Everyone knows the basics of Harvard University: nestled in the heart of vibrant Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s the oldest and arguably most respected, well-known university in the United States. Harvard applicants hail from all over the world, seeking the profound social and academic enrichment of its extensive resources, close connections to the city of Boston, historic campus, and engaged, ambitious student body.
Is your SAT or ACT score high enough to get into Harvard? What about your high school GPA? The admissions process at Ivy League schools seems hard to understand. How do schools like Harvard choose who to accept? What can you do to improve your chances? Raise your test scores? Do more extracurriculars? Apply early action?
Below, we’ve condensed everything we know about the Harvard University admissions process. Read on to find out if you’re a competitive applicant and tips to lift your chances of going from applicant to admitted student.
You’re right about one thing: Harvard is a highly selective school. In 2018, the overall admissions rate at Harvard was only 4.6%, meaning admissions officers rejected more than 95 out of every 100 students who applied. Moreover, as we’ve written elsewhere, that overall rate includes Harvard’s early action acceptance rate, which is higher than the Harvard’s regular decision rate. That means that in reality, the regular admission rate at Harvard closer to 3%!
In addition, the college admissions process gets more competitive every year, as more domestic and international students alike apply. That means you need to really stand out. These admissions statistics are a little scary, but don’t fear. Once you know what Harvard is looking for, you can better tailor your college application to meet their expectations.
Let’s start with your grade point average (GPA). Harvard admissions officers will calculate based on your high school transcript, which you’ll submit with your overall application.
Last year, the reported average GPA of an admitted high school student at Harvard was a 4.04 out of 4.0, what we call a “weighted” GPA. However, unweighted GPAs are not very useful, because high schools weight GPAs differently. In truth, you need close to a 4.0 unweighted GPA to get into Harvard. That means nearly straight As in every class.
Harvard, like the rest of the Ivy League and most other colleges, requires either the SAT or ACT for admission. They have no preference between them, so choose the test that’s a better fit for you, thoroughly prepare for it, and plan to take it multiple times.
The average SAT score totals and ACT composite scores for students admitted to Harvard varies (see table below). However, keep in mind that unless you fall into certain privileged categories (athletes, legacies, donors, etc.), your SAT/ACT score should be closer to the 75th percentile than the 25th percentile to ensure you’re maximizing your chances of admission.
|Test/Section||25th Percentile||50th Percentile (Mean)||75th Percentile|
Note that Harvard University “superscores” the SAT, not the ACT. That means they will mix and match section scores from different days for the SAT, but only look at composite ACT scores.
Finally, Harvard recommends that applicants submit two SAT II, or subject test, scores. While these tests are not explicitly required by Harvard, you should submit your scores on your SAT subject tests if they’re in the 90th percentile or higher.
Use percentiles, not scores, to make this decision, because the scores are scaled based on who takes the test that year. For instance, a 750 on the English Language and Literature test is seen as a much higher score than a 750 on the Math 2 SAT Subject Test.
Those are the overall academic requirements for Harvard. But what about everything else? In addition to evaluating your academics, the admissions officers at Harvard want to hear about all the other parts of your life. In addition to reporting your grades and SAT scores, there are a few more key aspects of the Harvard admissions process:
• SAT and two SAT Subject Test Scores, or ACT scores
• Two teacher recommendations and one counselor letter
• A high school transcript
• A mid-year report
• A $75 application fee or fee waiver
• A completed Common Application
• Harvard-specific essays
First, to understand who you are as a student beyond your transcripts and test scores, Harvard will ask for letters of recommendation from two of your teachers as well as your school counselor. When considering who to ask, don’t focus only on the teachers who gave you the best grades, but the people who know you well and will write great, personal letters.
Second, in addition to your transcript and his/her letter, your school counselor will submit a few additional documents:
• A school report, which your school’s demographics and its most salient features (like if there’s a limit on how many AP classes you can take)
• A mid-year report, which will update Harvard on your senior year grades that might not be officially posted when you apply.
These will also help Harvard contextualize your application.
Then, you’ll need to submit the Common Application (or Coalition Application). When you apply to college, you’ll get to know this online interface well; it’ll be where you go to apply not only to Harvard, but to Yale, Brown, and Princeton, too! Much of the Common Application is standard demographic and educational information. You’ll also fill out an “activities” section, where you’ll detail all your extracurricular involvement.
On top of that information, the Common Application asks for a single personal essay that will be submitted to all your schools. This essay, of 650 words or less, is your chance to tell Harvard and the rest of your schools about an important moment or theme in your life. A strong Common App essay is key to a competitive application, so plan to revise it several times!
Lastly, in addition to the main essay, Harvard and many other schools require additional, school-specific essays. These can change from year to year, but generally they ask about your interest in the school and/or more details about what you’ve already done. Last year, Harvard University asked three short-answer essay questions. Some of the topics were:
• Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.
• What you would want your future college roommate to know about you?
• 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?
Having a strong application strategy to get these essays drafted, revised, and done, as well as a coherent narrative to present in them, is essential for admission to selective schools like Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League.
Finally, you’ll need to pay a $75 application fee to submit your application through these online interfaces. These fees can be waived by showing financial hardship.
As you put together all these materials, keep in mind the eventual deadlines! Everything for Harvard must be submitted by:
• November 1 for Single-Choice Early Action
• January 1 for Regular Decision
Early Action decisions are released in mid-December, and Regular Decision applicants will hear online by April. Admitted students must decide by May 1 if they will attend.
Harvard University admits students from all over the country and from diverse backgrounds. According to The Harvard Crimson, the demographic breakdown of students admitted into the Harvard Class of 2023 was:
• 50% men, 50% women
• 25.4% Asian American
• 14.8% African-American/black
• 12.4% Latinx
• 2.4% Native American/Pacific Islander
• 16.4% first-generation students
The final thing to keep in mind is that Harvard University is so selective, that even if you’re a competitive applicant there, it makes sense to apply to similar schools as well, like Yale University, Princeton University, and Columbia University.
Good luck! And remember, if you need advice on any of this—how to understand your GPA, when to take the SAT or ACT, what extracurricular activities to do, how to spend your summers, or what on earth to write all those essays about—you know where to find us!
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