Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard College is one of the biggest brands in higher education. Harvard is consistently ranked as one of the top universities in the country, offering 3,900 courses in 49 undergraduates concentrations as well as opportunities for cutting-edge undergraduate research in a variety of disciplines and fields. And every year, top students from around the world grapple with the question of how to get into Harvard College. Here are some quantitative and qualitative insights to help give you the best shot at your dream school.
Harvard by Numbers
Number of applicants: 42,742 students applied to Harvard in 2018
Number admitted: 1,962 applicants were admitted to Harvard for the Class of 2022
Harvard Acceptance Rate: Harvard has an acceptance rate of 4.59% based on 2018 numbers
Harvard received a record number of applicants in 2018, a 8.2% increase over their record in 2017.
Harvard Application Information
Harvard accepts applications via Common Application, Coalition Application, and Universal College Application.
Harvard has early action – if you apply to Harvard early action, you can also apply to any public college/university or foreign universities, but you cannot apply to other private universities early action or early decision. Harvard’s Early Action deadline is November 1.
Harvard’s regular decision deadline is January 1.
Harvard Academic Statistics
Harvard GPA Range: The average high school GPA for Harvard is 4.0+
Admissions to Harvard is extremely selective, and accepted students typically have exceptional grades as evidenced by the high average GPAs of students.
In addition to achieving As in your classes, Harvard, like many top universities, also expect to see a high level of rigor in your coursework. This means to get into Harvard, you should be taking AP, IB, and college level classes where possible to challenge yourself and to show that you can handle and excel at the difficult courseload at their undergraduate program if you are admitted.
Harvard SAT score range: Harvard SAT scores range from 1460-1600.
Harvard ACT score range: Harvard ACT scores range from 32-35.
Standardized tests are another important part of demonstrating academic mastery to get into Harvard. Harvard’s SAT score range and ACT score range for admitted students is among the highest for colleges. While there is no hard cutoff, it is important to make sure your score is within range (ideally at the median or higher). If your SAT or ACT score is not within range or on the lower end of the range, you should evaluate the strength of your GPA, SAT IIs, and your course history to determine whether you demonstrate sufficient academic strength or consider retaking the SAT/ACT.
If you are considering retaking the SATs, take the time to study and complete timed practice tests to get used to the format, types of problems, and the time constraint. You can find free SAT practice tests here. If you need additional help preparing, consider signing up for a SAT prep course or working with a private SAT tutor for a customized study plan.
If you are considering retaking the ACTs, you can find free ACT practice tests here. If you need additional help preparing, consider signing up for an ACT prep course or working with a private ACT tutor for a customized study plan.
Extracurricular Activities to Get Into Harvard
To get into Harvard, you need a strong extracurricular track record to stand out. Your academic record such as GPA, test scores, etc. show that you have the intellectual and academic prowess to be successful. Your extracurricular activities show you are able to apply your “book smarts” to the real world to achieve results.
Whether you are an underclassmen planning your extracurricular activities or a senior starting your application, there are a few important things to note.
Demonstrated Interest v. Diversity of Experience
There is no “one path” to get into Harvard. One way to approach your high school experience is to focus on demonstrated interest in your intended major by going deep in that subject. For example, if you’re interested in pre-med, you can center your extracurriculars around science related activities such as science Olympiad and medical research. By participating and exceling in related activities, you are showing Harvard that you’ve spent time exploring your intended major and have a dedicated interest in it.
However, that is not the only way to get into Harvard. Let’s take the pre-med example further. Harvard, like other top schools, also values diversity in their student body – including diversity of experiences. What that means is the Harvard admissions team is not looking to fill their incoming class with 2,000 freshmen who participated in science competitions and conducted research in high school looking to pursue pre-med. If you have other passions such as playing the piano or competing in track and field, you should not feel pressured to forgo them in favor of pre-med related activities. It is more important to pursue extracurriculars you’re truly excited about and focus on generating impact.
As we detail in our College Application Blueprint, one of the most important elements of any extracurricular activity is generating impact. What did you achieve? How did you change the trajectory, scope, accomplishments of your club, team, organization with your participation? Harvard is looking for students who have the drive and the potential to make real changes. To get into Harvard, you need to demonstrate your ability to generate impact.
One way to show impact is through awards – state and regional awards are notable accomplishments, but national and international awards are where you can really distinguish yourself with the admission team and are weighted more heavily.
However, awards/competitions are not the only way to show impact. Any extracurricular activity can showcase your ability to affect change. As you approach your extracurriculars, focus on being goal-oriented and results driven. What do you want to achieve? And how will you determine if you’ve reached your goal? And, if you’re in the process of putting together your application, focus on communicating your results – what quantifiable results did you directly influence? Showing up is the easy part, the more telling factor is whether you were able to make a difference. That difference, namely the impact you create, is what will leave an impression on the admission committee and get you into Harvard.
Another crucial element for the extracurricular section is demonstrating leadership skills. Harvard is looking to develop the next generation of leaders across industries. To get into Harvard, you need to highlight your potential to be a leader through your experiences and activities in high school.
While long-term commitment and participation is important, Harvard and other top schools are looking for students that go a step beyond that. Did you take on a leadership position with your clubs/organizations? Do faculty, outside parties, and your peers respect your ideas and ability to move the organization forward? Do they trust you to guide them in the right direction? Do you have a vision and can you inspire those around you to work together to implement that vision?
Make sure your application showcases your leadership potential – what leadership positions did you hold? What kind of leader were you? How did you lead your team, club, organization, non-profit, to success?
College Application Essays
The essays are another crucial piece of your application. If the academic sections are the brains of the application and extracurriculars are the heart, then the essays are the soul.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a major life event or tragedy in order to get into Harvard or to write a strong, thoughtful essay. What’s important is not what happened, but how you internalized what happened and how it changed you.
Idea development is the hardest and most important part of your college essays. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Take the time to really reflect on what makes you you – your interests, your traits, your experiences and think about how those came to be. What inspired your interest in political science or gardening? How does your curiosity or determination or introverted nature manifest in everyday life and impact what you do? What events, big or small, have shaped your perspective or path?
Just like there is no one path to get into Harvard, there also isn’t one “right way” to write an essay. Don’t approach your essays by considering what you think admissions officers would want to hear from you. Admissions officers read hundreds of essays a day and have generally developed a pretty great “sixth sense” for disingenuous essays. Just as importantly, the real you is worth knowing. Take the time to figure out what is uniquely you, and give admissions officers the chance to get to know that.
College essays are different from academic essays you’re probably used to writing. Academic essays are formal and structured, and pragmatism and empirical thought is valued over voice or style. The goal of college essays is to show admissions officers the individual behind the student/key club leader/future computer science major, so don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. If you’re funny, be funny! If you’re outgoing, you can show them in your essays. But don’t try to force it. However you are naturally provides a different perspective and set of experiences that is just as valuable.
Additionally, while having proofreaders and editors to help review your essays can be helpful, make sure to balance their suggestions with your own idea. Don’t over-edit your essays to the point of losing your voice.
Like we discussed in the extracurricular section, while commitment and passion is valued by top colleges, you don’t have to limit yourself to one topic or field to get into Harvard. If you’re excited about science, feel free to use one of your essays to shed light on what ignited your passion and helped with your growth, but remember that you don’t have to be just about science. Don’t focus all of your essays on one interest or idea – the essays are an opportunity to add color to your application; use it to show the admissions team different sides of you.
One of the most important skills you’ll learn and practice in life is building relationships, and what you can accomplish is often dependent on how you work with others.
Through the previous sections, it is evident that to get into Harvard, you need to be an exceptional student and individual. But while you are studying to keep your GPA up, preparing for SATs, getting active in your extracurriculars to make a difference, you should also take the time to cultivate relationships. Get to know your teachers, your high school counselor, your principal, your manager, your coach, your non-profit coordinator, etc. Not only will getting to know them help you understand how best to be impactful in your work with them, but it will also give them a better sense of your goals and challenges to know how best to help and support you.
Letter of Recommendation
When it comes time to put together your letters of recommendation, these should also be the people you reach out to. One of the biggest mistakes students make is asking for letters of recommendations from recommenders that don’t know them well. A strong letter of recommendation should speak to your work in detail and in context of who you are as a person and your broader goals. This is only possible if your recommender has worked with you closely, knows you well, and is invested in your success. If you’re unsure if a recommender will write you a personal and positive recommendation, they are not the right choice. Remember, your letters of recommendations should be strong advocates for you to get into Harvard.
Harvard College remains one of the most coveted institutions for higher education with an extremely competitive and selective admissions process. The number of applicants continues to rise, and acceptance rates are falling every year. There is no way to guarantee admissions, but you can optimize your chances to get into Harvard by building a strong application that showcases your achievements, strength, and potential. If you are looking for more guidance on your application, check out our full college application guide, The College Application Blueprint, which offers insights from Ivy League alumni, interviewers, and top recruiters on how to highlight your strengths in each section of the application to help you stand out in the competitive admissions process.
As always, feel free to leave a comment or reach out with additional feedback or questions!