Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)
Elaborate. . . yeah but, how, and to what end? Remember our talks on the 5-Pointed Star approach to college applications? (If not, email us at email@example.com and ask us about it!) Well, this is an example of where they’re begging you to come out with it. If an extracurricular activity, as it shows up in redux form on your activities lists, or as a resume bullet, or whatever shortened form “tells everything you need to know about that experience,” then great, skip that one, and find the one that doesn’t NEARLY convey everything that’s cool about it.
Suppose you’re the captain of your volleyball team, but your captaining and leadership and skills and achievements – while impressive in their own right – are still garden variety. There’s little be gained from elaborating on THAT one here. If, however, you overcame a physical injury in spectacular fashion, or an emotional obstacle against all odds, and ascended to captain level, that is PRECISELY the kind of story “captain of volleyball team” does not adequately convey.
This is your opportunity to REVEAL something about your appetite for challenges, your risk-seeking nature, your fearlessness, your self-awareness, your unusual perspective, your unusual skill sets (and skill gaps). This is the place where you can “signal” meaningful indications of future success to the adcom. It begins with picking the right stuff to talk about, and then focusing on the 5-Pointed Star facets.
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 t’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, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
Again, however badass you think you are for having living 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 thing 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 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 emphasize 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 gun point, 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.
- 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?
You should only choose this if you have a damn good sense for how you’d spend that year, and the “five-year” version of Harvard has a serious value-add compared to the normal “four-year” version. It’s easy to “come up with” a way to spend a year, and fill it with cool-sounding, enriching stuff. But, if it doesn’t feel very specific to YOU and your interests, it won’t resonate the way it needs to.
The coolest response here is the one that demonstrates a mature understanding of how the four “normal” years at Harvard will enrich you and propel you toward the next phase of your career and adulthood, but also makes a convincing case for a way in which time off during college can further improve that already damn-near perfect experience. Or, how a deferred year prior to matriculation is necessary given your goals. In every case, we need the reader to see not only (a) that it’s an interesting idea and pitch for how to spend that time, but also (b) why it’s necessary.
- 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.
We’ve got to be really careful here. If you claim something as distinctive, and it’s actually very common in the application pool, it can backfire and reveal just how out of touch you are and the extent to which you haven’t engaged with the world (through reading, exploring, etc.). Generally speaking, it will help your case if there’s some kind of track record of “something about you is different from others.” Let’s say you’ve been ostracized, marginalized, subdued somehow, outcast, excluded, or the like… it’s pretty hard for someone to argue with your case that there’s something distinct about you. Because not only can you claim it, you can talk about what it’s like to experience it.
Is there a version that isn’t “negative”? Like, what if you’re quirky, and you know it, and everyone around you knows it, and you’ve never been made to suffer on account of it… sure, there’s a case to be made here. But, still, we need to see “proof” of this thing manifesting somehow. In other words, to use that tired old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” This goes for something like “intellectual interests” in particular. Show us that your version of an unusual intellectual interest is going to be a value-add to the Harvard community by showing us how it has been already in your high school community.
It’s a much harder case to make (and usually a weaker one) to say simply “hey so I’m interested in this weird thing, and man, trust me, it’s gonna blow the doors off the Harvard campus, just you wait!” It goes down better if you can say “so, I like this bizarre thing that everyone in my class thinks makes me a total lunatic. But lemme tell you this story. One day when I blah, this thing happened, and then everyone’s lives changed one day later. They still think I’m from planet Mars, but they’re also waiting for the next occasion when I XYZ.” If we see it in action, we’ll be able to imagine it impacting Harvard that much more. See how that works?
- If none of these options appeal to you, you have to option to write on a topic of your choice.
Whether you’re stating it outright, or you achieve this through implication only, the goal here is to demonstrate that you are a dangerous intellect with a unique mind, unique skills, and tons of potential energy to unleash onto the Harvard campus. Great, easy!
Ha, if only. To pull this off, you need to have a very keen sense of what the rest of your application is doing for you, and what’s missing that needs addressing RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. That, my friends, is not easy. In order to do THAT, you need to understand what makes your candidacy particularly dangerous, and to understand precisely what needs to be conveyed that isn’t being adequately conveyed elsewhere.
Again, if you miss the mark, it can backfire. If you pick something that isn’t very cool, it can send an undesirable signal that we’ve reached the END OF THE LINE and this is it—you didn’t really need this essay! Whereas, if you absolutely crush your choice of what to talk about here and how to talk about it, the reader should be left wondering “man, does this kid’s talents and potential ever end? This kid is just endlessly exciting…” Now, offering advice to HOW to achieve that is damn near impossible in a space like this without understanding exactly who you are and therefore to help you decide which “facet” to your candidacy needs some airtime. But hopefully, framing it this way helps you begin the process and understand the inherent challenge of an open-ended prompt.