written by
Abbie Sage

Harvard University Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

Essay Guides 9 min read
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Not sure how to approach the Harvard essay prompts? With tips from a Harvard graduate, CollegeAdvisor.com’s guide to the Harvard supplemental essays will show you exactly how to write engaging Harvard essays and maximize your chances of admission.

If you need help crafting your Harvard supplemental essays, create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.


Harvard Essay Guide Quick Facts:

Does Harvard have supplemental essays?

Yes. In addition to the main essay prompt that you’ll encounter in the Common App or Coalition App, you’ll also have to answer shorter Harvard essays as well as longer Harvard essay prompts.

Need some help writing your Common App essay? Get great tips from our Common App essay guide.

What are Harvard’s supplemental essays?

The Harvard supplemental essay prompts for 2021-2022 are on the Common App site. You can also visit the main Harvard site for a full list of application requirements.

How many essays does Harvard require?

Harvard has three school-specific essays in the 2021-2022 Common App. As you look at each Harvard application essay, you'll notice that several are listed as optional. While you aren’t required to complete the optional Harvard essays, if you're hoping to be admitted, you should complete every essay to make your application as cohesive and engaging as possible.

Harvard essay prompts and how to write them:

We have provided the prompts for the 2021-2022 Harvard supplemental essays below. You’ll find a breakdown of how to approach each Harvard application essay as well as tips for creating an application narrative that will stand out in admissions.

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 1 (Optional):

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 max.)

Harvard supplemental essays are crafted to help identify students who are academically driven, intellectually engaged, and highly self-motivated. This prompt allows you to express your intellectual engagements as they manifest outside of your academic work. These engagements do not need to fit into any structure—whether you've taken online courses, taught yourself Portuguese, taken up studio art, or anything in between, this prompt should allow you to talk about your "intellectual life" in the broadest terms.

This Harvard essay asks you to think about how your intellectual engagements inform your daily life. How do you spend your free time? How might these additional activities supplement your application narrative?

Since you only have 150 words, you'll want to be concise. Don’t just write a list of things that you like to do and leave it at that. Instead, you’ll want to add a few descriptive words to each intellectual activity. Be specific about what you've accomplished, providing details about what you did, when and where you did it, why you chose to do it, and what it meant to you. After you've described your list, look at it critically to see if it reflects your sense of identity and relationship with the world around you.

Remember, you’re also being asked to discuss activities not detailed elsewhere in your application. It’s helpful to write a list of the topics, activities, and projects that you plan to cover in other Harvard essays to make sure that there’s no overlap between those essay prompts and this Harvard application essay.

Another keyword to pay attention to is “detailed.” While you may have mentioned an activity or interest in passing elsewhere in your application, you can still expound on that particular intellectual pursuit here.

In the shorter Harvard supplemental essays, it’s important not to get lost in the descriptive language of your activity. Don’t spend so much time describing the classroom where you took Portuguese language classes that you don’t give yourself the space necessary to talk about what the activity meant to you. Beautiful language is just the icing on the cake in Harvard essays.

Harvard Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your draft clearly communicate what you accomplished?
  • Is it clear that the activity you describe is intellectual in nature?
  • Does your supplement provide information not present in the rest of your application?
  • Do you articulate why your chosen activity matters to you and how it has influenced your broader identity?

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 2 (Required):

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words max.)

Harvard supplemental essays should provide insight into your identity in a way that is not represented in the rest of your application. In this essay prompt, as you choose which activity to discuss, consider the story that your application tells. Which extracurricular experience contributes most effectively to this story?

Use your 150-word limit on this Harvard application essay wisely. Once you've chosen an activity, start with the specifics. What did you do? Why did you do it? How did this experience contribute to your sense of yourself and the world around you? What are the connections between this activity and your overall application narrative? While your response may not answer all these questions, it's important to keep them in mind to ensure that your supplement accurately and effectively represents your interests and accomplishments.

As you write, be careful to talk about yourself as much as about the work you've done. This isn't your resume—instead, it's your time to discuss who you are in the context of your activities and interests.

Harvard Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your response add nuance, meaning, or additional interest to the other components of your application?
  • Do you reference concrete details about what you accomplished and why it mattered?
  • Does your response teach the reader something new about you?

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 3 (optional):

Harvard supplemental essays are numerous, but their goal is to give you ample opportunities to show Admissions Officers what makes you special.  The final Harvard essay is long-form. You’ll be able to choose one of the following topics:

Unusual circumstances in your life
Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
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
How you hope to use your college education
A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
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.
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?
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?
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. (2000 words max.)

Having trouble deciding which of these Harvard essays to write? Start with a writing exercise. Pick 3-4 of the Harvard essay prompts that you most connect with and set a timer. Then, write about each topic for no more than 10 minutes. Were there any topics that you couldn’t stop writing about? Make that your essay topic.

When structuring your Harvard application essay, make sure that it’s clear to your reader which prompt you’ve chosen early on. Maybe you're a voracious reader who finishes over 100 books each year. You might choose to submit a list of books you've read in the last 12 months, allowing your self-directed intellectual engagements to speak for themselves. Remember to weave the books together into a larger reflection of how you see the world, and/or how the books you’ve read have changed your worldview. Or maybe you're interested in taking a gap year to explore the globe — you might choose to answer that prompt and tell Harvard what travel means to your identity as a student and world citizen. Whatever you choose, it should help you stand out and add nuance to your application narrative.

Harvard Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your response reveal what makes you unique?
  • Will your response make the reader want to learn more about you?
  • Does your response supplement and/or complicate the other aspects of your application?

How much does Harvard care about essays?

Short answer: a lot. Last year, over 50,000 students applied to Harvard. Most applicants have impressive GPAs, test scores, and extracurricular profiles. Admissions officers look to the Harvard essay prompts to help them identify students who “…will be the best educators of one another and their professors — individuals who will inspire those around them during College years and beyond.” In other words, your Harvard application essays should tell a story of your growth as a person up until this point. Each essay should play a part in showing that you are curious about the world, a reflective person of character, and an individual who brings something unique to each community they inhabit. For a deep dive into what this looks like, visit Harvard’s “What We Look For” page.

Additional tips for writing your Harvard Supplemental Essays

  • Start early: Harvard has a few admission options. Your application may be due in November or January. Begin gathering application materials early—at least 5 or 6 months in advance. You should write your first Harvard essay drafts the summer before you apply.
  • Essay checklist: create an essay checklist for each Harvard essay prompt. Check your initial draft against the checklist: are you answering every part of the prompt? Are your answers unique, but authentic to who you are? Do your prompts tell a story?
  • Edits: It’s always good to have a second (and sometimes a third) set of eyes on your Harvard essays. An outside reader can scan for grammatical errors as well as clarity and tone. Remember: a good editor is going to push you towards YOUR best writing, not towards their own.

To see examples of essays written by our advisors who were admitted to Harvard, check out this article.

Harvard Supplemental Essays: Final Thoughts

Completing the Harvard supplemental essays can seem daunting, but don’t let them discourage you from applying. Instead, view these Harvard essays as an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions team. Maybe you’re applying with a lower than average SAT score. A well-written set of Harvard essay prompts can work in your favor. Use this Harvard supplemental essays 2021 guide to help you approach each Harvard application essay with a solid strategy and a clear timeline. Good luck!


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This 2021-2022 essay guide for Harvard University was written by Abbie Sage, Harvard ‘21. For more CollegeAdvisor.com resources on Harvard, click here. Want help crafting your Harvard supplemental essays? Create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

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