Do you want to know what it takes to be admitted to Harvard University?
Harvard is an Ivy League research university and nonprofit institution located in Massachusetts. The competition is tough, and preparation is key. In this guide, we’ll share information and advice that will help you strengthen your application and increase your chances of acceptance.
“Everything at Harvard is designed to support that process of transformation.”
Harvard University was founded by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636, making it the first college in the American colonies. All freshmen and nearly all undergraduates at Harvard live on campus.
The student-to-faculty ratio at Harvard is seven to one, with an average class size of twelve. Even Freshman Seminars are capped at fifteen students. Over 400 first-year advisers are available to help students transition to Harvard life, contributing to the school’s extraordinary graduation rate of ninety-eight percent.
Undergraduates attend Harvard College, which offers 3,700 courses. Students also have the option to expand their studies by taking courses at any of Harvard’s twelve graduate schools or at MIT. Research opportunities are available to first-year students.
The college offers 50 undergraduate fields of study, which Harvard refers to as concentrations. First-year students are free to pursue a wide range of interests before declaring their concentrations halfway through their second year. Students are free to work with advisors to create their own concentration. They can also choose a secondary field of study (what most other schools would call a minor).
The main campus is Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The University also has two campuses in Boston, Massachusetts. Students can explore millions of volumes at Widener Library. Over fifty percent of undergraduates study abroad during their time at Harvard.
Harvard is committed to making education affordable for every student who earns an offer of admission. Their financial aid program requires no contribution from families with incomes $75,000 or less (this amount increased from $65,000 beginning in the 2022-23 academic year and includes roughly twenty percent of Harvard families). Families with incomes between $75,000 and $150,000 are asked to contribute from zero to ten percent of their income. Families with incomes above $150,000 are asked to pay more than ten percent, an amount that varies based on each family’s individual circumstances.
Is it Hard to Get into Harvard?
Harvard is an extremely competitive school that admits only a small fraction of students who apply. 57,786 students applied to Harvard last year, and 2,318 were admitted. That’s an acceptance rate of four percent. But you know what? That’s not one in a million. It’s not even one in a hundred. It’s one in twenty-five. And if you follow the advice outlined here, you’ll have a great shot at getting into Harvard.
GPA and Test Scores
You’ll want to maintain an unweighted GPA of as close to 4.0 as possible if you want to go to Harvard. Seventy-three percent of Harvard students had a highschool GPA of 4.0, and ninety-three percent of students had a GPA of 3.75 or higher.
Harvard University is test-optional for 2022-2026 application cycles. This means that SAT and ACT tests are not required, but Harvard will consider them as part of their admissions process for students who choose to include them in their application. In the past couple of years, roughly half of all enrolled students submitted SAT scores and about a third of them submitted ACT scores.
Students who choose to submit standardized tests may submit their SAT or ACT scores. “There are no score cutoffs,” Harvard’s admissions site says, “and we do not admit ‘by the numbers.’ For the ACT, we will evaluate your highest composite score and any other scores you choose to share with us. We take into account your educational background when reviewing your scores.”
Because so many students did not submit test scores, the averages have been extra high. Seventy-five percent of enrolled students scored over 1480 on the SAT, and twenty-five percent of them scored over 1580. The middle fifty percentile range for ACT scores was 33 to 36.
So, how do you decide whether or not to submit your test scores? Anything that paints a more complete or positive picture can be helpful when applying to such a competitive school. Aim to score at least 1500 on the SAT or 34 on the ACT and submit your scores when and if you surpass that goal.
What is Harvard Looking For?
Harvard strives to “give deliberate and meticulous consideration of each applicant as a whole person.” Harvard is looking for students who are brilliant, motivated, honest, and confident. People who will mesh with other Harvard students to create a close-knit community. They want to know what makes you truly extraordinary.
On their admissions site, Harvard offers a long list of questions that students can ask themselves as they work towards college or consider whether or not they would be a good fit for Harvard life. These questions are organized into four categories: Growth and Potential, Interests and Activities, Personal Character, and Contribution to the Harvard Community.
Growth and Potential
- Have you reached your maximum academic and personal potential?
- Have you been stretching yourself?
- Have you been working to capacity in your academic pursuits, your full-time or part-time employment, or other areas?
- Do you have reserve power to do more?
- How have you used your time?
- Do you have initiative? Are you a self-starter? What motivates you?
- Do you have a direction yet? What is it? If not, are you exploring many things?
- Where will you be in one, five, or 25 years? Will you contribute something to those around you?
- What sort of human being are you now? What sort of human being will you be in the future?
Interests and Activities
- Do you care deeply about anything—Intellectual? Extracurricular? Personal?
- What have you learned from your interests? What have you done with your interests? How have you achieved results? With what success or failure? What have you learned as a result?
- In terms of extracurricular, athletic, community, or family commitments, have you taken full advantage of opportunities?
- What is the quality of your activities? Do you appear to have a genuine commitment or leadership role?
- If you have not had much time in high school for extracurricular pursuits due to familial, work, or other obligations, what do you hope to explore at Harvard with your additional free time?
- What choices have you made for yourself? Why?
- Are you a late bloomer?
- How open are you to new ideas and people?
- What about your maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure?
Contribution to the Harvard Community
- Will you be able to stand up to the pressures and freedoms of College life?
- Will you contribute something to Harvard and to your classmates? Will you benefit from your Harvard experience?
- Would other students want to room with you, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely-knit extracurricular group?
Take some time to reflect on these questions. Keep them handy when you begin to brainstorm essay topics, and consider giving them to your teachers when you request the two teacher reports that Harvard requires so that they can speak to some of these questions in their recommendations.
What Should You Do in High School?
Here are some things that you can do in high school to show Harvard that you would be a great addition to their next class.
Excel in Challenging Classes
If you want to go to Harvard, you’ll need to take the most academically challenging courses available to you in high school, which may include going beyond what your local school offers and taking additional courses online.
Here’s what Harvard recommends in their Guide to Preparing for College:
- The study of English for four years: close and extensive reading of the classics of the world’s literature
- Four years of a single foreign language
- The study of history for at least two years, and preferably three years: American history, European history, and one additional advanced history course
- The study of mathematics for four years
- The study of science for four years: physics, chemistry, and biology, and preferably one of these at an advanced level
- Frequent practice in the writing of expository prose
Calculus is “neither a requirement nor a preference for admission to Harvard” because they understand that many students won’t need that level of math to pursue their field of interest. Students who do intend to pursue college coursework that requires a knowledge of calculus – such as engineering, computer science, and/or physics – are encouraged to study it in high school.
You’ll need to earn as close to straight A’s as you possibly can. We have advice on keeping your grades up here.
Earn High Test Scores
Standardized tests are an opportunity to demonstrate your academic ability. It would be wise to take both the SAT and ACT exams as early as possible so that you can find out which one suits you best and how much additional preparation you’ll need to achieve your target score.
Make sure you have time to test and then study and test again if need be to achieve your desired score. Giving yourself plenty of time to familiarize yourself with these exams and try out different testing strategies will help you to score as high as possible.
Aim to score as close to perfect as you can on either the SAT or ACT. We have lots of tips on how to study for standardized tests right here.
Pursue Your Passions
Pursuing things that you’re truly passionate about will provide content and substance for your college essays. It will give you your hook, something to distinguish you from the other applicants and make you more memorable.
So seek out new opportunities. Get out of your comfort zone and find what lights you up. And then dive deep. It’s better to pursue a small number of passions wholeheartedly than to occasionally clock in on a long list of extracurriculars. You want to be able to demonstrate community involvement, intellectual vitality, and an overall zest for life.
Check out this article for ideas on great extracurriculars to explore. If you’re not sure where to start, ask yourself what you can do to better the lives of those around you.
Serve Your Community
Community service activities are an excellent way to show prospective colleges that you work well with others and would be a valuable addition to any community. Don’t stretch yourself too thin by dabbling in dozens of different projects. Do find something that you truly care about and can contribute to in a meaningful way.
Harvard wants to know what you have to contribute to their community, and it’s not enough to tell them what you’ll do once you get there. You have to establish a history of teamwork, leadership, and community service now – not necessarily through established organizations (though that can be good too), but in real and meaningful ways that you can write about when it comes time to write those college essays.
Remember that community service can look different for everyone. Steady jobs or familial responsibilities are just as valid as community service projects. The important thing is that you’re involved in the world around you in a positive way.
Build Relationships with Your Teachers
Harvard requires two teacher reports as part of your application.
In order to receive truly valuable letters of recommendation, your teachers need to know you as a person. Maybe your AP Biology teacher was also your soccer coach for three years, or your English teacher runs a local charity that you’ve given your time to. Ideally, your letters of recommendation should come from teachers who can speak to both your academic abilities and your character.
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Harvard Application Process and Checklist
First-year applicants to Harvard University will need to complete the Common Application or apply Coalition. If you would rather send your application by mail, Harvard offers printable first-year application forms here.
Your application will include:
- Common Application or apply Coalition, Powered by Scoir
- Harvard College Questions for the Common Application or Coalition Application Harvard supplement
- $85 fee (or a fee waiver request)
- SAT or ACT (with or without writing) – test-optional for 2022-2026 application cycles
- AP or other examination results are not required, but may be submitted
- School Report (which includes a counselor letter) and high school transcript
- Teacher Report (2)
- Midyear School Report (after your first semester grades)
- Final School Report (for admitted students only)
Students are also permitted to include supplemental materials. Consider taking advantage of this if you have “truly exceptional talents or achievements you wish to share”. Here are some examples listed on the admissions site:
- scholarly articles
- creative writing
- music recordings
- selected samples of academic work
In addition to the Common App essays, there are two prompts that applicants must respond to with a short answer of up to 150 words:
- 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.
- Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.
Students are also permitted to flesh out their applications with an additional essay of up to 2000 words. For the additional essay, applicants may either write on a topic of their choice or choose from one of the following topics:
- Unusual circumstances in your life
- Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
- 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 during the past twelve 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.
Remember, Harvard isn’t just a numbers game. If your GPA isn’t as high as you would like and there’s a solid reason for that, take this opportunity to delve into the circumstances that tanked your grades. Be sure to flesh it out with details that speak to your character. You have plenty of space here, so speak to the lessons that you learned from these challenging experiences as well.
Even if your application is strong, we recommend taking advantage of this space to highlight aspects of your character and experiences that haven’t been covered elsewhere in the application. Illustrate through memorable examples how you would be a wonderful addition to their next incoming class.
General Essay Tips
Essays are your chance to distinguish yourself from a stack of similar candidates.
Writing outstanding college essays starts long before you put pen to paper or pull out your laptop. It starts with rich life experiences, with struggle and perseverance that give you something worth writing about. This is one reason that extracurriculars are so vital.
Depending on how many colleges you plan to apply to, you may need to write ten to twenty supplemental essays by the time you’re through. If you leave this to the last minute, it can be an overwhelming prospect. These essays are far too important to be rushed, so start early. Many colleges release their essay prompts each summer.
Here are some more tips to write the best possible essays for your college applications:
- Stick to the topic.
Permitted word counts are low, so there’s no time to waste. Get to the point!
- Include specific details.
You’ll have to cut extraneous words, but that doesn’t mean your answer should be boring. Instead of telling them what you’re interested in or what matters to you, illustrate those things with vivid examples to make sure your application stands out.
- Write in your genuine voice.
Your essays shouldn’t be riddled with errors, but they shouldn’t be stiff and formal either. These short responses are your best chance to make an impression and showcase what makes you unique. Let your personality and voice shine through.
- Show your values.
Focus on values that you genuinely believe in and share with Harvard. Don’t just tell them what matters to you; provide examples of how you live and embody those values.
- Be reflective.
Go deep on these essays to demonstrate a high level of critical thinking and self-awareness. Your response should go beyond a basic answer and also serve to explain why each topic is important to you and how you’ve grown as a person.
- Edit carefully and double check for errors.
First you’ll want to edit for content, ideally getting outside perspectives from people you trust to make sure that your answers are conveying what you want them to. Once you’re satisfied with the content, you need to proofread multiple times to make sure each response has zero errors. Have other people proofread your essays as well to make sure you haven’t missed any mistakes.
Should You Apply Early to Harvard?
When you apply to Harvard, you have a choice of two decision programs: Restrictive Early Action or Regular Decision program. Both programs are non-binding and allow students the opportunity to compare admission and financial aid offers from other schools before making their final decision by the end of April.
The Restrictive Early Action program has a deadline of November 1, and applicants are notified by mid-December. The Regular Decision deadline is January 1, and students hear back by the end of March.
Students who apply Restrictive Early Action are not permitted to apply to any other school’s Early Decision, Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action plan. They can apply to other schools’ Regular Decision and/or Early Decision II programs.
Harvard states on their admissions site that applying Restrictive Early Action doesn’t give students an advantage over those who apply Regular Decision. “While admit rates tend to be higher in Restrictive Early Action, this reflects the remarkable strength of the applicant pool rather than a benefit of application timing. For any individual student, the final decision likely would be comparable whether the student applies Restrictive Early Action or Regular Decision.”
If you have a strong application and don’t want to apply to binding programs at any other school, consider applying early to Harvard. You would be notified of their decision much earlier than students who apply Regular Decision. If you want to include senior-year achievements in your application or take more time crafting your essays or getting letters of recommendation, you might be better off applying Regular Decision after your first semester of senior year.
Final Thoughts: How to Get into Harvard
Harvard is an extremely competitive school with an acceptance rate of around four percent.
If you want to go to Harvard, here’s how to craft a strong application:
- Earn straight A’s in challenging courses
- Score close to 1600 on the SAT or 36 on the ACT
- Commit to a small number of extracurriculars that you truly care about
- Serve your community and lead your own service projects
- Write compelling essays by using specific examples and an authentic voice
- Proofread your essays carefully
We wish you the best of luck – and if you have any questions about the college application process, please reach out. We’re here to help.