What Does it Take to Get Into Harvard?

Strategies by School
September 17, 2019
During The College Application Process, You’re Bound To Encounter A Few Schools You’ve Never Heard Of—Harvard Is Not One Of Them.

Harvard is universally lauded as an embodiment of elite education, its name constantly referenced in conversations revolving around intellectualism and academic excellence.  

Due to the school’s unmatched reputation, it is a well-known fact that gaining admission into Harvard is a shot-in-the-dark. Quite frankly, even if your GPA and SAT scores are near-perfect, there is still no guarantee you will be admitted.

However, don’t let this discourage you.

In fact, let this notion that you are not academically special motivate you to convey what is most creative, ambitious, and compelling about yourself through your application. Nearly everyone applying to Harvard has a very strong academic record, so you won’t necessarily stand out right away through your scores alone. A 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT score could indicate persistence, hard work, and dedication—but they do not and cannot express your distinctive voice or story.

In this article, we’ll not only guide you in finding your voice, but we’ll also be walking you through the fundamentals of being a Harvard student: from its application to its campus life and even to future prospects, so that you can have a fuller idea of what can be accomplished at this school.

What You’ll Find In This College Guide

Harvard's Ideal Student

When navigating the Harvard’s official resources, you’ll see that there is no solid formula that describes step-by-step how to become the “ideal” Harvard student. The emphasis is not on exact numbers but rather on specific characteristics that prove you have the potential to grow and contribute to the world around you.

Ultimately though, these aspects need to go hand-in-hand with a steady and high-achieving academic background. Here’s a look at the average GPA and standardized testing scores of the most recent class of admitted freshmen:

  • GPA: 3.9 (unweighted)
  • SAT: 1512
  • ACT: 34
Note: The average score is 760 for both the SAT Math and Reading portions. In addition, the Harvard admissions team participates in “superscoring”; which means that they add up your highest section scores from multiple tests to create your highest score.

As we mentioned in our Stanford guide, you will be at a higher advantage in the admissions process if you are within or above these average scores. But again, there is no guarantee—students with lower scores than these have been admitted and those with higher ones have been rejected too. In the end, what makes the difference is whether or not you exemplify and have the potential to contribute to Harvard’s core values.


Harvard takes a holistic approach to the application review process, which means you have the opportunity to captivate admissions officers with your personality and zeal. Think about passion projects you’ve embarked on, meaningful conversations you’ve had that have sparked change, and the ways you have taken initiative to better your surroundings.

In short, Harvard students are impactful and unstoppable. Here are the four important qualities and principles that Harvard highlights. As you read through them, think deeply about the questions posed to identify potential stories and themes you can write about in your application essay.

1) Growth and Potential

  • How have you used your time?
  • Have you been stretching yourself?
  • What motivates you?
  • Do you have a direction yet? What is it? If not, are you exploring many things?

2) Interests and Articles

  • Do you care deeply about anything intellectual? Extracurricular? Personal?
  • What have you learned from your interests?
  • What have you done with your interests?
  • What is the quality of your activities? How committed are you to participating, leading, and advancing them?

3) Personal Character

  • What choices have you made for yourself? Why?
  • Are you a late bloomer? How did you identify what matters to you?
  • How have you learned to deal with failure? What lessons have you learned?
  • What are your favorite qualities about yourself and how did you develop them (sense of humor, maturity, self-confidence, leadership, etc.)?

4) Contribution to the Community

  • Will you be able to stand up to the pressures and freedoms of college life?
  • Will you contribute something to Harvard and your classmates?
  • How do you want to impact the field(s) where your interest(s) lie?

Overall, Harvard highly values motion and action—it’s one thing to show interest in something, but it’s another to actually act on that budding feeling. Many students will gush about their big plans to change the world someday, but very few have made concrete steps towards fulfilling those dreams. Determine your footprint, and continue to move forward.


Identifying your imprint can be a continual struggle—one that includes constant questioning and reevaluation of your career path, your genuine likes and dislikes, and whether or not you’ll be able to succeed in the future. However, Harvard hosts some of the nation’s top academic programs equipped with the top faculty, learning material, and resources to transform your curiosity and doubt into wisdom and innovation.

Here are some of those programs:

Note: Harvard does not require its incoming first-year students to declare a major. In fact, many current students have expressed similar doubts with their major, career, and life choices; and are often grateful that they were allowed to be flexible, adaptable, and unfixed for much of their first few semesters.


From what we’ve discussed so far, the ideal Harvard student is someone who has a clear understanding of and vision for themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have your life immaculately planned out and your career options set in stone—it simply means that you are able to outline the choices you’ve made so far that have furthered and fostered your growth as someone capable of creating positive change and progress.

The Reality Of Being Accepted Into Harvard

Now, let’s move onto the specifics of applying to Harvard.

In 2018, the Harvard Crimson reported that the admissions rate dropped to a record-low 4.59 percent. Out of 42,749 applicants, only 1,962 were ultimately offered admission to the prestigious school. This percentage is drastically lower than a majority of U.S. colleges, making it one of the most difficult and renowned Ivy League schools to gain entry into.

Unfortunately, the admissions rate is unlikely to increase in the future—making it imperative that you diligently analyze the different parts that make up the Harvard application.

Take careful note of this next section, as we break down each component in more detail.

What You Need To Get Accepted Into Harvard

Because the application is extensive, it’s easy for students to be intimidated and confused with where to start. Here’s all the important information you need to know in advance:


You can complete your application materials through one of these three websites:

When you select a website to begin your application you will be able to fill out different sections that detail your personal information, background, test scores, extracurricular activities, and other supplemental information.


The application fee for Harvard is $75.

Note: It is always wise to speak with your counselor to see if you are eligible for a fee waiver! Chances are, you may already qualify for college application waivers—reference our article on college costs for more information. Above all, if the cost of applying presents a major issue, Harvard encourages you to send the admissions team an email at fileroom@fas.harvard.edu to request a fee waiver.


Harvard offers two separate application deadlines:

  • Restrictive Early Action due November 1st
  • Regular Decision due January 1st
Note: Early action is not binding, so you can still choose to attend another school even if you are admitted through early action.

Each deadline has its advantages—namely, the early action option allows students to demonstrate their passion and determination and compete with a slightly smaller group of students. In fact, 56.8 percent of students admitted in 2018 were accepted during this early cycle.

However, applying during the regular decision cycle has its benefits as well, since it allows you more time to include any notable achievements, scores, or activities completed in your senior year.


It’s important to note that there are required supplemental questions aimed to assess your academic and personal interests if admitted to Harvard. Because Harvard does not admit students under specific schools or majors, these questions are instrumental in allowing you to express potential paths and opportunities you are pursuing.

Note: Being informed is very advantageous to your application process—research what sorts of unique programs, fellowships and internships, as well as research opportunities Harvard offers that align with your passions. The more you are able to reference tangible experiences, actions, and organizations, the more fleshed out and compelling your application will be.


Your high school transcript is not only crucial in aiding the admissions team in evaluating your academic performance, but also in tracking themes that highlight your intellectual interests and strengths.

You will also be able to self-report your grades, describe any honors and distinctions, as well as elaborate upon your interests and plans for the future. It is also important to ensure that your official transcript is submitted to Harvard, either through your school or through your counselor.


Standardized testing is a key tool when assessing your academic record, progress, and growth over your high school years. By building a strong portfolio of scores, you are expressing a consistent development and investment into your academics.

Here are the different exams Harvard takes into consideration when reviewing your application:

  • AP Exams

On average, students typically take the SAT/ACT exams 2-3 times and will send all scores to Harvard. Remember, Harvard superscores your best sections from the SAT, so it can be beneficial for you to submit more than one. Many students also submit about 4-8 AP exam scores as they not only illustrate your academic achievement, but also provide extra college credits you can use in the future.

  • SAT Subject Tests

Harvard requires you to submit two SAT subject exams, as they demonstrate your abilities in specific departments that include English, History, Biology, Language, and more. These are only excused if the exams pose financial stress to you and your family.

Overall, excellent exam scores are necessary in your application because they act as indicators for your future path in college. As a result, it is better to focus on a few exams in subjects you excel in rather than overwhelm yourself with an abundance of different tests—the quality of your materials is much more valuable than the quantity.


Along with a general personal statement essay you will complete through the application website you choose, you have the opportunity to submit a supplemental essay that showcases a valuable aspect to your character or life that you were not able to fully express before. The topic is completely up to you, though Harvard offers a broad range of choices that include:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life
  • What you would want your college roommate to know about you
  • An intellectual experience that has profoundly impacted you
  • A list of books you have read in the past 12 months
Note: This is your chance to be as creative and genuine as you can be! Be more exploratory in your supplements. You also have the chance to submit unique materials that reveal any ‘unusual’ talent or hobby essential to you, so make the most of this if possible (i.e. music/sound recordings, art, research, etc).


Realistically, Harvard is an incredibly difficult school to be admitted into. With an admissions rate that falls below a diminutive 5 percent, it has expectations that mystify and baffle a majority of students.

Because gaining admission into Harvard isn’t an easy code to crack or a simple puzzle to solve, you shouldn’t waste your time searching for ways to ‘guarantee’ your admission.

There is no guarantee.

However, by familiarizing yourself with the school’s core values and characteristics, you can better refine your applications to illustrate how you fit into that world. Take note of the information we share with you in this guide and continually search for ways you can incorporate these components into your academic profile as well as in your sincere and meaningful personal essays.

Harvard's Campus Life

In high school, your grades can seem like your whole world. When you reach college though, you’ll realize that a campus is so much more than its academic reputation. In order to make lasting connections and friendships, discover opportunities that will further your passions and career path, and enrich your knowledge in practical and eye-opening ways, you will need to embrace your new campus. Here’s what Harvard’s campus life is like:


Harvard prides itself on having a tight-knit community and a large part of this identity comes from its active and inclusive residential environment. Students are guaranteed housing for all four years, with first year students living in dorms adjacent to Harvard Yard and all other students living in upperclassmen ‘Houses’. In fact, the House culture is one of the longest and most treasured Harvard traditions (that we’ll discuss a bit more later on).


The athletic culture at Harvard is rampant, with nearly 80 percent of its student population active in some form of athletics. Whether you’re interested in joining a varsity sports team or learning a new activity through an intramural club, there are over 60 club options and 20 sports teams for you to participate in. Furthermore, these are great opportunities to meet peers and bond through a group activity.

Here are some examples of the various athletic teams and clubs:

  • Water Polo
  • Squash
  • Hapkido
  • Flag Football
  • Broomball


Alongside its active athletic environment, Harvard also promotes a campus culture that thrives with over 450 unique student-run organizations. Depending on your interests, you can sing with an acapella group, write for a humor magazine, or even take workshops in printmaking. Here are some examples of a few campus organizations you can be a part of at Harvard:


Much like we mentioned in our Stanford guide, the social life at Harvard may not be on the same level as schools with more active party and social scenes. Because of the school’s prestige, many students will tend to prioritize their workload over such events.

However, because the residential life is well-connected and the participation in clubs and groups is very common,you will be able to connect with your peers with ease so long as you put in the effort to do so.


Every year when the clock strikes 9 AM on the Thursday before Spring Break, a surge of excitement washes over campus.

Picture this: you’re sleeping soundly when, suddenly, a guy dressed in a polar bear suit starts banging on your door. You’re still half-asleep but you hesitantly let the strange polar bear man inside, allowing him to embrace you in a giant hug as he welcomes you to your new House.

At Harvard, Housing Day is one of the longest-held and most beloved traditions: it’s the day when upperclassmen students dress up and surprise the first-year students that will be living in their Houses in the new year. 9 AM marks the “dorm storm”, as the costumed upperclassmen rush into the freshman dorms, deliver welcome letters, and hoist them into grand and happy celebrations.

As we mentioned earlier in the “Housing” section, all upperclassmen are given the chance to live in one of twelve residential Houses. Each House has a specific theme and is equipped with its own set of suites, gym accommodations, and even dining halls. This sort of living arrangement is rare in other schools, and creates a special sort of pride and community in ones home. With names like Winthrop House and Pforzheimer House, the Houses are whimsical places of both comfort and companionship.

From Application To Career: What You'll Experience At Harvard

Hopefully, you’re more excited than ever after reading about Harvard’s exciting and quirky campus life. Let’s take a look at the timeline we’ve compiled so far, and summarize the important points we’ve accumulated for each important period.


It is imperative to give yourself plenty of time to complete each component of the application, as well as to reach out to your counselor and teachers for recommendations and transcripts. Don’t make the mistake of speaking with them a few weeks before the deadline as this can result in lower-quality or even missing materials.

Review and reference the websites we provided as well as our application breakdown earlier on in this article to make sure you’re not missing anything!


When writing your essays, it’s important to reflect on these essential questions first:

What is important to you and what are your defining personal qualities?

Generally, the purpose of these personal statements and supplemental essays is to push you to extract the most brilliant parts of yourself and express those to the admissions officers. Note that these ‘brilliant parts’ aren’t always marked by high distinctions or rewards—oftentimes, they stem from our most difficult and defining struggles. Don’t be afraid to be imperfect; the worst thing to be is boring.

Be descriptive and be specific! Rather than simply state your qualities, craft scenes and stories from memories and experiences that have left a lasting impact on you. Take a look at some of these successful Harvard essays and observe how descriptive and personal they are—this is your time to showcase who you are, how you came to be this way, and how this moves you to make a positive impact on Harvard and beyond.


These next few years are going to be some of the most exciting, chaotic, and valuable years of your life. As we’re sure you’ll hear from a number of people: college is what you make of it. Even if it may be overstated, the sentiment definitely rings true!

It is truly a period where you are encouraged to freely explore your interests, attend club meetings, join an intramural team, and connect with classmates and professors. There is no harm in trying or applying for activities you may have never seen yourself doing before, as these are the moments that can often lead you to very positive self-discovery and interaction.

There are no shortages of groups or activities to be a part of at Harvard, so make the most out of your time!


Whether or not you have a clear idea of your future career path, you will be given the independence and encouragement to dabble in various fields and major options at Harvard. It’s okay to question what exactly you want to do after college! It can even be beneficial to be a bit of a blank slate in your first year, as exploration can ignite a new passion for you.

For some common careers pursued by post-grad Harvard students, here’s a look at what the Class of 2018 is up to:

  • 72 percent of the graduate class planned to enter for-profit jobs in fields ranging in: Consulting, Financial Services, Technology, and Engineering versus non-profit, public service jobs.
  • According to 2017 statistics, the median starting salary for Harvard graduates is between $70,000-80,000—significantly higher than the national average.
  • The most common career prospects lie in Consulting and Finance, with 36 percent of the graduate class entering the two fields.

Your Future At Harvard

Harvard is home to some of the most influential powerhouses around,including Barack Obama, W.E.B. Dubois, Mark Zuckerberg, Conan O’Brien, and many more. You can see from this eclectic list that the education you receive at Harvard can prepare you for a variety of paths, whether that be in politics, technological development, literature, or even comedy.

The network you are able to build at this college is unparalleled, and the opportunities you discover enriching.

The road to being admitted to Harvard is not smooth nor an easy navigation, so you must read through as many resources as you can as well as consult your teachers, counselors, and experienced professionals for advice and guidance in this difficult process.

If you find this task intimidating, you can always speak with our team at WeAdmit for accessible, low-stress, and highly informed wisdom. Whether you’re stuck and need help brainstorming for your essays or have questions about the costs of applying, you can direct any and all questions our way and expect prompt and efficient support.

After All, Applying To College Will Be Daunting, But It Doesn’t Have To Be Scary.



Need more Information?

Gain all the information you need by getting in touch with our admissions team or booking a free 30-minute counseling session.