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:
Unusual circumstances in your life
Great one. The trick is: don’t count on your “unusual circumstances” to be relatably unusual to anyone and everyone. It’s possible that YOUR situation was quite NORMAL to someone else. So if your focus on the unusual-ness is in a universal sense, you may be sunk. Instead, focus on why this unusual WITH RESPECT TO YOUR OWN status quo. Establish what should have been the normal way of things for you, and then how that was disrupted, and why that disruption was so powerful. No one can take that away from you, but it’s important to be mindful of how others will probably have experienced, endured, and potentially not even FLINCHED at… MORE UNUSUAL circumstances. If you can present this with a clear sense of humility, you will be golden.
The next key is to not be afraid of showing you at your vulnerable moments, times you may have almost failed (or even failed). And to show how you dealt with it all, the strangeness of it, the challenges, etc.
And finally, you’ll wanna indicate what you’ve taken away from it. Are you glad these were your circumstances? Or would you trade it for another version? It’s okay for it to be either. The way you grapple with this is the key, not the precise conclusion you reach.
Travel or living experiences in other countries
Again, however badass you think you are for having lived in X exotic country, or A B C D E F G other countries… someone next to you has an even MORE EXTREME/IMPRESSIVE example. This isn’t a contest of volume or amplitude. It’s a contest of “how has this impacted your perspective”? It’s “how that the result of all this enriched the way you process information, interact with people, understand the world, etc.” Consider our favorite trick: examining the delta. Imagine what your life would have been like had it been settled in only ONE place the entire time, without ANY travel? And then replay that, except with all the experiences beyond your hometown or home country. What’s different about YOU and the way you understand things as a result of that SECOND version? To what can you attribute that difference?
What you would want your future college roommate to know about you.
This is a tricky one because the temptation is to write about things you want “the admissions committee” to know about you. And so, we more often than not see forced, unimaginative first drafts. If you’re gonna live with someone (for only one year, mind you), a person who may or not be a friend, a person you may or may not interact with much AFTER your first year… what would you want him/her to know about you? Well, you’d have to have a reason this person would need to know this, otherwise… what’s the point? Think of it this way, if your roommate were to NOT KNOW this thing about you… something could go wrong. (Rather than… it would be a missed opportunity.) Play with that version, see if it reveals something deeply personal.
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
The key here is to write this out, and then imagine showing it to someone who knows you really really really really well. And for them to read it, look up at you stunned, and say “Um, holy crap, I had no idea.” Because you REVEALED something that wasn’t plainly obvious to someone else already. Why are we saying that? Because chances are, that “obvious” stuff, which may very well be one of the central THEMES of your profile, will probably be plain in many elements of your application: your personal statement perhaps, some of your LORs, activities lists, your transcripts, etc.
The real opportunity here is to reveal personal, probably-not-publicly-known connections to intellectual areas that are not heavily emphasized in the rest of your application. One, it’ll seem more authentic. Two, it’ll give the reader the impression that you dance to your own tune and that you’re not afraid to pursue your interests, regardless of whether someone else is looking or not. That’s the kind of person that typifies the Harvard student. The self-starter. It’s a neat test, to actually have someone close to you read this and see if they knew about it already, or not. If not, you’re on the right track.
How you hope to use your college education
For 9 out of 10 applicants we’d recommend steering clear of this one because invariably it’s gonna be a trite response that’s designed to impress the adcom. Most people who have traveled the normal pathway and are generally a part of the typical trajectory toward college and beyond, skip this one.
If, however, college – let alone Harvard – was never an obvious part of your future, for whatever reason, then you may have something to write about. If there was a better than zero chance that you might not have even gotten a CHANCE to attend college (let alone Harvard), and your life was barreling toward some other pathway… and the opportunity to go to a place like Harvard is something you made possible by sheer will and determination, then yah, we’re interested to see how YOU hope to use your college education because it means something deeper to you. If that sounds like you, then be sure to lay out what life “could have been without college” and then let loose on what you are determined to do now that it’s very much in play…
A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
If you’re a voracious reader, go buck wild here. If there’s no variety in your list at all, it’s probably not a great idea to go with this one. If on the other hand, your list is all over the place, it could be great. Every now and then, we may recommend deleting a few, in case those few distract from a cooler narrative created by the remaining list, in terms of what they say about you. There’s an art to that, not easy to prescribe by way of a formula.
Again, the only reason you wanna pick THIS one over others is if you’ve read a TON of books, and they’re cooooool. And show that you’re interested in STRETCHING. (And not just being cozy in your favorite genre.)
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.
Great one. But only if there’s a real choice. It can’t be something like, “I saw someone robbing an old lady at gunpoint, and so I wondered whether or not I should call the police. I decided to call the police. Yay me!” There has to be a very compelling rationale for you or the actor to be DISHONEST. If there isn’t, it’s not a real dilemma, and it’s no longer impressive that you or someone chose the action with integrity or honesty. It has to be the case that it could have easily gone the other way, and that quite possibly, no one would have really held it against him/her/you.
Here’s another way of putting it. If the choice to act with integrity was in any way INCONVENIENT… now we’re cookin. If it were convenient, not a good example. Yawn. It has to have been a decision that came with real personal RISK of some kind. That’s the perfect litmus test for this one, something that many applicants will miss.
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?
Another tricky one, and again for 9 out of 10 folks, we may recommend going with another choice. However…
Is there something you do, by example, that is a part of you, that has impacted others throughout your life, that you intend to carry through in college… BECAUSE it has become an important part of who you are? Be careful not to be presumptuous here, and to assume that you possess something (a trait, a belief, etc.) that others simply MUST adopt because … well, that would make you seem unbelievably arrogant. A good version of a contribution is something someone made that YOU benefitted from, that you are paying forward. That’s a little more bulletproof. Still, we hate to say it, but this wouldn’t be our first choice for prompts.
You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Harvard’s application essays.
Learn more and explore each step of Harvard’s undergraduate application process here.