What Harvard is Looking for Beyond Good Grades

You have a high GPA, tons of extra-curricular activities, and an impressive SAT. 

You’re off to college next year and busy applying for universities.

If you’re an ambitious, high-performing student, chances are you want to know how to get into Harvard.

Every year, thousands of students apply to Harvard and only about 5% is accepted. 

As of writing (batch 2023), 43,330 students applied and only 2009 were admitted, a measly 4.6% acceptance rate.

Applicants 43,330
Admitted 2,009
Matriculates 1,650
Yield 82.1%
Admitted from the waiting list 65

Source: Harvard Admission Statistics

Unless you’re one of the blessed A.L.D.C’s (athletes, legacies or children of alumni, and part of dean’s interest list), a select demographic with an acceptance rate of 45%, you need a good strategy to get that most coveted Harvard acceptance letter. 

The reality is, a high GPA, SAT, ACT, or IB score isn’t enough. Majority of applicants meet the basic Harvard admission requirements.

The admission team looks for students who:

  • Show growth and potential
  • Have interests outside their school curriculum
  • Have a unique and strong character
  • Can contribute to Harvard’s community

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Extracurricular Activities: The Bread and Butter of Harvard Requirements for Applicants

William R. Fitzsimmions, Harvard’s Dean of Admission, shared what the university looks for with the NY Times, “We also scrutinize applications for extracurricular distinction and personal qualities. Student’s intellectual imagination, strength of character, and their ability to exercise good judgment — these are critical factors in the admissions process, and they are not revealed by test scores.”

You’ve probably heard of applicants who fly to 3rd world countries to “volunteer” to puff up their applications. 

Many schools have minimized or removed extracurricular activities, while some charge fees for participation. Besides, not all students can afford to spend extra time or money on activities, because they have important responsibilities to their family or job.

The Admissions Committee are aware of these factors, so they also consider how students use resources available to them. It’s also important to show how the activities helped you grow as a person and why you love them.

How does this translate this to your application? Read more to find out how to get into Harvard even if you had average grades.

3 Crucial Factors Harvard Looks for in Student Applications

1. Passion and Growth for a Specific Interest or Cause

Harvard wants students who show commitment to an interest, cause, or hobby they love. They want students who persevered in their craft and rose above challenges, not someone who gave up when things got hard.  

They receive thousands of applications from students that led various clubs and sports. Editor of the school magazine, Captain of the swim team, President of the math club, and so many others — profiles like these are dime a dozen. 

Admission Officers that read thousands of application a year might see it as a profile of a model student who wanted to look good on paper, but never really took the time to understand who they wanted to be in life. 

How can you show your interests in your application?

Write about activities and topics you truly enjoy, including things you did in past summers. Share why it matters to you and how you’ve grown or changed as a result. You can even write about summer jobs, household responsibilities, interesting seminars you took, or babysitting duties.

Other information to include, as per Harvard’s admission guide:

  • What you learned and how much time you spent
  • What the activity means for you and how it affected your daily life
  • Share anecdotes on how you demonstrated leadership, grit, teamwork, or empathy
  • The impact you made in your community, group, or family
  • Your failures and how you learned from them

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2. Character and Personality

Just like there’s no model student profile for extracurriculars, there’s no one unique personality specified on Harvard’s admission requirements. 

Leadership, integrity, maturity, and teamwork are often mentioned in articles giving tips for applicants. Grace under pressure and concern for other people’s welfare are also sought after traits in Harvard applicants. 

Demonstrate these traits in a specific and unique way on your essay. People with compelling life stories or those who have overcome huge obstacles, often rise above the competition in Harvard’s meticulous screening process.

Sarah Cole, for instance, a black student from Kansas, got a scholarship for an expensive college prep school but it ruined her social life. Teachers often told her she wasn’t smart enough. She graduated from Harvard in 2016.

Thang Diep came to the US as a child and was often bullied for his English accent. He had average test scores but he was admitted in Harvard’s class of 2019 because of his strong work ethic and “infectiously happy personality.”

Recommendations from teachers and counselors are part of Harvard’s admission requirements, too. Non-generic recommendation letters that detail how you demonstrated the characteristics above will also boost your application.

Sally Chen, for example, was student association president but had lower grades compared to her peers. But she got accepted because of her teacher’s recommendation and the counselor ratings that came with her application.

You don’t need to be from a poor family to get admitted. But you do need a compelling story that demonstrates your personality and other unique traits. 

Don’t limit these stories to academic settings. Remember, Harvard wants to see that you have a life outside of school. 

Related Read: Everything You Should Know About Internship Programs

3. Contribution to the Harvard Community

Harvard tries to build a diverse student body who can learn from each other ever year.

Fitzsimmons said in the same NY Times article, “We believe that a diversity of backgrounds, academic interests, extracurricular talents, and career goals among students who live and learn together affects the quality of education in the same manner as a great faculty or material resources.”

Many Harvard alumni also reported that their classmates played a huge role in their learning experience. Sharing notes, discussing lessons, and all the talking they do during research groups, during meals, and extracurricular activities adds to the wealth of their educational experience. 

Harvard professors won’t spoon feed you at the start of the day and expect you to turn in your homework next meeting. Students are expected to read the materials ahead and come to class prepared for a lively discussion. 

Because of this, Harvard looks for students who can inspire others and serve as excellent co-educators of their classmates. 

Don’t Let Income or Background Prevent You from Applying

Harvard will cover the full tuition and expenses of undergraduate students whose parents earn less than $40,000 annually. So don’t use lack of finances as an excuse from applying.

Despite this initiative, studies revealed that Harvard’s low income student population didn’t increase as much. Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard suggest that many high-achieving but low-income students apply to public universities or community colleges instead of Ivy League schools where their high grades would likely grant them admission. 

If you’re one of these students, don’t let the tuition fees scare you. Apply anyway. 

If you’re afraid your grades aren’t enough to make the cut, apply anyway. Harvard looks at who you are as an individual, not just how well you did in standardized tests.

Harvard admission requirements are strict. But with the right strategy, you too have a good chance to study in this prestigious school. 

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Charley Mendoza
Written By Charley Mendoza
Charley is a freelance copywriter and content marketer specializing in career and entrepreneurship. When she’s not stringing words for her latest copywriting project, you’ll find her trying new recipes, or planning yet another trip.

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