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How to Get into Harvard University

An entry gate to one of Harvard's side gates.

With its overall admission rate still hovering near 3%, Harvard University is one of the most selective universities in the United State and in the world. Further, the quantity and caliber of students applying to Harvard and other Ivy League Schools has risen dramatically in recent years, a fact that continues to make the admissions process that much more competitive.

While there is no exact formula to gaining acceptance to an Ivy League school or a similarly-ranked institution, there are ways to substantially increase your likelihood of admission to these types of colleges. At Spark, we find that students who meet these recommended standards have a much higher success rate of admission to top-ranked schools. We hope the factors below will give you a broad sense of what makes for a strong college application and offer insight into what college admissions officers are looking for from prospective students.

Excellent Grades and Scores

Grades will always be colleges’ primary consideration for admissions purposes, particularly at highly selective schools like Harvard. Strong candidates for Ivy League schools are able to present both exceptionally strong grades and a rigorous course load (as in, many Honors, Advanced, and AP- or IB-level courses). Because colleges consider all four years of high school, it’s important for these trends to start as early as freshman year.

Furthermore, a strong score on the SAT or ACT is still a significant asset. Although many colleges and universities have become or are becoming test-optional, it is undeniable that top-ranked schools still prefer to see strong standardized test scores if possible. A strong test score can fortify an applicant’s other academic and intellectual strengths in the admissions process.

Clearly Defined Passions

Beyond applicants’ grades and scores, college admissions officers are looking to see a clear vision of their greater academic passions and intentions. Therefore, it is crucial for students to build an academic narrative that showcases their preparedness for college, particularly a deep commitment to their intended major, which colleges want to know.

In addition to taking the most advanced but manageable curriculum at their high school, therefore, students who gain admission to top-ranked colleges and universities have typically determined an academic area of focus and have pursued activities in high school that bolster their interest in that field. Although there are many ways to do that, research, for-credit college-level coursework, and internships are just a few examples of ways that students can best demonstrate academic initiative and curiosity to colleges like Harvard.

Strong Leadership and Service

In addition to exceptional academic achievement, the largest differentiator for applicants to top-ranked schools is often the robustness of their extracurricular profiles, which should reflect both personal growth and contributions to the student’s various communities. In particular, students should engage in regular service experiences and build a substantive leadership profile at school and beyond. These experiences can deeply strengthen a student’s greater narrative when considered holistically alongside an impressive academic performance.

While grades, test scores, and course load may indicate the high-level performance of a particular student, extracurriculars provide the opportunity for a student to showcase their active engagements and reflect the personal contributions that would make them an asset to a school like Harvard. For this reason, an applicant’s resume is just as important as their grades and scores to highly selective colleges and universities.

Exceptional Application Materials

Finally, students applying to top-ranked schools like Harvard need to ensure that they have absolutely stellar essays and letters of recommendation. These materials showcase a student’s critical thinking and analysis skills as well as their individuality and personality.

A top-ranked university like Harvard is looking for students who differentiate themselves through their application materials. In order to stand out amid such talented and large pools of applicants, successful students must be able to articulate what they can offer a college campus and community. In application materials, college admission officers are looking for students who will make substantial academic and personal contributions to their campus.

In particular, both personal and school-specific essays offer one of the most important ways for students to stand out from the pack and persuade admissions officers of their interest and readiness. It is therefore crucial for applicants to write strong, original essays for every school, as this curation and thoughtfulness will fortify their applications.

Final Thoughts

If your dream college is Harvard, it will take a lot more than a wish upon a star to get there! But, who gets in and why is also not random. As you can see, many specific elements and factors can make a strong impact on your chance of acceptance. The good news is that several of those items mentioned in this article are largely within your control. It’s important to strategize around and synthesize all of these components to outfit yourself for success in your applications.

If you’d like to discuss your overall application strategies and better understand the ways to achieve admission to your dream school, Harvard or otherwise, we recommend that you schedule a complimentary initial consultation with us!

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