Key Steps On Getting Into Your Harvard
“Wow, you went to Harvard? You must be a genius!”
“Harvard kids are all such snobs.”
“My friend with a 1600 SAT and perfect grades got rejected from Harvard…their admissions process is so random.”
As a Harvard graduate, these are just a few of the many comments I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances about my alma mater. The United States is home to many excellent colleges, but Harvard is arguably the most prestigious, holding a prominent place in the public imagination. It’s the university everyone has heard of, from elementary school students to my grandparents’ friends in an isolated village in Eastern Europe. And, for better or for worse, everyone seems to have their own image of Harvard – their own personal idea of what this mythical place must be like.
The myths begin with the admissions process – the black box that receives over 30,000 applications each year and spits out about 2,000 acceptance letters. What does it take to make the cut? Or are admissions really a game of chance, as some frustrated applicants believe?
Demonstrated academic ability is the most important admissions criterion. Harvard maintains an impressive 98% graduation rate because the admissions committee only admits students that can be reasonably expected to handle the university’s academic challenges. You don’t need to be a valedictorian with perfect SAT scores, but you better be close.
Most applicants do meet the academic requirements, so the admissions officers look at a number of other, less quantifiable factors. Your essays, letters of recommendations, and alumni interview are your chance to shine. They won’t make up for low grades or an abysmal standardized test score, but if you’ve done well academically, these components of the application are your opportunity to stand out from the thousands of other brilliant applicants.
The Harvard admissions website has a treasure trove of information that can help you get into the minds of the admissions committee. But it really boils down to this: What can you offer the Harvard community? How have you already taken advantage of the opportunities you’ve been given, and how do you plan to continue doing so at Harvard? What drives you as you pursue whatever goals you’ve set for yourself? And does your application communicate a unique, compelling, and authentic story?
On a more logistical note, Harvard has two application processes – early action, with a deadline of November 1st, and regular decision, with a deadline of January 1st. Students who are confident that Harvard is a good fit – and want to finish the complex, stressful college application process sooner – often apply early action. If you choose this process, you will receive your admissions decision in December, but aren’t obligated to attend. Of course, there can be drawbacks to applying early. For example, some students’ applications benefit from a strong fall semester of senior year.
With tuition of nearly $40,000 a year, the Harvard experience doesn’t come cheap. Including rent, food, textbooks, and other expenses, the university estimates the total annual cost of attendance to be about $60,000. Sound overwhelming? Don’t worry. Harvard has one of the most generous financial aid policies out there.
Like most selective schools, Harvard does not factor financial status into the admission decision – the university covers 100% of “demonstrated financial need” for any student it accepts. If you’re admitted, chances are you will receive aid; over half of current freshmen do. Packages tend to be generous – families receiving aid pay just $12,000/year on average. And unlike many other schools, Harvard doesn’t expect undergrads to take out loans. Instead, a financial package will consist of grants, with a small expected contribution from the student’s earnings.
If you’re an international student, you’re in luck. Although international students are not eligible for financial aid from the US government, Harvard uses its own scholarship funds to treat international admits no differently than American students.
If you actually talk to a few Harvard students, you’ll discover that their real-life experiences rarely conform to your expectations. And what’s more, their stories will be quite different from each other – pinpointing the consummate Harvard identity or Harvard experience is quite hard in a university that strives to recruit as diverse a class as possible every year.
For example, you might assume that Harvard students spend the majority of their time in the lecture hall or the library. But the truth is that the academic experience at Harvard can be as intense or laid back as you make it. The school offers dozens of extremely challenging courses; if you choose to enroll in these, you’ll be surrounded by hard-charging, academic-minded wunderkinds. If you’d rather take it easy in large lecture classes where assignments are not particularly arduous and the content is more accessible, you’ll find plenty of those as well. Many students balance their schedules (and maintain good GPAs) with a mix of easier and more difficult classes.
Similarly, a wide variety of social experiences are available on campus, from parties at the exclusive, boys-only final clubs to the residential House system. You’ll find classmates who make social life a priority, eager for a break after a grueling high school experience, as well as those who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to academic excellence. You can choose either of these paths, or perhaps something in between.
No matter how you choose to spend your time at Harvard, chances are you’ll be spending most of it on campus. Although Harvard is located in the heart of Cambridge and just a ten-minute subway ride from downtown Boston, the campus is its own, self-contained world. Over 95% of students live on campus for all four years, and the various opportunities offered by the university leave little time to venture into town.
Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to Harvard! Is the hard work done? Not quite. You might assume that attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world will open the door to any job or graduate program you choose. But that acceptance letter is only the first step to eventual professional success.
In certain career paths, the Harvard name can certainly help. Top firms in industries such as financial services and consulting come to Ivy League campuses to recruit directly from the senior class. You’ll still need to maintain a solid GPA and network with classmates and alumni, of course. But if your heart is set on McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, there’s no question that you’ll get a leg up as a Harvard student.
For most postgraduate paths, however, opportunities won’t simply fall into your lap. Your Harvard degree can be a huge asset, but only if you take advantage of it. You’ll need to get to know your professors, building a relationship by attending office hours regularly or working as a research assistant. You’ll need to scour the alumni network for alumni working in the fields you’d like and reach out to them. You’ll need to plan your classwork wisely and get involved in internships or clubs that will lead towards your ultimate goals. But being accepted to Harvard is a wonderful first step to whatever your dreams may be – good luck!