Harvard University is nestled in the heart of vibrant Cambridge, Massachusetts and it is 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 and prestige, 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 college admissions process at Ivy League schools seems hard to understand. How does Harvard choose who to accept? What can you do to improve your chances? Raise your test scores? Do more extracurriculars? Apply early, which is called single-choice 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 University is a highly selective school. In 2023 the overall admissions rate for Harvard’s Class of 2027 was only 3%, meaning admissions officers rejected more than 97 out of every 100 students who applied. Moreover, that overall rate includes Harvard’s single-choice 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 is closer to 2%!
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 preparation and college application to meet their expectations.
Let’s start with your grade point average (GPA). Harvard admissions officers will calculate this based on your high school transcript, which you’ll submit with your overall application.
It is important to understand how important a strong unweighted GPA is, while taking as many AP, IB or honors courses as your schools offers. Weighted GPAs are not always as useful to determine how you are performing because high schools weight GPAs differently and because they can hide how far you are from a high enough GPA for Harvard. In truth, you need close to a 4.0 unweighted GPA to get into Harvard. That means nearly straight As in every class, while also taking the highest rigor classes available to you at your high school.
Harvard, like the rest of the Ivy League and most other colleges, prefers that you have either an SAT score or ACT score for admission. In the past few years, Harvard has been test-optional, but Harvard certainly prefers applicants that have test scores. Harvard has no preference between the SAT and ACT, so choose the test that’s a better fit for you, thoroughly prepare for it, and plan to take it multiple times.
The range of SAT scores and ACT composite scores for students admitted to Harvard varies. The table below shows the 25th through 75th percentile SAT and ACT scores, with the average Harvard SAT score at 1530 and the average Harvard ACT score being 35. However, keep in mind that unless you fall into certain privileged categories (athletes, legacies, donors, etc.), your SAT score or ACT score should be closer to the top of the listed range to ensure you’re maximizing your chances of admission.
|Test||Average Admitted Student Score Ranges||Average Score of Admitted Student|
|SAT Total Range||1480-1580||1530|
|ACT Composite Range||33-36||35|
*Note that Harvard University superscores the SAT, and Harvard does not superscore the ACT. This means that Harvard will mix and match section test scores from different days for the SAT, but only look at composite ACT scores from a single test date.
Those are the overall academic requirements for Harvard. But what about everything else? Students who get accepted to Harvard have a lot more than just high grades and standardized test scores. In addition to evaluating your academics, the college admissions officers at Harvard want to hear about all the other parts of your life. In addition to reporting your grades and testscores, there are a few more key aspects of the Harvard admissions process:
• 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. Harvard also allows for Additional Recommenders; we highly recommend that students take advantage of this to showcase their leadership and/or character. Harvard cares a lot about who you are and not just what you have done.
Second, in addition to your transcript and counselor letter, your school counselor will submit a few additional documents:
• A school report, which includes 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 University, Brown University, and Princeton University, 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. The activities section of the Common App is a crucial way that students can demonstrate what they have accomplished outside of the classroom during high school. The activities section is one crucial way to distinguish one applicant from the next at Harvard once grades and scores are considered.
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! The Common App essay is your chance to give Harvard a glimpse of who you are as a person.
Lastly, in addition to the Common App essay, Harvard and many other schools require additional, school-specific essays. These essays are one of the most important components of your application. They allow you to show why Harvard is the right fit for you and give you the space to clearly communicate how you will contribute to Harvard’s community. These essays can change from year to year, but generally they ask about your interest in the school and/or more details about what you’ve accomplished in high school. Last year, Harvard University asked various short-answer essay questions. Some of the topics were:
1. Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.
2. What you would want your future college roommate to know about you?
3. 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 2 for Regular Decision
Single-Choice 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 2027 was:
On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard that it is illegal to use affirmative action in college admissions. This specifically goes against Harvard and other elite university’s desires to make their student bodies more diverse and to provide opportunity for social advancement to African American, Hispanic and Native American populations, which have historically been underrepresented on college campuses. While the exact impact on this court decision it not yet known, we anticipate that there colleges like Harvard will use other measures, such as zip code, income level and information conveyed in college essays to keep their campuses as diverse as possible. That said, we all await to see how the Supreme Court decision will affect diversity at schools like Harvard.
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 your college essays about—please contact us to speak to one of our admissions consultants.
Contact us to learn more about our admissions consulting services.