How to Get Into Harvard
With more than 40,000 students competing for less than 2000 spots each year, getting into Harvard University is difficult, to say the least. Read on for tips on how you can lock in one of those coveted spots.
In recent years, more than 60,000 graduating high school students from across the United States and the world asked the question that will likely set the stage for their future careers and lives, “How to get into Harvard University?” Suffice it to say that with
Established in 1636, Harvard University, a private Ivy League research institution, is the oldest higher education institution in the United States. Named in honor of John Harvard, it’s recognized worldwide for its wealth, social influence, and academic excellence in a wide range of disciplines.
Note that Harvard College is the term used for Harvard University’s prestigious undergraduate liberal arts program as well as for its academic and residential community. Harvard students and faculty members are also bound by the Harvard College Honor Code, a commitment to producing academic work based on integrity and honesty.
Indeed, Harvard students aren’t just getting world-class college education recognized worldwide but also gain strong ethics that underline their lives, both in and out of the classroom!
How Hard Is It To Get Into Harvard University?
Ask any Harvard student and alumnus and you will get the same answer: It’s an arduous process to get into Harvard! It’s common for Harvard classmates to compare their admissions stories and while there are unique stories, there are also common threads—consistent academic excellence, well-rounded extracurricular activities, and demonstrated initiative, impact and leadership during their high school career.
Over the years, the Harvard University acceptance rate has remained below 4% making it among the most selective universities in the U.S. and the world. For Harvard Class of 2026, the acceptance rate was its all-time low at 3.18%.
There were 61,221 applicants, but only 1,984 were admitted, of which 36 students were from the waiting list. For Harvard Class of 2027, the acceptance rate was 3.41% although there was a 7% drop in applicants.
A note on the waitlist: Harvard University has a waitlist that includes eligible applicants that may be considered for admission in case the incoming class has openings. There are no rankings in the waitlist and being on the waitlist isn’t a guarantee of admission either. Harvard has been known not to admit students from the waitlist in certain years and, in other years, admit as many as 200+ students from the waitlist.
Harvard University is known for its student body diversity, too, with Asian Americans (27.9%), African Americans (15.2%), and Hispanics or Latinos (12.6%), among other ethnicities.
Understanding the Harvard Admissions Process
If you want to know how to get into Harvard, your first obvious step is understanding the Harvard admissions process and requirements! According to Harvard admissions officers, there is neither a guaranteed formula nor a one-size-fits-all template for gaining admission into the Ivy League university. Of course, the best and brightest are chosen for Harvard admission but no two Harvard students are alike either.
Of course, your high school academic accomplishments are important with your high school GPA and class rank being considered by the admissions committee to get into Harvard. But the admissions officers also consider other factors that indicate your academic preparedness for Harvard’s rigorous college coursework, your potential for contributions to the Harvard community, and your potential for positive impact on the larger community.
Along this line, your application documents should strongly demonstrate the following factors:
- Academic excellence in high school
- Impactful community involvement
- Distinction and leadership in extracurricular activities
- Desirable personal qualities (e.g., overcome adversity, get results from initiatives, and strength of character)
- Special talents and skills
- Unique perspectives brought by extraordinary personal circumstances
Judging by Harvard’s low acceptance rate, the admissions criteria are challenging, to say the least! Even straight A students will encounter challenges in their application if their extracurricular activities, community involvement, and/or personal qualities aren’t up to par with Harvard’s standards.
The Harvard admissions process starts with filling out either the Common Application or the Coalition Application Powered by Scoir forms—Harvard doesn’t have a preference in either of these forms—as well as the supplement. Both domestic and international Harvard applicants who want to enter as freshmen must submit the following documents:
- Common Application or Coalition Powered by Scoir form with complete and accurate information (Both forms contain questions, an activities list, and prompts for a personal essay)
- Harvard College Questions—for the Common Application or the Coalition Application Harvard supplement. (Note the 200-word limit for each of the five questions)
- $85 fee (Fee waiver requests are available)
- School Report including a counselor letter and your high school transcript
- Two Teacher Reports
- Midyear School Report
- Final School Report (Only admitted students are required to submit)
Harvard University currently has a test-optional policy, meaning SAT scores or ACT scores may or may not be submitted depending on the strength of your other application materials. This is also true for Advanced Placement (AP) and other exam results.
Many of the abovementioned Harvard admissions checklist also applies to homeschooled applicants, but additional information relevant to your personal and educational background is welcome. The transcript, for example, can be issued by an agency or a family member overseeing the homeschooling education.
Admissions officers at Harvard also recognize exceptional achievements and talents that can be demonstrated via supplemental materials; submission is optional, nonetheless. The supplemental materials can be artwork, music recordings, and dance performance as well as scholarly articles, published creative writing, and academic work of which the applicant must be the primary author. These can be submitted either through the Applicant Portal’s Upload Materials (i.e., text) section or via Slideroom (i.e., multimedia).
Completing the Common Application and Harvard Supplement
Let’s face it—if you want to know how to get into Harvard, you must first follow instructions including filling in your choice in an application form and the Harvard supplement! Here are a few effective tips that will get you started on the right foot.
Make a good first impression by filling in the complete and accurate information required in the Profile section, and it should be easy since it’s your detailed personal information. Check the fee waiver request, if necessary, and don’t answer the demographic questions if you’re not inclined to.
Always use your full legal name on all your application materials! Be sure to instruct your teachers, counselors, and other people providing application information on your behalf to do so, too. This will make it fast and easy for Harvard to match your application to your supplemental materials.
Be sure to check the citizenship portion, too, if you’re an international student so that visa arrangements can be made after admission. Social Security numbers for applicants are kept strictly confidential.
Students applying for admission must fill out the Family section regardless of their age and status—minors, adults, and emancipated minors included. Answer the questions in a full and honest manner based on what you know—Harvard won’t take it against you if you have an unknown parent, for example.
As for parent education, fill in the information, too, since it will provide the Harvard admissions officers of the challenges you’ve faced and overcome related to this matter.
Basically, take your time when filling in the required information in either the Common Application or the Coalition Application Powered by Scoir form, ask your family and friends for assistance, and update the information as it becomes available, if necessary. Think of the application form and Harvard supplements as your first opportunity at making an excellent first impression.
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Building a Strong Academic Foundation
Being able to demonstrate your academic abilities and highlight your academic achievements is among the oft-repeated tips on how to get into Harvard, and for good reason! If you want to get into Harvard, your average high school GPA must never be average—otherwise, Harvard admissions officers won’t even consider your application. Straight As or their equivalent will be looked on favorably.
The best preparation for getting into Harvard University is to challenge yourself through a rigorous curriculum, preferably with the guidance of your teachers, mentors, and counselors. In addition to the standard curriculum in your high school, you should consider advanced and honors classes, such as those offered by Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.
By getting excellent grades in these advanced courses, you can demonstrate your commitment to academic excellence, intellectual growth, and personal advancement.
The premier Ivy League university, however, doesn’t have a recommended curriculum for high school students who want to get into Harvard. There’s even a caution against the “more is always better” practice when it comes to advanced courses since it doesn’t work for everybody every time!
Instead, the recommendation is adopting a balanced approach between academics, extracurricular activities, and personal growth, such as undertaking research projects or being involved in community immersion projects.
Harvard, nonetheless, recommends a robust math and sciences education in high school, preferably courses that align with your academic interests as well as foster critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and conceptual understanding skills. Think of courses in statistics, calculus, and computer science (e.g., programming) since these are excellent preparation for the STEM courses at Harvard College.
Tip: Focus on strong math foundations first before taking on, much less rushing through, advanced courses. Harvard offers introductory calculus classes, for example, for admitted students whose high school didn’t have calculus courses and other opportunities for advanced math courses.
A few tips on filling in the Education section of the application form:
- Provide relevant information for interruption in your high school education since it will provide admissions officers more grounds for their decision.
- Self-reported grades are taken into consideration but will be confirmed with the proper officials of your high school, meaning honesty is a must. Harvard defers to the official high school transcripts because of their authenticity.
- List the courses that you’re presently taking and planning on taking before your high school graduation, and make updates on the Applicant Portal about schedule changes.
- Fill in the information for your academic achievements and awards, as well as submit supplemental materials via the Applicant Portal
- Write a few thoughtful ideas on your career interests and plans instead of skipping the section.
Keep in mind that Harvard fosters a diverse student body, meaning your unorthodox educational path doesn’t preclude your admission into the prestigious university.
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Understanding the Standardized Test Scores Requirements
As previously mentioned, Harvard applicants don’t have to submit scores, whether ACT scores or SAT scores, due to its test-optional policy. But if you want to submit test scores, you may do so—either the SAT or ACT with or without the writing scores.
If you have taken subject tests in the last five years, you may also submit these test scores; College Board doesn’t offer subject tests as of this writing. If you get into Harvard and you self-reported standardized test scores, you must submit your official score reports.
Tip: Choose just one math test, whether you’re a domestic or an international student. If you’re an international student with English not being your first language, avoid submitting a subject test in your first language.
Tip: Submit your AP and/or IB scores, too, since these are useful in determining your academic abilities and readiness for college coursework.
Tip: Harvard doesn’t require Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) results. International applicants, however, may submit them as part of their application and if they believe that these will boost their admission chances.Back to Top
Listing Down Extracurricular Activities and Leadership
The main application form also contains the Activities section, which gives applicants the opportunity to demonstrate to the admissions officers their well-rounded involvement in their campus community and larger community, their passions and interests, and their leadership skills. Applicants can list up to 10 extracurricular activities, but you don’t have to feel pressure about filling in all the blanks either.
While extracurricular activities are crucial in your efforts to get into Harvard, it isn’t about quantity, but quality of the activities that matter. The admissions officers consider your overall contributions to improving your high school, your family and friends, and your communities, as well as your commitment to excellence. The time spent and the results achieved in your extracurricular activities, including your work experience, is of great importance also.
What about Harvard applicants who don’t have access to the wide range of opportunities for extracurricular activities in their area? Don’t worry too much because Harvard recognizes that many schools in underprivileged areas have limited economic resources that prevent them from funding the student’s participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities. In these cases, Harvard admission officers take into consideration your initiative in making the most of the opportunities they have.
As a preliminary activity before starting the Activities section, make a list of your extracurricular activities during high school. This way, you will have an easy reference.
While completing this exercise, you may also want to consider which activities meant the most to you and why. Your commitment and passion for a certain extracurricular is something to highlight in your application.
Here are a few more tips on filling in the Activities section on the main application.
- Provide brief descriptions of your extracurricular activities, level of participation, achievements earned, and any relevant employment history.
- Give a timeline of your participation in the activity and the approximate amount of time spent in the Participation Grade Level subsection. This will help admissions officers to understand the depth of your involvement.
- Provide information on your plans for college life if admitted. Attending Harvard means being part of a large residential community with rich opportunities for personal growth via extracurricular activities.
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Crafting an Outstanding Personal Essay
There will be a number of essay topics to choose from, and they are usually different between the Common Application and Coalition Application. While writing an outstanding personal essay as part of your Harvard application can be daunting, you should use this as an opportunity to highlight your unique qualities and the way you envision you will fit into the Harvard community.
Among the essay topics are:
- Share a meaningful aspect of your identity, background, or interest.
- Write about a challenging time in your life, how it affected you, and the lessons you learned from it.
- Share about a time when you challenged or questioned an idea, belief, or concept, and the causes and outcomes of it.
- Describe a problem and its solution, or a problem you want to find a solution to.
To write a compelling personal essay, choose topics that will provide useful insight into your values, character, and aspirations, as well as highlight their alignment with Harvard’s values, such as integrity, intellectual curiosity, engagement, and leadership.
There’s also a writing supplement that requires applicants to answer Harvard-specific questions with a 200-word limit for each of the five questions, namely: (Paraphrased from the original)
- How will the life experiences that influenced who you are now enable your contributions to the Harvard community?
- What intellectual experience is important for you?
- What are your extracurricular activities, travel, work experiences, and/or family responsibilities that shaped who you are today?
- What are your plans on using your Harvard college education in the future?
- What are the three things that you would like your future college roommate to know about you?
Take note that your Harvard application will be considered incomplete if you don’t provide the answers to these five questions.
In both the main application and the Harvard supplement, you should keep these writing tips in mind:
- Develop a clear essay structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Start with a striking hook and a concise introduction, followed by an engaging main narrative with specific details, and then end with statements on how being a Harvard student will contribute to your goals.
- Write with authenticity and clarity in mind. Use descriptive language to write about your experiences and emotions. Always be genuine in your essay. Expect the admissions officers to have keen observation skills.
- Edit, revise, and rewrite as many times as possible. Check for spelling and grammar errors, and be mindful of sentence structure, flow, and coherence. Constructive feedback from your teachers, family, and even friends is a must, as is careful proofreading.
Perhaps most important, you must tailor your personal essay to Harvard’s values and opportunities wherever possible. Doing so means that you’ve done your research into Harvard and demonstrate your eagerness to be part of the Harvard community.
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Securing Strong Letters of Recommendation
For the letters of recommendation, Harvard recommends asking two teachers from different academic subjects to fill in the Teacher Evaluation forms. You should obviously choose teachers whose knowledge of your academic accomplishments and abilities, personal qualities, and character traits will result in favorable letters of recommendation. Remember that the letters of recommendation can boost your chances in becoming a Harvard student!
Tip: Only submit additional letters of recommendation after submitting your application. You will find a personalized link in your application confirmation email that can be sent to your choice of recommenders.
A few tips on getting the Teacher Evaluation forms filled in by the right teachers:
- Your goal must be choosing recommenders who can vouch for your skills, accomplishments, and strengths in a well-rounded manner and with an authentic viewpoint.
- You may want to discuss your academic achievements and extracurricular activities, as well as personal traits, with your chosen recommenders. This way, you’re providing guidance on the particulars of their teacher evaluation.
And whether you get accepted into Harvard or not, be sure to send out thank you letters to the teachers who gave you recommendations.
Demonstrating Keen Interest in Harvard
While there’s no reason to go overboard, your demonstrated interest in being accepted into the Harvard academic and campus communities can boost your chances of admission. Applicants who demonstrate a strong interest in Harvard may or may not gain a competitive advantage, but it doesn’t hurt to show it either.
Here are ways to demonstrate your keen interest in being accepted into Harvard.
- Do your research into Harvard’s history, culture, and values, even its campus community, which will manifest in your personal essay and interview, if you’re given the opportunity.
- Again, tailor your personal essays in both the main application and the Harvard supplement according to Harvard’s mission, vision, and values. The worst thing you can do when applying to colleges and universities is submitting the same answers or the same personal essay to every institution! Not only does it show mediocrity and laziness, it shows disrespect for the institution, and that will get you nowhere in your Harvard application.
- Attend information sessions, admissions events, and campus tours, and make sure that your presence is acknowledged (e.g., sign the attendance sheet). You’re demonstrating your enthusiasm for establishing connections with Harvard’s academic and campus community, as well as making your first connections with admissions staff members, faculty members, students, and alumni. If in-person attendance isn’t possible, join the virtual campus tours, events, and webinars.
- Communicate with the admissions office, if possible, when you need clarification about the university’s application and admission process, academic programs, and/or aid. Thoughtful, genuine, and relevant communications are a must, so avoid sending emails just for the sake of it.
Even if you’re thousands of miles away from the Harvard campus, your ability to make the most of technology in demonstrating your keen interest in a Harvard education can also be in your favor.
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Making the Most of Admissions Interviews
Not all Harvard applicants are offered an interview as part of the admission process. Instead, the admissions committee assigns interviews based on the availability of Harvard alumni in the local areas where applicants are based. There are nearly 10,000 Harvard alumni across the 50 states and around the world who volunteer their time and expertise in the interview process.
Note that not getting an interview offer won’t put you at a disadvantage of getting into Harvard because every application is considered complete without it. But if the admissions committee deems it necessary to get more information about an applicant, then an interview may be offered.
Harvard also points out that applicants cannot request for an interview and there are no interviews conducted in Cambridge. The Harvard alumni who conduct the interviews use their personal emails to contact the applicants, but applicants can verify their Harvard affiliation by writing to email@example.com or by calling 617-495-1551.
Note, too, that you can decline an interview invitation, but Harvard admissions officers highly recommend accepting it. This is an excellent opportunity to expound on your personal traits, academic achievements, and other aspects that make you an excellent prospect for admission.
The interview may be in-person, via video chat (e.g., Zoom), or over the phone. Your preference will be taken into account, too, as well as the preference of the interviewer.
It is essential to find a quiet room or space where the interview can go smoothly (i.e., without untoward interruptions from other persons). You can also dress in something that you would wear on an ordinary school day, but obviously, you should be presentable.
Aside from your name, contact information, and name of high school, the interviewer has no access to your application packet. You and the interviewer aren’t allowed to record the conversation.Back to Top
Understanding Financial Aid Options
For students attending Harvard, the cost of attendance can be daunting— tuition alone for the 2023-2024 academic year is $54,269, with the estimated total cost of attendance (i.e., health, housing, student services, food, and student activities fees) amounting to $79,450, excluding incidentals. When combined with the challenges of being accepted into Harvard, the cost of attendance can discourage many interested high school students.
Fortunately, Harvard University is known for meeting 100% of its students’ demonstrated financial need. In fact, it’s more affordable than the public colleges and universities that provide comparable education (i.e., Public Ivies). Furthermore, all Harvard students—both U.S. citizens and international students—receive the same access to aid.
Harvard also adopts a need-blind admissions policy, meaning your financial aid application and financial needs won’t affect your chance of admission. Financial aid officers work with every admitted student and their family on a one-on-one basis in finding the best financial aid package that makes a Harvard education more affordable than you think.
Such commitment to world-class yet affordable education at an Ivy League university is apparent during the application and admissions process, too. Students can request for a Common Application or the Coalition Application fee waiver.
Note that starting in the 2023-2024 academic year, Harvard has raised its minimum family income standards for exemptions. From the previous $75,000 annual income, families with annual incomes below $85,000 will not contribute to the cost of their child’s college education.
Finalizing Your Application
Your application can make or break your entry into Harvard University. Just as you want to start on the right foot, you also want to end the application process with the highest chance of being admitted. Your application must present YOU in the best light, and it starts with the submission of the right required application materials.
- Make a thorough review of your main application and Harvard supplement, particularly in filling in the sections, answering the essay questions, and attaching supplementary materials, before hitting the submission button. Attention to detail is a must.
- Create a checklist of the required application materials and make a brief summary of application guidelines. Use these documents in monitoring your compliance with the application instructions including the format, mode of submission, and deadlines. Following the instructions to the letter may seem orthodox but it’s recommended as a demonstration of your conscientiousness and competence.
- Double-check the files and their file names, and ensure that they are clearly labeled. Make sure that your contact information is complete and accurate because it’s the admissions officers’ primary way of communication.
- Avoid last-minute submissions or requests when finalizing your application. Make allowances for delays in the submission of teacher recommendations, for example, and other unforeseen circumstances and technical issues.
Follow up on your application, too. You should receive confirmation notifications, usually via email, when Harvard receives your application packet. If you haven’t, you can make polite inquiries about its status.Back to Top
Meeting Application Deadlines
Don’t forget the application deadlines. Harvard admission officers will not wait for missing documents even if you’re the best and brightest in your high school graduating class.
As previously mentioned, applicants can use either the Common Application or Coalition Application, but these have different availability dates - August 1 for the Common Application and August 15 for the Coalition Application.
Harvard University also has two admissions deadlines:
- Applicants who choose Restrictive Early Action must submit their applications by November 1. Admission decisions are received by mid-December.
- Applicants who selected Regular Decision apply by January 1. Notifications are usually received by the end of March.
In both Restrictive Early Action and Regular Decision deadlines, applicants can make comparisons between Harvard and other colleges regarding their admission and offers of aid. Applicants can defer their final college choice until May 1.
In conclusion, these tips on how to get into Harvard are effective if and when you start planning for admission as early as your freshman year in high school.
Check out the College Admissions Process Guide for additional tips on finding, applying to, and getting into the college of your choice.
See our Resources Guide for much more on studying, starting your job search, and more.
Photo Credit: The original uploader was Mancala at English Wikipedia. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Vinhtantran. Created by user:Mancala., Public Domain.