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What All 3.6% of Harvard Admits Have in Common

Apr 11, 2024

Every year, tens of thousands of students from around the world apply to Harvard University in the hopes of attending one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. To write that receiving a coveted letter of admission is challenging is a gross understatement—only 3.59% of Harvard hopefuls were admitted during the 2023-24 application cycle. Earning acceptance in the cutthroat admissions landscape requires strategy and planning. While Harvard’s admitted class is composed of a diverse group of students with widely varied interests and backgrounds, there are a few guiding commonalities that unite them.

As they develop their interests and build their applicant profiles, Ivy League hopefuls should keep in mind that successful students who are bound for elite institutions showcase:

1. Academic Prowess

While academic skills are not the sum total of what a student needs to get into Harvard, they are a foundational component of a successful application. Students can demonstrate their preparedness for the rigors of Harvard academics in two ways—through a strong GPA (particularly in classes related to their intended major) and through standardized test scores. Dartmouth notes in their announcement of their reinstated standardized testing policy that students’ perception of what admissions officers look for in scores is strongly misunderstood. The press release states: “The absence of such scores underscores longstanding misperceptions about what represents a “high” or a “low” score; those definitions are not binary. A score that falls below our class mean but several hundred points above the mean at the student’s school is “high” and, as such, it has value as one factor among many in our holistic assessment.” While strong candidates typically submit scores that match or exceed an institution’s published average for admitted students, this is not always the case, and students should be mindful that their scores will be evaluated within the larger context of their application.

2. Singular Passions

Although a stellar academic record and impressive standardized test scores are critical for admission, they are merely the foundation of a successful Ivy League application. Harvard and other top colleges seek students with more than great transcripts—students who not only excel academically but who also possess a guiding passion, often one that they have mobilized in service of their communities. As Harvard’s admissions website states: “There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard. Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and personal qualities and character.” Reflecting a passion in an applicant profile requires strategy, motivation, and—perhaps most importantly—time.

While students should use their freshman and sophomore years to explore their interests and get involved in clubs and organizations on campus, it is critical that they do so with the intention of discovering their core passions and honing their involvements by junior year. Rather than spreading themselves thin by pursuing a multitude of interests, admitted students at top schools demonstrate deep engagement and leadership in a particular area of interest, aiming to become specialists in their field. Whether it’s a passion for scientific research, a commitment to social justice advocacy, a love for the performing arts, or a dedication to community service, focused pursuits allow applicants to showcase their talents, accomplishments, and potential contributions to their future college community.

3. Demonstrable Impact on Their Communities

Beyond mere interest or involvement, successful Harvard applicants demonstrate tangible impact in their communities through their endeavors. Demonstrated impact is a powerful indicator of an applicant’s drive, initiative, and potential for future success, and it illustrates to admissions committees the kind of community member the student will be on campus. Therefore, students should not only strategize for discovering and pursuing their core passions, but they should also be intentional about crafting a compelling and cohesive narrative demonstrating those passions through their Activities List, essays, and letters of recommendation.

The small percentage of students who earn admission to Harvard are not only academically gifted—they are deeply engaged, committed, and impactful. By telling a cohesive narrative about their grounding passions in their applications, students can stand out to admissions officers and boost their chances of admission to their dream schools.

Originally published on Forbes.

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