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How to Write the Harvard University Essays

Updated for 2023-2024

Harvard University requires 2023-2024 applicants to write and submit five supplemental essays as a part of the application process. The five prompts are designed to allow students to highlight different aspects of their accomplishments and identities, first asking about a lived experience, an intellectual experience, and an extracurricular activity of note. Lastly, applicants are asked to share how they would hope to use their Harvard education, as well as three things they would want their roommates to know about them!

Essay #1 (200 word maximum per essay)

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?

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Explanation:

When answering this prompt, start by thinking about the life experiences that have shaped you as an individual. Consider the moments, challenges, or situations that have had a significant impact on your perspective, values, and character. Which have been the most formative for you? How do you wish to continue these experiences in college? These experiences can be personal, academic, cultural, or social. In addition, research Harvard’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Understand the specific aspects of diversity that Harvard values and the ways in which the university believes a diverse student body enriches the academic community. Think and write about how your unique qualities align with these values.

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Sample:

During Spanish Mass, I look down from the altar—gloved hands crossed over my red altar boy tunic—and watch the parishioners as they come up to receive Communion. I see Martín extend his hands to accept the Body of Christ. Later today, we’ll see each other to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and discuss this week’s Gay Straight Alliance meeting. We’ll arrive early at school to print out posters advertising the meeting—we can’t risk printing them at home. “Gay Chicanidad” the poster reads, decorated in red, white, and green, the colors of the Mexican flag.

Harvard won’t restrict me to assumed dichotomies; it’s a place where I’ll freely pursue scholarship about the intersection of faith and the LGBTQ community. Indeed, these identities can thrive alongside each other. In such spaces, I’ll discuss the Gospels through the lens of liberation and radical love. At Memorial Church, I’ll deliver a student sermon on how La Virgen de Guadalupe’s arrival on Mount Tepeyac symbolized not just a sign to the faithful in Latin America, but a call to action to end the racism, misogyny, and homophobia of the Old World. At Harvard, I’ll pursue these historical interventions, create new spaces, and fully involve myself in the college’s open and diverse environment.

Essay #2 (200 word maximum per essay)

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.

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Explanation:

When answering a question relating to an important intellectual or academic experience, it’s important to convey your depth of thought and engagement with the topic you choose to discuss. Harvard values students’ intellectual curiosity—regardless of the subject! Don’t attempt to write something which you “think” Harvard might want to read. Oftentimes, this backfires on a candidate. Your response should genuinely reflect your thoughts and feelings. Choose an intellectual experience that genuinely left a significant impact on you. This could be an event, a class, a book, a conversation, a research project, or any instance where you engaged deeply. Convey your genuine passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Harvard values candidates who show genuine curiosity and excitement about learning.

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Sample:

In history class, I came across the story of La Malinche, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast. She served as an interpreter for the famed conquistador Hernán Cortés and aided his soldiers in navigating the unfamiliar terrain of the Americas. Eventually, she had a child with Cortés, birthing the first mestizo, a child of both European and indigenous blood. She is considered a “traitor” to the native population, having helped the Spanish conquer the Natives. In fact, malinchismo—named after her—is a pejorative, describing Mexicans who prefer the “foreign,” a type of national and racial self-hatred.

I’ve tried to reconcile this history with the perspectives many in the Chicano community have regarding Mexico. “It’s a failed state,” “It’s too dangerous,” “Thank God I’m living in America.” Are these affirmations simple comments about the basic realities of the United States and Mexico, namely, greater political stability, safety, and opportunity, or did such comments stem from deeper within the subconscious? A natural disposition to favor that which is American—what is whiter—than what exists in Mexico? What is the role culture plays with regard to these questions, the influence of American media on a country just south of the border? I’m currently reading Octavio Paz’s essays on the subject; I hope to continue interrogating these questions at Harvard.

Essay #3 (200 word maximum per essay)

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.

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Explanation:

Describe an extracurricular activity, employment experience, travel opportunity, or family responsibility that has had a significant impact on your formation and development. Don’t write about an extracurricular simply because you think Harvard will find it impressive! Let your true self come through. Authenticity is key. It should be a story that allows you to showcase qualities, values, and experiences that are important to you. Explain what the activity or responsibility entails and why it holds significance for you. This context will help the Harvard admissions committee understand the scope of your involvement.

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Sample:

Once a month, the Students for Social Action take a bus down to a local asylum center in Nogales, Arizona. Nogales is a city divided between the American and Mexican borders. Every year, 2 million people pass through the border, making it Arizona’s most populous point of entry.

Roughly 5% of those attempting to enter through Norgales are asylum seekers, waiting—some on the Mexican side, others on the American side—for a hearing to process their respective claims. Our group provides vital English-to-Spanish translation services, helping them navigate immigration centers, process their documents, and gather the necessary materials for their applications.

Some are fleeing gang violence, others economic destitution. The stories one hears are as expansive as they are heartbreaking. Listening to their stories, I’m reminded of how arbitrary borderlines can be, defining people as “Mexican” or “American.” A mere few feet across the border can lead to a dramatically different life. Our antiquated immigration system only makes the situation worse. This experience reinforces my dedication to fighting for justice and helping immigrants achieve a better future. Specifically, I hope to lead an effort resulting in critical immigration reform. It’s long overdue.

Essay #4 (200 word maximum per essay)

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?

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Explanation:

This prompt necessitates thorough consideration of your future aspirations and a clear connection to what Harvard offers. Reflect on your long-term goals and aspirations. What do you envision for your future? Research the specific programs, courses, faculty, and resources that Harvard offers. Is there a specific class, a professor, or research opportunity that will help you? Show a clear alignment between your goals and Harvard’s offerings. Explain how Harvard’s faculty, research opportunities, global network, or other resources will play a crucial role in your journey.

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Sample:

By concentrating in Government, I’ll use my Harvard education to bring about meaningful immigration reform in the United States. To achieve this, I aim to join the Immigration Studies Center at the John F. Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP), where I can develop data-driven solutions to address the immigration challenges in the country.

I’ll complement my work at the IOP participate in the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), Last year, DRCLAS hosted a symposium on Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act. It was the major bipartisan immigration reform in the United States. I’ll continue DRCLAS’ important investigative work along with taking courses such as “Comparative Politics in Latin America.” In fact, I hope to have Professor Steven Levistky serve as my thesis advisor, and work under him as a research assistant. I’ll also join the Latin American Student Association to build community and foster greater discussion.

I am committed to pursuing a bipartisan approach to find a solution to this issue; Harvard will be a crucial stepping stone along my journey.

Essay #5 (200 word maximum per essay)

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

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Sample:

Dear Amigx,

First question: Democrat or Republican? — just kidding, let’s have a meal first and then discuss politics. But you must know, I’m a political junkie. As an aspiring government concentrator, I’m eager to explore the future of immigration policy in the United States. Born and raised in Arizona, a border state, it’s a major issue for my community.

I enjoy deep conversations at night, where we can compare Sartre’s existentialism with Camus’ absurdism. Or discuss how Latin American magical realism influences our contemporary culture. We can also zone out to Friends (spoilers: Rachel should’ve definitely ended up with Joey).

I’m an aficionado for TexMex; it reminds me of home. We can try out different restaurants; I’m also excited to cook a dish my mother would always make: Chimichangas. A true delicacy!
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Although it can simply be a coincidence computed by an algorithm, or whether you believe in fate over chance, out of 8 billion humans on Earth, we got matched. We’re destined to become friends. I cannot wait to meet you.

Saludos,
Ian