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How to Go Above and Beyond on Every Harvard Essay

Getting into Harvard is no easy feat, so you’ll want to ensure your supplemental essays help you stand out from the crowd. This guide shows you how to approach the extracurricular activity essay, and offers advice on the two optional essays.

Harvard's only mandatory essay allows you to share something that the reader cannot glean from your activities list alone. The prompt reads:

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


Step One: Choosing an Activity

The activities section of the Common App offers plenty of space for you to list your accomplishments. Take this opportunity to go deeper. Which of your activities has had the greatest impact on your personal growth or future goals?


Step Two: Charting Your Growth and Impact

Spend some time reflecting on your participation in this activity. What has it taught you about yourself? How has your role changed over the years? What major responsibilities have you taken on? How has your participation impacted others for the better?


Step Three: Write!

Start by describing your role and responsibilities with some specificity, and then share how this activity has impacted your identity. To conclude, explain how your experiences will shape your actions in the future.

Example outline for a sample student:

  • Activity: The Mighty Pens
  • Role: Started as a member and ultimately became president. Improved club by revamping feedback process to make it more positive and constructive.
  • Identity: Gained confidence in leadership ability
  • Goals: Champion other writers, uplift underrepresented voices.


The first optional Harvard essay provides you with the opportunity to fill in gaps on your activities list:

  • 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)

Harvard students are self-motivated and hard-working. Answering this prompt is a great way to show the reader that you’ll fit right in.


In the second optional essay, which has no word limit, Harvard provides ten prompts as a jumping-off point, but you can also write on a topic of your choice. This essay lets you go above and beyond the requirements, and nothing says Harvard more than exceeding expectations.

Here are Harvard’s prompts:

  • 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 the 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?

With a few exceptions, these prompts focus on putting your ideology and knowledge into action. You can show the reader how your intellectual interests inspire your actions. If you come up with a prompt of your own, make sure you stick closely to this theme. You’ll want to show the reader how you hope to enact your values on campus and in your life post-college.

You have all the tools you need to write each Harvard essay. Don’t delay! The sooner you start, the more time you’ll have to polish each essay to perfection.

Remember, in addition to the Harvard-specific essays, you'll have to write a personal statement for the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or the Universal Application.
Need help with your common app essay? Sign up to get our free guided brainstorming tools!


Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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