Ask any high schooler what their dream university is, and you’re likely to hear “Harvard”. Aside from being the oldest educational institution in the United States, Harvard’s reputation in politics, business, science, and the humanities is the stuff of legends, graduating a number of “greats”, including Barack Obama, Conan O-Brien, T.S. Eliot, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
However, for those with Harvard aspirations, admission is challenging. Harvard accepts less than 5% of all applicants. In 2019, for instance, only 1,980 applicants were accepted. And that number dropped even lower in 2020, despite Covid-19-related application challenges.
Now, while gaining admission isn’t easy, it’s not impossible either. And we want to be one of the lucky few who make it into Harvard. Admissions into U.S. universities is different from most other countries. Having worked with numerous international clients throughout the years, I’ve found three common mistakes or misunderstandings:
Being more concerned with grades and test scores than experience and character
Not allowing enough time to prepare strong applications
Writing in elegant or sparse styles instead of direct and specific writing
Over the past 11 years, I’ve helped hundreds of clients tackle these challenges and turn in fabulous applications, with 100 percent of my clients earning admission into their target institutions — including Harvard. Having an expert in your corner (like me), working with you every step of the way will guarantee your application is strong. I specialize in helping students just like you meet deadlines; write unique, memorable essays; and turn in their best applications. If you start working with me early in your academics (I work with clients starting from as early as 8th grade), we’ll do early profile development so you can discover your unique qualities, skills, and values and build on them in the years before applying to a U.S. university. If we start working together later in the game, say just months before your application is due, I’ll extract information from you that exemplifies the qualities, skills, and values that Harvard wants to see in a compelling application, and I’ll guide you on highlighting these things throughout your application.
The More Information You Have the Better But I want to be as helpful as possible, even if we don’t work together, so as promised, I’ll share some tips on Harvard’s admissions process. I’ll walk you through their required application materials and admissions criteria, and I’ll focus a lot on essay writing tips since this will be the best place for you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the competition. Essay writing is a very weak area for a lot of students, so the more information you have about it the better you’ll be. I’ll give you some general advice on everything, and by the end you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. To begin, watch my FREE workshop, The World Awaits Strategy: How to Beat the Competition and Attend One of the Best Universities in the United States, to learn:
The two things you must demonstrate in your application if you want to be admitted into a top-tier institution
How to put together the 5 most common application materials so you stand apart from the competition
GET PERFECT ACT / SAT SCORES
Grades and test scores are the first things admissions officers check when reviewing applications. Those that are below the cut off are immediately dismissed. However, to be seriously considered, applicants need to have perfect or nearly-perfect grades and standardized test scores. And what’s more, students are expected to take rigorous classes. Perfect grades in honors, AP, or IB classes are far more impressive than perfect grades in general education classes. Want to know how top-tier institutions like Harvard review applications? Check out this article that breaks down the path your application will take as it moves through the admissions process. DEVELOP YOUR PROFILE
As my free workshop details, you need to demonstrate that you have the background and skills Harvard is looking for. All Ivy League institutions seek students who have done amazing things in their lives, and as evidenced by this past success, are likely to go on to do more amazing things. This doesn't mean you have to be a world-renowned pianist, Olympic athlete, or published researcher, but you DO have to have done something that helps you stand out from the rest of the applicants.
To do this, start developing your academic and extracurricular background early. It’s okay — even expected — that you will try a variety of extracurriculars. From there, you need to pick one or two that you are truly passionate about and go deep with them. This demonstrates that you are a T-shaped applicant, or someone with both a breadth and a depth of experience. Read this article for more information on what a T-shaped applicant is and how you can become one. In addition to showing that you are passionate about something beyond your studies, you need to show that you are the right candidate for Harvard specifically. Demonstrating school fit is extremely important: you must suit Harvard’s campus and culture. So as you develop your profile, take on extracurriculars that also show you possess the things Harvard looks for in an applicant, such as leadership and community involvement. If you fail to demonstrate that you are a good fit for Harvard — whether that be academically or socially — your application will land in the “rejected” pile.
WRITE COMPELLING APPLICATION ESSAYS
Most applicants have excellent grades and test scores — just like you — so you must submit amazing essays to stand out. Strong essays will not get you admitted if you don’t have the requisite academic credentials, but weak essays will absolutely strike you from the admit list.
Personal Statement Although Harvard accepts the Common App and the Coalition App, I suggest you complete one of the Common App personal statement prompts because they collaborate with more universities. When you are done writing it, you will then be able to submit the same essay to the Coalition App by simply cutting it down to 500 words.
To write a personal statement that convinces AOs that you’re an ideal candidate, begin by reading my article on the Common Application Essay. It will help you determine which prompt to select and how to write a unique story. But, in short, you must avoid writing a generic essay by digging deep and writing about yourself in a way that highlights the novelty you possess.
Once you have determined which essay prompt grabs you — which essay prompt you feel you can rotate a unique story around — it’s time to start brainstorming. I walk my clients through several brainstorming activities, but my favorite involves identifying their personal qualities and values. Why? Because your personal qualities and values motivated you in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. For example, if the challenge of tackling a robotics competition inspired you to learn programming or the desire of beating your last debate ranking inspired you to take speech classes, it’s likely that new challenges will motivate you to success in the future. When AOs understand this about you (or whatever your personal qualities and values are), they see you as more than a set of test scores and grades and can envision you on their campus.
Qualities and values add humanity to your application. When presented properly, they serve as the thread that ties everything in your application together. Want to read some examples of awesome values-based writing? Check out thisibelieve.org as well as Essays That Worked.
Next, freewrite. If possible, give yourself a couple weeks to write down everything that pops into your head on your topic(s) of choice and your personal values. Spend 10 minutes or so every single day on this activity. 10 minutes — that’s it! Set a timer and go. The purpose of freewriting is to keep your writing loose and authentic. You don’t want your essay to sound fake or “thesaurized”, so use this activity to get comfortable writing with your own voice and to avoid forcing an essay into what you think AOs want to read.
“One of the great clichés of college admissions is the exhortation that students find their own voices in the essay (and interviews)—and 'be themselves.' It’s a cliché because it’s good advice." - William Fitzsimmons, Harvard Dean of Admissions
With your juices flowing, it’s then time to move on to the main event — drafting. There are three ways that I suggest organizing an essay: narrative, iterative, and circular. Choose the one that best fits you and your story.
Narrative essays follow a traditional story arc: 1) Everything is normal, 2) A conflict arises, 3) The main character (you) makes an important decision or action, and 4) Everything is better. Keep in mind the conflict does not need to be a challenge; it may be a question, a challenge, a goal, or an opportunity. Iterative essays are a little more advanced than narrative essays because they follow a pattern that isn’t quite as obvious. Writing an iterative essay involves creating a new whole from separate fragments, such as ideas, values, experiences, pictures, etc. Think of a montage from a movie, where several scenes are shown briefly to show the passage of time in a condensed, efficient way. A few images tell the entire story. Iterative essays do the same thing. The goal is to find a theme that links the short stories or examples so they connect in a meaningful way for the reader.
Circular essays end in the same spot they begin, with the main character undergoing a transformation. You can accomplish this by using flashback or by following a story circle: 1) The main character is in a comfortable place, 2) They want something new, 3) They enter into an unfamiliar situation, 4) They get what they want, 5) But they pay a price for it, 6) They return to where they started having changed or learned something. Circular essays are compelling because by ending where they begin, they naturally include an element of closure, which is satisfactory for the reader.
After completing your first draft, you’re going to need to revise like crazy. I find it takes a minimum of 7 drafts to land on a compelling, well-written personal essay. It’s not an easy feat, but I can help you hone your writing to convey everything it needs to make you a memorable candidate.
1. (REQUIRED) Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words) My advice: Write About a Revealing Extracurricular Activity or Work Experience What do I mean by “revealing”? Well, write about an activity or experience that demonstrates something new about you — something that isn’t addressed (or at least not much) elsewhere in your application. In other words, if you decided to write about a particular extracurricular activity in your personal statement, don’t write about it for this prompt.
You also want to select an activity that demonstrates passion. Don’t choose the activity you participated in simply to add to your apps, nor the activity you think will “look better” to admissions. Instead, choose an extracurricular that you are truly passionate about so your writing is authentic. Admissions officers can smell BS a mile away.
Begin your essay with an interesting one- to two-sentence anecdote that will grab the reader’s attention. Make it personal and honest so the admissions officers get to know who you are. Or begin with something you’ve learned about yourself from your experience. Add detail and specifics to show (not tell) your awesomeness.
2. (REQUIRED) 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)
My Advice: Highlight Your Intellectual Curiosity This prompt naturally highlights intellectual curiosity, but you need to be careful how you approach it. Many applicants use the allotted space to summarize their responsibilities and achievements and neglect to demonstrate internal motivation. Don’t be one of those people.
As Simon Sinek explains in his wildly popular TedX presentation, “why” sells. You need to approach this essay the same way — by demonstrating the motivation behind your academic pursuits.
3. (OPTIONAL) You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that 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 our topics. (650 words)
My Advice: Take This Opportunity to Reveal More About Yourself Although the third supplemental essay is completely optional, all of my past clients who were admitted to Harvard have taken the time and effort to submit ALL of the essays. Of course, submitting the optional supplemental does not assure admission, but it DOES show effort, initiative, and character — qualities every university is looking for.
This essay is essentially another personal statement, and you want to treat it with the same level of importance. Make sure it reveals something new about you while also highlighting your personal qualities, values, and interests. To make sure this supplement isn’t too similar to your main application essay, you should write this one with a different structure (see above), different content, or both.
If you’re really struggling with this prompt, consider waiting until you have written a few supplemental essays for other schools so you can repurpose that writing.
4. (REQUIRED) For International Students: What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive? (50 words) My advice: Focus on Your Future Impact Give a short, to-the-point, impact-driven response on what you want to do after graduation. It’s okay if you don’t know yet; use a proxy career or focus on your field of study.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER As you can see, a lot goes into a successful Harvard application, and that’s exactly why you need an expert like World Awaits to walk you through the entire process. I’ll create a personalized plan that encompasses things like interest strategizing, essay writing guidance and proofreading, and interview prep. Check out my packages, sign up for a free 20 minute consultation, or reach out to talk more. I look forward to working with you!