8 Harvard Application Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

July 20, 2021
By AdmissionSight

8 Harvard Application Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

For high school students who are preparing to begin and send in their applications to Harvard University, the amount of pressure that is involved in that entire process can sometimes get the better of them.

After all, there is no doubt that anyone who is applying to Harvard has high expectations for themselves and sets their goals very high. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be interested in applying to one of the most competitive schools in the world. Sometimes, that pressure can lead to Harvard application mistakes.

School building with a stairs in the facade.

While a high school’s students GPA, standardized test scores, extracurriculars and similar factors play a very important role in whether or not a student gets into Harvard or any of the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive and prestigious schools.

However, another really important thing that all students have to focus on is the application itself. The quality of a student’s application can be the major deciding factor between getting a letter of acceptance or rejection or deferment letter.

But what are those mistakes, and what can high school students do to make sure that they avoid them?

Continue reading to find out!

Mistake 1. Waiting until the last minute to start

One of the biggest mistakes that any high school student can make – no matter how intelligent or accomplished they are – is to wait until the last minute to get started on their college applications.

Just like waiting until the last minute to get started on a big term paper or studying for a final exam is a mistake, so too is waiting till the last minute to get started on crafting and sending in your college applications.

This is especially true when it comes to schools like Harvard because you may want to have the option to apply Early Action in order to increase your chances of getting accepted.

Moreover, if you decide to wait until the last minute, you will undoubtedly have to rush in order to get everything done on time. This will lead to sloppy and poorly crafted essays as well as raise the likelihood of other errors when you are filling out the application.

The easiest way to avoid these issues is to plan ahead on your college applications. Ideally you will already have a list of schools that you plan to apply to on hand and can get started on the priority applications as soon as possible. This way you can craft, edit and perfect with plenty of time.

Mistake 2. Not research the specific schools you are applying to

Ideally, you will have spent portions of your high school years learning about and researching different schools all over the country to find places that feel like they could be a good fit from an academic and cultural standpoint.

Ideally, you will have even scheduled some visits to the schools on the top of your list. If Harvard is at the top of your list, you will absolutely want to visit the campus and ideally meet with some current students and faculty members to begin creating relationships within the schools.

In the case of Harvard, the school and the admissions officers who work there love to get a sense that every student who is applying is truly passionate and knowledgeable about what it means to attend the school.

For that reason, learning as much as you can about the schools you want to apply to before you begin the application process is best. That way, you can truly and honestly answer questions pertaining to your potential fit at the school and will be as honest and informed as possible.

Mistake 3. Trying to fit in as opposed to standing out

When it comes to such a big life moment such as getting into a school like Harvard, some students might feel the compulsion to follow the lead of other students that they know who have gotten into Harvard.

High schoolers might think that it is wise to do the same extracurriculars, write about the same topics in their application, and generally try to fit the mold of the “typical” student that ends up getting into the school.

Group of students huddled together in a table.

While every student will of course want to fit in in the sense of getting great grades and standardized scores, it should be considered much more valuable to stand out amongst the pack as opposed to fitting in.

For that reason, throughout high school, students should make it a priority to sign up for activities and join clubs, groups and movements that will expand their experience and help them stand out in major ways in their applications.

Activities such as college camps, internships, starting your own small business or non-profit, art-related activities, sports, and volunteering will not only enrich and expand a student’s life, but also make them look truly special when it comes time to start crafting and sending in college applications.

Mistake 4. Being satisfied with average SAT or ACT scores

It can be hard to get the kinds of test scores that are seen as exceptional in the eyes of college admissions officers at Harvard.

After all, the average SAT score for students who get in hovers around 1540 out of 1600 on the SAT and 34 out of 36 on the ACT. Truth be told, basically any student would be ecstatic to get these kinds of scores as they can open doors to some of the most impressive schools in the world.

However, if a student has their sights set on Harvard, then simply settling for the average scores of students that get may not be enough. Consider the kind of students that you will likely be going up against when you apply to Harvard. These are – without exaggeration – the very best the high schools all over the world have to offer.

Even if you have a fantastic GPA (the average GPA of students who get into Harvard is approximately 4.18, by the way), you will want to do as much as possible in order to get above those average SAT or ACT scores to really improve your chances of getting into Harvard.

It might seem highly unlikely or even impossible that you can do such a thing, but working as hard as possible – or even working with a private tutor who can help you master the test that you want to take – can be the difference between earning an average and above average score. And that can be the difference between getting in or having to start thinking about going to a different school that is slightly further down your list.

With that being said, it is also important to keep in mind that you should be taking these tests tons of times in order to get that perfect score. Typically, schools start to raise eyebrows if they see that a student has taken the ACT or SAT more than 4-6 times.

Mistake 5. Picking unoriginal essay topics

Essays are an exceptionally important part of any college application because they allow for the colleges to get to know each applying student in a way that is simply not shown in other parts of the application.

The need for this kind of personal connection is especially crucial when it comes to applying to a school like Harvard because the competition is high across the board.

For that reason, every student should do the work necessary in order to tell a story that is unique and impactful. Spend real time trying to figure out the subjects and angles that you can call upon to really not only show who you are as a person, but also show why you unequivocally deserve to be at Harvard.

Writing in a notebook on a table.

If you are not sure about what you can write to really help your chances of getting in, consider speaking with your high school counselor or even visiting one of your school’s most senior English teachers to sit down with them and get an idea of what they think could be a good jumping off point for you to find the very best topic for you.

Beyond this, it is important to remember that you should try to steer away from risky or controversial content in your essays. Definitely avoid talking about romantic relationships, illegal activities, or anything somewhat risqué. That might be fun to read in a magazine, but not in a college application essay.

Additionally, you will also want to make sure that you remain humble and honest throughout your essay. Sure, you can write about some of your best accomplishments and greatest moments if you believe that it will help your chances, but you do not want to come off as arrogant at any point. Perhaps a great way to explain this is to say that you should focus on “showing” how awesome you are as opposed to simply coming right out and “telling” them how awesome you are! Not only is that more humble, but it’s also just better writing.

Finally, in regards to essay writing, another really good rule of thumb is to not rely too heavily on the dictionary or thesaurus to use fancy words and try to sound smart. Some of the very best writers in the history of the English language have purposefully tried to stay away from fancy words because they can detract from the overall message of what they are writing.

Of course, you will want to sound eloquent in your essays, but purposefully trying to find words that you think will make you sound smart will likely – actually – have the adverse effect when your application gets into the hands of admission officers at Harvard.

Mistake 6. Not getting great letters of recommendation

Another really important aspect of getting into schools such as Harvard is to make sure that you are getting fantastic letters of recommendation.

In fact, another mistake that is tightly connected to this one is waiting too long before you start to think about these letters of recommendation at all.

A man in front of a laptop talking to a person writing in a notebook.

Truly, it can take multiple years of high school to really cultivate a meaningful relationship with members of your school’s faculty. For that reason, we at AdmissionSight advise that students try to identify two to three teachers that they think would be great for writing letters of recommendation at some point during their sophomore year of high school.

One great way to try to figure out who might be the best fit for this highly important job is to pay attention to the teachers that teach the subjects that you enjoy and excel at the most. Also look out for positive reinforcement and a general interest in your success as well.

Prior to inquiring about having a teacher write your letter of recommendation, there are some good questions that you can ask yourself to make sure that you are on the right track.

Those questions are as follows:

  • Will the teacher remember me?
  • Was I able to create a meaningful relationship with this person during my classes with them?
  • Do I think they are the right fit when it comes to writing an excellent letter of recommendation?
  • What are some of the best moments that the two of us shared during my high school years?

Once you have the answers to these questions, chances are pretty good that you will have a great idea of who is the right person for the job.

Beyond that, keep in mind that you should be asking the teachers that you want to write your letters at some point during the spring semester of your junior year at the very latest. Keep in mind that you are the only student who is going to need letters of recommendation, and you are probably far from the only person to ask this specific teacher.

Some teachers will even limit the number of letters that they are willing to write each year. It would be a major let down if you were to establish a wonderful relationship with a teacher at your school only to have to be denied because you waited too long to ask.

Mistake 7. Forgetting to make sure you are well represented on social media

This is a wholly new mistake that students can make, but it is no less important. Well before you send in your application to Harvard or any other school that you are planning to apply to, make sure to do a thorough sweep of sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and more to make sure that you are not being represented poorly on any of these sites.

Holding a white phone near brick wall.

You better believe that the top schools are going to do research on every student that they are considering letting into their school. It would be a real tragedy if you were the perfect candidate to get into Harvard except for a video, image, or some other kind of post on social media that forces the school to second guess their inclination to send you a letter of acceptance.

While it is true that many schools do not go through this process, the schools that do use the results as a sort of tie-breaker to help make decisions between two well-qualified candidates to get into the school. Don’t miss out on your chance to get into your dream school because of something as silly as a social media post.

Mistake 8. Letting your parents take too much control

The final mistake that a lot of students – and their parents – make when it comes to applying to top schools such as Harvard is allowing the parents to take too much control over the entire process.

Of course, your parents love you and want the best for you, but if your mother or father starts to try to write or rewrite your essays for you, you know that you have come too far.

The simple truth is that the application process has changed immensely since your parents were going to school and they may not know what is best when it comes to giving these schools what they want to see. Moreover, while you may think that it is hard to notice, college admissions officers have a masterful eye at spotting whether something has been looked over and changed by a concerned parent.

For this reason, it is far better to only rely on your parents when you are in need of some assistance, but definitely not depend on them to do major bits of the work.

Get more Harvard admission advice

Here at AdmissionSight, we make it our priority to help students achieve their college admission dreams. Whether you are starting out high school this fall, looking to improve your GPA or standardized test grades, or want to make sure that you avoid any of these application mistakes, contact us today and one of our experienced college admissions officers will map out the ways in which we can make your college admissions dreams come true. We can’t wait to start working with you!

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