a community drive to raise $200

You’ll want to choose an activity that is meaningful to you and that illustrates important aspects of your character.

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Harvard Supplemental Essay 1 Examples

Example 1:

I’m assembling a packet for a new baby when a woman in labor is pushed in on a wheelchair. “Oh god,” the charge nurse mumbles. All the delivery rooms are occupied.

“We have to put her in the triage room,” she announces to the doctor. While I run to get the door for a visitor, another nurse hurriedly hands me a lab sample to deliver as she rushes to her next patient. Smiling, I walk down the hall with plastic bag in hand. I like the stress on busy days like this as much as I enjoy the relaxed days where nurses can finally sit down. The physical and mental strength of a labor and delivery nurse will always be something I respect after working as a family birth center volunteer at the Methodist Hospital. It would be an honor to work as a doctor alongside these professionals one day. 

Example 2:

At my internship, I got my first taste of machine learning. I was initially hesitant about the field’s practicality — considering my Chromebook would take almost 20 minutes to load one Google Doc, teaching a computer to think seemed like a drastic step. However, after training neural networks to detect carcinoma or sarcoma on a meager set of 400 images and generating fake X-rays realistic enough to trick a radiologist, my skepticism has transformed into awe. During each epoch, while considering the inner workings of dense and convolution layers, I often find myself wondering about machine learning’s future ramifications on the world at large. Will it replace humans? To what extent can it be used in humanitarian applications? Maybe the ways in which we see this technology driving the world are a bit too crazy; at the same time, maybe they’re not crazy enough.

Harvard Supplemental Essay 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. (150 words)

Harvard looks for students who are intellectually curious and passionate about learning. This question is asking you how you pursue learning outside of school.

Note that this question isn’t asking you to write in-depth about one intellectual activity. Here, you should list all intellectual activities that you’ve pursued outside of those required for school.

This can include:

  • Books you’ve read in order to learn more about a particular topic.
  • Educational summer camps you’ve attended (and haven’t mentioned elsewhere).
  • Voluntary job shadowing
  • Research into a particular job, etc
  • Forming and testing your own thesis

Examples include:

  • Earning a Google Ads certificate
  • Working to hone and leverage your professional transferable skills
  • Learning a language through an online course or program
  • Testing the effects of nicotine on microscopic organisms
  • Building a game or app

These are all items you can list for this question. And remember, Harvard wants to hear about activities that you haven’t mentioned anywhere else in the application!

Harvard Supplemental Essay 2 Examples

Example 1:

As a mathletes member, I collaborated with my team of 15 members to solve challenging math problems under time restrictions to practice for regional math competitions. Using existing mathematical concepts to break down and solve abstract riddles unlike those taught in class was very engaging to me.

I have also been a karate student for five years, and a jiujitsu student for four. These sports are not only physically demanding but promote a great deal of discipline in strengthening focus, strategy, and an understanding of body mechanics. In karate, we are expected to memorize katas, or long routines of technique that simulate fighting, as well as daily run-throughs of basic techniques to develop muscle memory. In jiujitsu, we continuously learn new charts of technique to expand our repertoire of defense mechanisms in different situations. Much like in wrestling, we must continually strategize against our opponent in order to win.

Example 2:

Outside of academia, I indulge in the unwavering freedom to create. While you can often find me writing equations to solve for the zeros of a quadratic, I also craft screenplays about fake bacon-flavored cure-alls and a lacrosse bench-warmer turned soccer star (due to a gruesome arm injury). For years, my friends and I have enjoyed listening to podcasts; now, we create our own, introducing each episode with zany bits of copyright-free music and providing commentary on everything from the Dodgers to the latest Assassin’s Creed game. When a novel conceptualization dawns upon me, I take a break from being a questioning historian, astute mathematician, and analyst of rhetoric and transform myself into a set director, podcast host, and game developer. During these moments of self-determination, I create – not merely for a grade, but to fashion something I am proud of and enjoy watching, listening to, or playing.

The Primary Harvard Supplemental Essay

Now let’s get to the essay (the one you should definitely write, even though it’s called “optional”).

For the Harvard Supplement, you’re choosing only one of the options listed below as the topic for your essay.

No matter which topic you choose, remember the following:

  • Try to keep your essay around 500-700 words.
  • Talk about information that hasn’t been mentioned in other parts of your application.
  • Always show; don’t tell. Use vivid details and specific examples to support your points.
  • Write in your own authentic voice.
  • Help admissions officers get to know you and how you will contribute to the school culture.
  • Revise, edit, and let several others peer review your essay before submitting.

So, without further ado, here’s a quick list of your topic options:

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 (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 in the past 12 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.

Below, we’ll dive into specific tips for each of these options.

Unusual Circumstances in Your Life Essay

Unusual circumstances in your life

Yes, this prompt does contain the word “unusual,” but you don’t have to write about something that’s extremely rare.

The goal here is to write about something that not everyone has experienced, focusing particularly on how these circumstances have influenced or shaped you as an individual. Be specific about how these events have changed you or helped you grow, and include examples or anecdotes to illustrate these points.

The essay doesn’t have to focus on a hardship or something sad.

  • Maybe you grew up with eight siblings, or your family spent a year traveling the country in an RV.
  • Perhaps your family fled a war-torn country
  • Did you endure a significant sickness that added a disability to your life?

You can write about anything slightly unusual that has happened to you, as long as it’s something that has made an impact on you and your life. Even if you write an essay about a sad or hurtful experience, try to end on a positive note.

If you want to write this essay but are having trouble thinking or selecting a topic, think of these questions:

  • Which story or event in my life lead to undue hardship?
  • Name a time you struggled and had to reflect on your character to solve the problem.
  • What significance personality or values change have I undergone, and what sparked it?

The stories and anecdotes that you think of are good ones to either write about or further explore.

This essay should ultimately reflect your strength, optimism, and ability to grow from adversity.

Travel or Living Experiences in Other Countries

Travel or living experiences in other countries

You should only choose this topic if you’ve traveled or lived somewhere that has truly impacted or changed you. As with all of these options, the goal is to relate the topic back to you, and how it has impacted your personal growth.

  • Don’t simply talk about where you’ve been and what you’ve seen; talk about how these experiences affected you.
  • You’ll also want to avoid clichés.
  • Don’t speak in general terms about how traveling the world has opened your mind and expanded your horizons, or about how traveling to less fortunate countries has made you more appreciative.

Instead, you’ll want to talk about a particular experience and how it has specifically impacted you.

  • In what ways are you more open now?
  • What have you learned about culture, food, people, architecture, the environment, etc.?
  • How has that influenced you, your decisions, or your future career path?

If you can’t think of something specific, then this probably isn’t the right topic for you.

Most important, if you can’t think of an experience that has changed your character or contributed to your growth, skip it. Don’t risk writing a one-dimensional essay that provides no insight into your personality.

If you do choose this topic, make sure that you’re accurate and fair in your representation of other cultures.

Future Roommate Essay

What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

If you choose this topic, try to avoid generic information about yourself. This is a topic that many people will address with similar information, so try to come up with something about yourself that’s a little quirky or different.

Maybe you want your roommate to know not only some of your key characteristics or personality traits, but also some stories about where they originated. This is also an appropriate place to use some humor, like mentioning an unusual fear or interesting quirk.

Don’t try to present yourself as too perfect, but also be sure that you don’t only focus on negative aspects of your character. A balanced, honest portrayal of yourself will work best.

Remember that although you’re writing about a roommate, you’re still addressing the admissions committee! For this reason, don’t write too informally or use slang.

Intellectual Experience Essay

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 a pretty broad essay topic, and you can take it in several different directions.

However you approach the topic, don’t forget to focus on your own intellectual growth.

  • How has your experience influenced your academic interests and development as a learner and scholar?
  • Describe the way it has changed how you learn or problem-solve.
  •  How has it affected your career goals?

You may choose to write an “origin story” of how you became interested in your field or career of choice.

  • Maybe you did a project in school that made you realize you wanted to be a marine biologist, or you went on a field trip that influenced your career choice.
  • Perhaps a simulation you participated in at a summer camp on international diplomacy made you want to study international relations.

Alternatively, you could focus on an intellectual experience that took you outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps this experience helped you discover a new interest, and taught you not to limit yourself academically.

A foolproof way of writing this essay would be to begin with an extended anecdote or story – likely a flashback – that serves as a cold hook. You can begin with a:

  • Quote
  • Proclamation
  • Seemingly random detail

Then you can extrapolate the hook and connect it the rest of your story.

Remember to be specific and connect the essay to your growth as a person and student. Writing a dazzling cold hook and supporting it with cogent narration is useless if you don’t show how you grew from the experience.

Try to spend 30-40% of your essay demonstrating how you grew from this intellectual journey.

Using Your College Education

How you hope to use your college education

The execution of this essay is straightforward. Make this essay specific to Harvard.

  • How will attending Harvard affect you throughout your life?
  • What will you do with the experiences and knowledge that you gain at Harvard?

You may want to do some research if you choose to write this essay.

  • What concentration will you pursue at Harvard? (Remember, Harvard has “concentrations” instead of “majors.”)
  • Research the program, and come up with some specifics about what you will learn from this program and how you will put it to use after graduation.

In other words, this is another permutation of the conventional “Why This College” essay.

Don’t say something general about Harvard’s prestige or that you know they have “good programs” or “renowned professors” – Harvard’s admissions officers know it’s one of the best universities in the world.

It’s also important not to make your essay about financial gain.

You should also get specific about your plans after graduation.

  • Instead of just saying you want to be a doctor, what kind of doctor do you want to be?
  • What problems in the field do you see that you would like to address after earning a Harvard education?

In short, you should talk in-depth about what you would like to do or achieve (for yourself and for society) after college, and how Harvard, in particular, can help you do so.

If you’re having trouble picking one or two ideas, stick ones that convey an ambitious, problem-solving version of yourself.

A List of Books

A list of books you have read in the past 12 months

Although the prompt mentions a list, you should also provide commentary on the books you’ve read. You don’t have to go in depth for each one, but choose at least a few titles to talk about at length.

  • You can include an original analysis (not one from SparkNotes or elsewhere on the Internet), a reflection on how this book has influenced you or your mindset, a lesson you’ve learned from a book on your list, etc.

This is a fun and unique topic if you’re a prolific reader.

But remember, if you’ve already mentioned your passion for reading and some of the titles you’ve read over the last year, you may want to choose a different topic (unless you have something completely new to add).

Irrespective of the literary works you choose, you must show growth. To quickly find your growth points, create a list of the books you read. Next to the title, write what you learned.

This will help you create a narrative and outline for your essay. Your list should look like this:

  •  Only the Paranoid Survive by Andrew Grove: Aspiring business leaders need to constantly check their blind spots and competition. Therefore, I am a work in progress and want to develop as a future business leader.
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Collaboration is the bedrock of success. I’m learning how to ask for help.
  • Shoe Dog by Phil Knight: Never give up on your dreams. If you have an idea, then chase it.
  • After Tamerlane by John Darwin: History is messy and full of nuances that I, one day, hope to learn.

Integrity & Honesty Essay

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.

Harvard values students with honesty and integrity.

If you choose this essay, you’ll need to tell a story about a time when you had a difficult choice to make. In the end, of course, this will be a time when you chose to act with honesty and integrity, even if this was the more difficult path.

  • Pick an engaging story that not every student can tell.
  • For instance, you probably don’t want to write about a time a teacher mistakenly gave you a higher grade than you deserved and you told her the truth.

It’s okay to write about a time when you initially lied or chose the wrong path, but later corrected it and learned a valuable lesson.

  • However, make sure you don’t write about something illegal.
  • You’ll also want to avoid anything related to plagiarism or cheating.

Essentially, you’ll present your dilemma, analyze how you reasoned through it, and reflect on what you learned about honesty and integrity. It’s easy to fall into clichéd writing for this topic, so be sure to avoid that trap.

Citizen-Leader Essay

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 topic is typically viewed as one of the more challenging options, but it can be a good choice if you have a passion for leadership.

  • You might want to start by talking about leadership experiences you’ve had in the past.
  • Be sure to select experiences in which your leadership has actually made a contribution to your community or school.

Talk about your leadership style and what you did, as well as how it benefited others.

Make sure you then connect these leadership skills to how you’ll continue to be an effective leader in the future.

  • You may want to mention a specific area in which you plan to lead or make a change after graduating from Harvard.

Don’t forget to mention the fact that you’re a good citizen as well. This might include times you weren’t in a leadership position, but worked with others to achieve an important purpose.

You may also discuss how you plan to be a good citizen in the future.

Deferring or Taking Time Off Essay

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?

This is another advanced essay. You don’t get brownie points from admissions officers for choosing this option, even if your essay is sub-par.

We suggest you select this prompt only if you are entirely comfortable with it and/or you can’t relate to the other prompts.

Whether it’s something you missed out on or a goal you want to accomplish soon, make sure to write about a topic that demonstrates initiative and action on your part.

Instead of getting bogged down in the details, describe what you’d like to do and why. Get to the heart of your choice. Then, give an action plan or explanation of what you’d do.

“Topic of Your Choice” Essay

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.

Of course, if none of these prompts appeal to you, you can write on a topic of your choice.

While this essay doesn’t outright state “topic of your choice,” it’s broad enough that you could write about almost anything intellectually stimulating or personally interesting about yourself.

  • Just make sure your topic directly relates to something you can bring and positively contribute to the Harvard campus.

If you’ve written a really strong essay for another school, you can use it here (with some Harvard-specific adjustments).

If you decide to go this route, make sure you choose a topic that says something important about you.

Make sure that you’re descriptive, specific, and reflective. And again, be sure it’s something you haven’t already talked about in your application.

Writing on a topic of your choice is the best option if there’s something you want to talk about that doesn’t fit any of the other prompts.

Harvard Supplemental Essay 3 Example

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.

My grandmother likes to tell the story of three-year-old me in the grocery cart, screaming in Vietnamese the names of passing vegetables, much to the amusement of shoppers. Back then, Vietnamese was enough.

In kindergarten, I faced my first language obstacle. At the toilet, I couldn’t undo my double-ring belt. How embarrassing would it be to interrupt the teacher in the middle of class and silently point to it, hoping she would get the message? I chose to sit on the toilet and cry. That was the first day I peed my pants in class but the last time language would ever come between me and going to the bathroom. I made learning English my mission.

I remember begging my parents every summer for a workbook to prepare for the next school year. I loved working in those books because I could see myself improving at writing conventions and expanding my vocabulary. In third grade, I became obsessed with reading through the Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Boxcar Children series, making a routine visit to the public library every weekend for a new stack of books. Reading became my gateway into the English language, as well as American culture. By high school, I had finished so many workbooks and novels that the library had become my second home.

Through learning English, I recognized the disparities between Western and Eastern culture. I began to understand the endless awe and reverence my grandparents had for the United States, being veterans and nurses who worked alongside Americans in the Vietnam War. My grandparents are the most patriotic people I know, despite having immigrated here in their senior years. Through my family, I’ve seen the extent to which people are willing to let go of their culture to integrate into this one.

Knowing English at first was a sign of success, and still is. My parents never let me forget that because I was born here, I have opportunities that they never had in Vietnam. The better I am at English, the better I can connect with the world and take advantage of my opportunities.

While language was a path to success, it is also the path I take to explore cultures and human connection. While volunteering in the hospital, when I ask a lost elderly couple if they speak Vietnamese, their eyes light up in relief. When a Spanish-speaking woman hurriedly calls her daughter over to translate, I tell them in Spanish not to worry, empathizing with the child who has the same role I once did.

Language doesn’t just communicate information. It has been a tool for insight that connects me to people, from Vietnam veterans in a fast food restaurant to Mexican immigrants that my friend calls “mom and dad.”

I would love to continue my exploration of language at Harvard by taking more language classes, participating in cultural clubs, and perhaps studying abroad to become more fluent in Spanish. I’m also considering learning French in my free time, as a homage to my ethnic linkage to French culture.

Throughout my schooling, I’ve taught my parents a lot of English, and I still teach them new words every so often. When I make the occasional error, I jokingly but affectionately blame it on English being my second language. 

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.

In my experience, High School Musical and Mean Girls are spot-on when it comes to teen conversations; during my first three years of high school, most of the discussions my friends and I had revolved around who was dating whom, criticism of the atrocious basketball coach, and spoilers of the latest Stranger Things season. While I enjoyed these chats, as my entrepreneurial fervor grew, I found myself feeling disjointed from my peers and looking for a community that would nurture my startup fever. When she noticed my budding interest, the head of a local incubator invited me to apply for their accelerator program. I initially felt unsure, but I gave it a shot, and as time went on, I felt as if I were transported to Ancient Athens during every Monday session.

As a program meant to help individuals jumpstart and accelerate their businesses, the incubator prompted participants to think Socratically. We questioned and debated every preconceived notion regarding startups: how to conduct proper market research, when and why to shut down, and even whether a humanitarian venture could also be a profitable one. Our oratories were not dull, 10-minute long PowerPoints followed by the occasional golf clap; they were action-packed, 60-second elevator pitches accompanied by a barrage of inquiries and suggestions about statistical logos and story-telling pathos. Through numerous congregations within the polis, I gave a fellow participant the conviction to pursue his business of educating students on the college recruiting process, emphasizing how all of my friends loved athletics and wanted to go D1.  In return, he helped me see that the biggest problem with teens wasn’t always finding opportunities; it was being ready and professional enough to capture them.

Despite channeling Alexander the Great’s cutthroat competitiveness at the beginning, our group personified Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates in the end, as we considered each other’s ventures and employed our own ethos to help one another. We didn’t all have to be our own Homers — our Iliad and Odyssey were the cumulative success of all of our companies, forged by the collaborative intertwining of our stories.

Conclusion: Writing the Harvard Supplemental Essays

The Harvard Supplement gives you another opportunity to showcase your personality, intellect, and potential to contribute at Harvard University.

You’ll answer two required questions with a 150-word limit, as well as an optional essay. The optional essay has no limit, but it’s best to write around 500-700 words. You’re given nine topic options, one of which is “a topic of your choice.”

No matter what you write, be sure that your essay is specific and descriptive. It should reveal information about you and your personal growth, and it should show Harvard University why you would be a great addition to their campus.

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