Since they are an indispensable part of any application, studying some Harvard supplemental essay examples is the best way to start writing your own essays.
The supplemental essays give you an opportunity to position yourself as the perfect candidate. You need to put a personal touch on your application, stand out as an individual, and show how you connect to the school.
There are lots of ways to go about creating your , but the most effective method is to think of them like a story. The admissions committee has seen your amazing GPA and high SAT/ACT score, and now they want to know your story and how you ended up where you are today.
In this article, we provide you with Harvard supplemental essay examples so you can get a feel for how to plan, write, edit, and work through your own essay.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150 word limit)
Sample Essay #1:
My hardest day was just sitting there.
I volunteered at the hospital surgical unit, helping patients and liaising with families. On this day, the surgery had gone wrong, and I was sitting there, with the family, holding the daughter’s hand, having it nearly crushed by her grip. I knew I didn’t have to sit there as long as I did, but I didn’t want to leave them there.
Later on, she said, “Thank you,” and told me how much it meant to her.
My experience that day taught me about the value of dedication and how much a small action can mean. I don’t mind a hard day, if it means something, and I would like to bring and build on these values at Harvard.
Sample Essay #2:
Jack was walking on water. Well, technically a “non-Newtonian fluid”, but it was still very cool. He was showing me how to make it in the laboratory where I had been lucky enough to receive an internship.
The lab was a great place to explore my insatiable curiosity, particularly of the sciences. I was even allowed by my boss (Jack the water-walker) to conduct small experiments of my own using lab resources.
This kindness allowed me to learn a lot of chemistry, which I didn’t understand before, in a hands-on setting, and while working in the lab I found I had a particular interest in catalysis and catalysts. I’m hoping to continue this study and, one day, make some real contributions to the field; I especially want to add to humanity’s green energy technologies.
A lofty goal? Yes. But I’ve seen a man walk on water. Anything’s possible.
Sample Essay #3:
After months of waiting, cold water shot from the spout. Our hard work on the student senate paid off and students could finally enjoy fresh, cold water on school campus.
Our school’s fountains didn’t work for several months. I decided to meet with school administration to discuss how to fix them. The plumbing was old and required a lot more physical labor than most maintenance tasks, which meant money – money our school didn’t have – as well as acquiring difficult-to-obtain permits.
I organized fundraisers for the money, from bake sales to talent shows. I also filed copious paperwork with the municipality to gain the necessary permissions for renovation.
Water fountains might seem small, but if it made my school better, the time was worth it for that jet of cold water.
Leadership is about service. This is my calling, and I want to find a place where I can become a community leader, and a community servant.
Check out tips for writing your college essay:
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 word limit)
Sample Essay #1:
My nose was in my book and Joe asked what I was reading. With some sheepishness, but a little pride, I showed them Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English. “I didn’t know you spoke that,” my friend said. “I don’t,” I replied, “but I’m figuring it out.”
Language is my passion. In high school, I’ve taken French and German, and I’m currently enrolled in an online Latin course. I love learning new languages, and in the case of Middle English, by just diving in and picking it up from context.
Learning a new language is like opening a door to another universe; somewhere you did not have access to before. Not only does it take patience and dedication, but it also requires curiosity and opened mindedness to other worldviews and cultures. Culture and communication are inextricably linked, and I want to dive in and explore both at Harvard.
Sample Essay #2:
I had finished making something, but was it a guitar? The whole instrument looked fantastic. But I didn’t know if it was a good instrument because I couldn’t play.
Woodworking projects have long been a pursuit of mine, but when I took on the immense challenge of crafting a guitar, I discovered music in a new way.
My father still has a turntable and LPs, and I think that got me interested, but only as a listener. I wanted to learn to play, but never found the time until I needed to understand my hand-crafted instrument, and now I play on a daily basis.
Not only that, but I began to study music itself, and have become interested in all aspects of the art form, and I am looking for a place that will allow me to study the technical and cultural connections of music while encouraging my musicianship.
Sample Essay #3:
My blood has a very metallic taste. I know this because I exercise through boxing – called the “sweet science”, although I’m not sure how scientific it is. The focus required for boxing, and the exertion, were both major reasons for my love of the sport.
I still received a small concussion in one bout. I got lucky: it wasn’t a bad one.
While in recovery, I began asking my medical team about the science behind my mind and developed an interest in neuroscience, particularly pertaining to brain damage. I attended some lectures at a local college. I signed up for a student summer program through my local hospital.
I still love boxing, although I am much more careful these days. But even if I stop altogether, it will always have given me two things: a pursuit of neuroscience, and a very small concussion.
Additional Essay: You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel 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: (this essay has no official word limit; recommended between 600-700 words)
Unusual circumstances in your life
Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
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
How you hope to use your college education
A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
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.
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?
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
Sample Essay #1
Prompt: Unusual circumstances in your life.
“We can’t save the whole arm,” they said, “and we need to act fast to save as much as we can.”
After hearing that, I barely heard anything they were saying.
I was an aimless teenager doing aimless teenaged things like hanging out with friends, and tinkering with my motorcycle. My mom’s greatest source of anxiety, this little 250cc rocket on two wheels (or one, if I was doing a wheelie) was my favorite pathway to freedom, and I rode it everywhere. When I wasn’t riding it, I was working on it in the garage, adding decals or chromed parts, listening to Def Leppard the whole time.
The motorcycle was fun to ride, fun to customize, and great to use to learn about mechanics. Having your own hog gives you a reasonable popularity booster at school, too.
But my mom was right, and it was also something that could be dangerous. I wound up in an accident and I lost part of my arm.
Now I couldn’t ride my motorbike (even if my mom would have let me do so), and I certainly didn’t feel like doing much of anything. I didn’t cope well with my limb loss, at least, not at first.
It was the combination of encouragement, care, and discipline from my healthcare team that started to pull me through. My parents made me go to follow-ups and physio, even when I didn’t want to, and talk to my healthcare team about coping and moving forward. But the standout on the team was clearly Dr. Zimmerman.
He never sugar-coated anything, but he was always kind. He never let me take the easy way out, but he was always encouraging. He never coddled me, but always cared. Yes, his technical expertise saved as much of my arm as possible, but his truly caring for me was what set me thinking about how I wished I could help people.
That’s impossible without an arm, though, right?
I don’t know if you remember that I’m a fan of Def Leppard – I mentioned listening to their music. Well, if you aren’t, you won’t know that they have a drummer named Rick Allen. Rick Allen has one arm and he’s a drummer. I was listening to Allen’s drumming one day and I knew that I could do anything.
Learning to work with a prosthesis was a struggle. We couldn’t afford the most advanced artificial hand, so I had very little functionality and had to learn to use my off-hand. Basic tasks, like writing my name, became almost impossible.
Even with an advanced prosthesis, full functionality is beyond my grasp – for now. Advances are being made in the field, of course, and I am combining my love of working on mechanics (tinkering with my motorbike), my personal tragedy, and my desire to help other people in my circumstances, and I want to get us to a world where limb loss is impermanent.
Fields like biomechanics and bioinspired robotics and computing are areas of concentration I am immensely interested in, and which I need to study to bring us into a world where tragedy has a time limit. The first step was learning to write with my off-hand. That was a tiny step, but I don’t mind being patient. I have learned an abundance of patience over this latest phase of my life.
With the next phase, I will study how to replicate limbs better than anybody before. Studying courses like physiological systems analysis and neuroengineering would be great next steps.
I even know what music I’ll listen to while studying.
Do you want more tips for writing your essay?
Sample Essay #2
Prompt: A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
January – Green Eggs and Ham (by Dr. Seuss)
I read this book to my nieces and nephews, who I thought were a little too old for this book (until I realized nobody is too old for this book). This should count as more than one book, because I read it thirty times to them. As I am a voracious reader, so they are voracious listeners. Green Eggs and Ham taught me to try anything, but that it’s harder to like something when it’s forced upon you thirty times in a row.
February – Textbooks for Chemistry, Biology, Calculus, and Psychology for Grade 12U
These are my textbooks for my science classes this year, which I read throughout, sometimes with enthusiasm, and at other times with a distracted mind. What I learned from them is invaluable.
The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
This is the book I read to my nieces and nephews so I could dodge reading Green Eggs and Ham one more time. They are now huge fans of The Little Prince, and I am worried I shall read it thirty times, too. But that’s not too important, because I love my nieces and nephews.
March – The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
I also took English in my final year and this was the first book we studied. This is a great book to read when you’re feeling troubled. It starts in a place of great misery and suffering, but it’s about humanity and love, and I needed that a lot at the time.
Textbook about Clinical Oncology
I want to be an oncologist, so I’m already reading up.
Man’s Search for Meaning (Dr. Viktor Frankl)
I re-read this, actually, because it’s such a powerful experience. It helps me to remember that, even while unhappy, I can still find something larger in my life. I need that right now. Between the studying and family obligations, life can be hard.
One of my nieces was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago; her prognosis goes back-and-forth, but we got word recently that it’s not good. I love my nieces and nephews, and when I heard about her condition, I felt so powerless. Other people raised money, but I wanted to fight back. That’s why I’m applying to pre-med: fighting back.
April – Beowulf (Anonymous)
We studied this in our poetry section in English, and to be honest, I still don’t know what I got out of this, other than that I can give a very lengthy explanation of what a kenning is.
The Best Poems of the English Language (Harold Bloom, ed.)
This was a really great overview of a lot of poetry, and there are poets here whose works I will be looking up again.
May – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)
This was a just-for-fun read, and made me want to engage in some of the gonzo risky behaviors in the book (like driving through a fence and across the tarmac to make a flight or ingesting a Walgreen’s worth of pharmaceuticals).
DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association)
This book made me understand why engaging in those behaviors is a bad idea.
Also, I read from it frequently, but if I’m being completely honest, I haven’t “read the DSM-V"; I never sat down with a cup of tea in a comfy reading nook and really lost myself in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5.
June – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (and Other Clinical Tales) (Oliver Sacks)
These fascinating essays aren’t required reading, but were recommended to me by my psychiatry teacher.
July – Green Eggs and Ham
Thirty-one times I’ve read this book now.
I hope she makes it to thirty-two.
November – I was mostly re-reading text books at this point, getting ready for exams, and keeping my focus on what really matters. I’m focusing on my oncology book.
December – I’m reading essay samples, pamphlets, and tests, and I’m wearing out a copy of how to take admissions tests.
I’m planning next year’s reading list. I think I might start with Oh, The Places You’ll Go (Dr. Seuss). I might start with that one thirty-one times.
Sample Essay #3
Prompt: 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.
My love of chess taught me how to speak Korean.
Near the apartment building where my family lives is a park, and it’s the kind of park that has tables with chess boards built right into them so people can play - only hardly anybody ever does these days. Nobody did, in fact, except for Mr. Park, who used to sit at one of those tables with his chess set waiting for people to play against him.
Most days I’d just say “Hi,” as I went by and Mr. Park would nod at me. One day I was ambling back from school on a Friday, and decided to sit down with him.
Mr. Park nodded as though I wasn’t staying. It was in that moment that I realized we didn’t speak the same language, but I guess he knew – or hoped that – I wanted to play, because he picked up a black pawn in his right hand and a white pawn in his left hand and offered them to me. I picked black and we played.
By “played” I mean that I fought the fight of my life and Mr. Park drew me along until he got bored and wiped me out. After two or three games, he started trying to tell me how to play better, but I couldn’t understand him. After four games, we parted.
That probably would have been it – I wasn’t planning to make a hobby out of it – but when I passed Mr. Park at the chess table next time, he made a small nod, and invited me to play again.
Since then, I played chess with Mr. Park every day after school. After a time, the language barrier was frustrating, so I picked up a Korean phrasebook and started trying to communicate with him. The first time I knew what he was saying, which was a tip about when to castle and when not to castle, the guy got so excited that he started talking almost non-stop. The language barrier began to crumble.
A year went by and my Korean was improving as fast as my chess playing, although Mr. Park was still much better than I was at both. Now we could talk together. I never figured I’d have an elderly Korean man for a good friend, but here’s life with a curveball.
During our visits, Mr. Park asked me about school work; I was flunking chemistry at the time. I mentioned it to him and he got really excited. Mr. Park used to be a chemistry teacher before moving to the US. I got my own private tutor that day and wound up with an A in chemistry at the end of my senior year.
Not only did playing chess teach me Korean, but it taught me about chemistry and friendship. Those are lessons I will bring to Harvard: how to reach out to people who are very different, how to bridge gaps no matter the obstacle, and how to help one another grow as people.
1. Are supplemental essays necessary, or optional?
The first and second essays are required. The additional essay is technically optional.
However, even though not necessarily required, you should consider it necessary to your application. You’re applying to Harvard, and is with extra effort. Competition will be fiercer here than almost anywhere else. It’s one of the most competitive schools to get into in the world.
Write the essay. Put a lot of effort into it. That extra effort will pay off.
2. How long should my essay be?
Prompts 1 and 2 are capped at 150.
Prompt 3 has no given word limit, but should be around 600-700 words long.
You need the space to say something more than “hello”, so your essay shouldn’t be too short. But keep in mind that almost 58,000 people submitted applications in the most recent class cycle. The admissions board isn’t going to be thrilled if you submit a novella-length autobiography.
Aim for 600 words, and if you’re a little light or heavy from that number – that's okay. Keep in mind what you want to say, and then write it out in the most effective and economical way possible. You should find, if you’ve chosen your topics properly, that you’ll wind up around that word count. Remember, quality always trumps quantity, so try to keep your essays concise and clear.
3. How formal or academic should the essay be?
While your essays will focus on your personal experiences, reflections, and lessons that you learned, they must be written and formatted like academic essays, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Limit familiar and colloquial language as much as possible.
4. Can I choose my own essay topic?
As you can see from the prompts, you have a few choices in Prompt #3, and you can even come up with your own topic. However, we strongly advise you to answer Prompts #1 and #2 directly.
If you do have something you’d rather write about than the provided prompts in #3, make sure that it’s a topic that will showcase what makes you a good candidate for Harvard and how you can contribute to the incoming class.
5. Do I need citations in my essay?
No. Supplemental essays are personal reflections and experiences, so you don’t need citations.
6. How do I structure my essay?
Classical storytelling structure works for a reason: beginning, middle, end.
Chronological order is useful in most circumstances because you’ll be speaking on your past experiences, so it makes sense to keep those experiences in the order they happened. Reading some can be a useful way to learn how to start, as well.
Some prompts have their structure suggested by the prompt.
One important tip: start with an attention-grabbing sentence.
Keep focus on what you’re trying to say with your essay and structure it to maximize impact, so that the main point of your paper is set up in the beginning and is fully-articulated toward the end – just before the conclusion.
The ending needs to be strong, too – the mirror of the opening.
7. How quickly should I get my prompts in after I receive them?
If you do not get a deadline, aim to send your essays back within 2 weeks.
8. Do the prompts change every year?
The prompts might change, but usually remain fairly similar. You can plan based on the knowledge that you won’t be hit with too much of a curve-ball.
The best preparation (in case of change) is to know what you’ll write about for a few different prompt options. That way, even if the prompts are switched out, you’ll be ready for them. You don’t need to write full, final drafts for all possibilities or anticipate every imaginable prompt, just cover more than one base and you will be okay.