How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

Padya Paramita

How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

Harvard University is without a doubt one of the most well-known schools anywhere in the world. To nobody’s surprise, it’s also one of the most selective. With an acceptance rate of less than 5%, the competition to receive an acceptance letter from this college is naturally very high. So if you’ve got your heart set on strolling through Harvard Yard in a crimson sweatshirt, use the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 to show admissions officers that you’re not just in it for the bragging rights

Choose supplemental essay topics that allow you to discuss your interests and goals by showing admissions officers how you think and act. To guide you through the prompts for this year, I’ve outlined each question, elaborated on the approaches you should take, and added more tips to help you make the most out of your Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021.

Prompts for the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

Required Questions


Prompt 1

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)

Hidden in the Academics section under Harvard’s Common Application tab, this prompt asks you to share your intellectual curiosity. Since the school can already see your courses and grades, it wants to know whether you’ve expanded beyond just your regular required schoolwork. Harvard appreciates students who have taken the initiative to strive for academic growth, so don’t miss out on the chance to talk about your intellectual pursuits. 

Even though the prompt says to “list,” if you have space, mention one or two facts about the courses or projects, such as your motivations behind pursuing them, whether they have impacted your goals, and your biggest takeaways from the experiences. Since admissions officers want to see whether you’re an individual who isn’t shy about pursuing new opportunities, take advantage of this prompt to provide new information about yourself that they might not have guessed from the rest of your application. 

Prompt 2

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

When admissions officers read your answers to the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021, they want to know whether you’ve fully taken advantage of your extracurricular opportunities. They’ll also use this mini essay - tucked in under the Activities section - to gauge how you might contribute to the Harvard community, so it would also be wise to choose an activity that you’re genuinely passionate about and can see yourself continuing after high school.

In order to make the most out of this essay, write about an activity that you haven’t described in your personal statement, preferably one where you’ve demonstrated leadership and can highlight tangible achievements. Talk about why the activity appeals to you, what it has taught you or if it has inspired growth in some way. Since you don’t have a lot of space, make sure to use your words carefully and elaborate on your commitment as much as you possibly can.

Download Every Supplemental Prompt Here!




Optional Essay

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics (No word limit; max file size is 2000 KB):

This really is a “topic of your choice” essay, but Harvard provides suggestions to give you a sense of the kind of narrative they are looking to hear. You can write about anything that captures a strong story that isn’t mentioned elsewhere in your application. Even though there’s no word limit for the essays, your response shouldn’t be longer than 500 words. Admissions officers have a lot of reading to do, and if you can’t get your point across in a couple of pages, they’re not going to appreciate slogging through thousands of words. This is not the place to write a research paper, so keep that in mind when thinking about how you will frame your answers to the prompt of your choice. 

The Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 might be optional, but you should fight all temptations to finish your application faster by skipping this essay. As you already know, Harvard does not run short on applicants. Missing out on a chance to further distinguish yourself from the rest of the application pool is not a risk you want to take. Choose the prompt that calls out to you over others and that can bring out the most powerful story. Here are some ways that Harvard suggests for how to approach the different prompts:

Prompt 1

Unusual circumstances in your life

The word “unusual” is a relative term here. You might want to write about adversity you’ve faced or your ethnic background. But remember, these might not be as unique when it comes to the wide variety of students that Harvard attracts. When brainstorming your focal point, ask yourself whether your peers might have been in similar situations. Ask your friends or teachers whether the situation is actually unique.

If you have a niche interest or activity that you haven’t written about, that could be a strategic choice to use when answering this prompt. No matter what the circumstance you're covering, talk about how the situation began, how it’s developed, or if it’s something that is more of a challenge than a blessing. Remember, this is your college application. Don’t write about something your brother is involved in or you’ve only heard about in the local news. Since you have nine other topics to choose from, don’t take this route if you’re unsure about whether your situation is truly unusual and personal. 

Prompt 2

Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

This prompt among the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 might be a good place to explore how you’ve chosen to interact with different communities around you. Carefully think about the “travel,” “living” or “working” aspects. You could have done all three during a study abroad experience that fits right into the theme. 

Be very careful however if you want to write about a short-term community service experience or brief service trip abroad. Many students participate in extracurriculars like that, and they will not help you stand out in any way. In fact, it could actually end up seeming more as a display of your privilege if your essay solely talks about travel experiences. Your essay should focus on your biggest takeaways from the experience. Make sure you connect it back to yourself. Just citing what you did and where you were isn’t enough. How did the travel or work shape you? How has the event influenced your perspective? Are there lessons or values it taught that you’ll carry with you throughout college?

Prompt 3

What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

Think about the impression you want to make on the reader. You might want to come across as someone who would be an accommodating roommate. Or you might want them to learn more about your goals, or how you spend your free time. Use your essay accordingly to talk about your hobbies, living habits, and plans for both your freshman year of college and life in general. Since there is no direct “Why Harvard” essay, you could also include what excites you when you think about the opportunity to attend the university. You could talk about a course you can’t wait to take or a club you’re planning to join to show that you’re aware of the unique opportunities Harvard offers. 

This prompt is a chance for you to show admissions officers how you function in your everyday life, so it could be one of the safer options to pick if you’re afraid that writing about bigger issues could put you in more of a controversial spot.

Prompt 4

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

The key phrase here is “the most.” You might have many different books that you’ve enjoyed, courses that you’d take again, or discussions that you’ve participated in that you always play over in your head. But which of these have been the most meaningful and, of course, why? Since you have space, guide the reader through your journey of discovery of the experience, any anecdotes associated with the impact it has had on you, or how it might have influenced what you’re passionate about. Name the experience, but mainly dedicate your essay to the “why.”

On another note, the topic doesn’t have to relate directly to your primary academic interest and can instead show that you are multifaceted. If there’s a deeper connection between your interests, that would also be interesting to write about here. Avoid common answers - dedicating your Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 to common books like A Brief History of Time or the topic of Einstein’s theory will not help you stand out. When editing this essay, think about whether admissions officers will sense your enthusiasm and be convinced that the paper or book means more to you than any other. 

Prompt 5

How you hope to use your college education

This is another prompt where you can casually insert your knowledge of Harvard University. Although it doesn’t specifically ask about what you hope to gain from a Harvard education, you could still connect your answer to a specific major or course that can prepare you to take on greater challenges. Think about your academic passions, where you see yourself in ten years, and how Harvard concentrations such as “Folklore and Mythology” or “Developmental and Regenerative Biology” can help you reach those levels. 

Cliché answers to avoid for this question would be issues that are noble but overly-broad, such as finding the cure to cancer or ridding the world of poverty. While these are definitely worth the concern, you must think about more specific issues on an attainable scale that you hope to address in the near future. How will you use your Harvard education to make a significant impact? Your answer can be used to demonstrate your dedication to your community, how you operate as a leader, and how you can take advantage of the resources and facilities of the prestigious Cambridge institution.

Remember, this question strictly asks about the application of academics. Keep your focus narrowed. In order to impress the admissions officers, your strategy should lie in outlining a strong connection between your intended academic and extracurricular endeavors in college with the role they can play in your goals in the future. 

In this podcast episode, Nikki Champlin, a writing expert from Yale and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, gives her advice for writing strategic and focused supplemental essays:

Prompt 6

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

Be honest in your answer to this prompt. If you haven’t read more than one or two books, or looked beyond books that were required reading at school, pick another prompt. If you’re an enthusiastic reader whose reading list for the year consisted of a wide variety of genres or drew from one particular area of interest, this option is a good one. Admissions officers will appreciate knowing that you’re well-read, intellectually curious, or knowledgeable about certain subjects.

Since you aren’t limited to a tight word limit, you could go ahead and add a line about your thoughts on the book - what you enjoyed (or didn’t), how you came across it or if it deepened your curiosity about the subject. The essay should be about you - use your book list to show who you are. Don’t summarize the plot - the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 don’t ask for a book review. But it’s not a bad idea at all to take the reader deeper into your thought process about each book that you mention.

Prompt 7

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. 

This is a prompt that could leave you treading on dangerous waters if not answered with caution. Looking at this question, consider whether the topic you might be thinking of would shed a negative light on you. Colleges - especially ones like Harvard - want nothing to do with students who’ve been involved in illegal activities or immoral actions (as proven by the recent application rescission case). Think about how an incident would reflect on your character and whether you’d want such a person at your school if you were in the admissions officers’ shoes.

But you can definitely try your hand at this essay if there was a situation where you acted with integrity and it might be a good chance to showcase your qualifications as a leader and desirable candidate. Admissions officers don’t want you to draw conclusions such as “honesty is the best policy” - they already know that! They want to see how you act when faced with a tough situation and whether you’re someone who is reliable under pressure or who has grown from their mistakes.

Prompt 8

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? 

This question follows the standard “how would you contribute to our campus community?” template that many schools use in their supplemental essays. Some factors Harvard considers when evaluating your application are whether “other students want to room with you, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely-knit extracurricular group.” 

To answer this prompt, think about your biggest strengths. Which is the area where you’ve been the most successful in establishing yourself as a leader? What issues are you passionate about where your knowledge surpasses that of your peers? Think about the topics that light the biggest fire in you or inspire you to work harder. Your answer doesn’t have to be limited to academics. You can talk about social issues or local concerns. Show admissions officers that you aren’t afraid to actively engage with your community members and include them in your interests.

Prompt 9

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? 

You can attempt this essay if you’re hoping to take a gap year, and show that you’ve put active thought into plans for the upcoming twelve months. Even if this isn’t your plan, the prompt could be used to talk about your passions outside of academics, or things on your bucket list. Hypothetically, if you had a year to pursue something, what would you do?

You could include places you might want to travel, projects you want to embark on or new hobbies that you want to try (Netflix doesn’t count). If you want to get a job, would it be something related to your academic field or something completely different? Whatever you write about, make sure the reader understands why the activity is important to you and why you would invest a year to pursue it. 

Prompt 10

Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates. 

This is one of the most open-ended options among the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021. There are, of course, many different parts of your identity to choose from - your cultural background, gender identity or sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or even an activity that you participate in that is unusual. Whether it’s learning languages or playing a little-known instrument, your essay should stay focused on one or two things that make you different so that you can dedicate more words to each of these qualities. 

Remember, don’t repeat anything you’ve already mentioned in your personal statement. Each component of your application is meant to add an extra layer to your profile. Tell admissions officers about an aspect(s) of your identity that you find valuable. Do you feel like you’re a part of a bigger community? How has your perspective been shaped by these components of yourself? Have you faced any challenges because of them?

Note that this essay explicitly asks about diversity. What part of your identity most significantly distinguishes you from others? Admissions officers have seen plenty of students whose main extracurricular activity has been debate club. It won’t help you stand out!

Topic of Choice

All of the pre-assigned prompts in the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 ask you to reflect on a different side of yourself - from your academic interests to what kind of roommate you’re likely to be. Use these topics as inspiration for brainstorming your own topic if you so choose. 

More Tips for Writing the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2020-2021

  • Be as specific as possible - Not only are the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 quite open-ended, there’s no strict word limit enforced for the optional essay. It can be very tempting to fit in as much information as possible in order to maximize your chances. However, admissions officers don’t want to know every single thing about you. They’ve only got a limited amount of time to look through your essays, so make sure your responses stay focused and show how you would benefit from a Harvard education. Don’t go off on tangents; avoid general statements; stick to characteristics and experiences that make you unique! 
  • Demonstrate the characteristics that Harvard is looking for - Harvard looks for students who demonstrate “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure.” When choosing a topic, think about how you can bring these qualities forward in your essays. During your brainstorming process, ask yourself whether your topic depicts you as a mature individual, whether you’ve shown that you work well under pressure, and if there are any places you can sprinkle your sense of humor in without it sounding forced. Since a lot of students who apply to Harvard have strong numbers and extracurriculars, you need to further establish yourself as the perfect fit for the school when writing your supplemental essays.
  • Your choice of topic could make a difference - You have no shortage of options when it comes to picking your topic for the Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021. If you have a vague idea about what to answer for how you would use a year off, but feel much more comfortable talking about the books you’ve read in the past year, you should obviously choose the latter topic. If you feel like the essay you’ve written fits a prompt other than the one you initially tackled, that’s okay. Don’t forget to adjust accordingly to specific requirements asked by the new question!

Your Harvard supplemental essays 2020-2021 should complement your personal statement and discuss experiences that are unique to you. While it’s hard to stand out among over 44,000 applicants, if you carefully read through the prompts, avoid common answers, and show admissions officers that you possess the values that Harvard looks for, you’ll set yourself up for a chance at admission. Show admissions officers how you think and guide them through your aspirations and who knows, maybe this is the component that helps you get one step closer to that crimson sweatshirt. Best of luck!

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