What Does Harvard University Look for in Applicants?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

University students talking in front of a laptop.

10 Attributes Harvard University Admission Counselors Look for in Future Students

It’s well understood among applicants and parents that getting into an Ivy League school or university isn’t easy. With some of the top-rated schools in the world among its members, this group’s prestige is well-deserved. This esteem ends up attracting some of the highest-performing high schoolers in the country. Although the challenge of getting accepted is well-understood, the actual process of admissions is a mystery to most people. Why does one student get admitted while another with an equally impressive application gets rejected? In order to answer this question, we have to ask: “What does Harvard University look for in applicants?”

In order to better understand how Harvard decides which students get accepted and which are turned away, you have to peel away the layers of its admission process. This way, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to do in order to put yourself in the best position to earn a spot among the group of accepted students. When answering the question above, your first answer might be superb grades. After all, what Ivy League school doesn’t require students to have incredibly impressive GPAs and test scores? None.

Although that’s an excellent guess and definitely a large part of the equation, Harvard – along with many other Ivy League schools – takes much more into consideration when sifting through a mountain applications each year.

You’ve probably heard words like “comprehensive”, “holistic”, or “aggregate” in discussions of college admissions. These are just fancy ways of saying that universities typically consider a wide variety of things when considering your education. Everything from grades and standardized test scores to extracurricular activities and hobbies is taken into account.

If you’re wondering how to get into Harvard, you’re not alone. Many students don’t know where to begin. But you’re in the right place. At AdmissionSight, we’ve spent years developing a deep understanding of the ins-and-outs of the college admissions process. To help you better understand what it takes to get accepted, we’ll answer what does Harvard University looks for in applicants? We’ll try to cover everything you need to know about Harvard University’s admissions process.

What does Harvard University look for in applicants?

1. Knowledge of the university

Let’s kick things off with a little test. What do you like about Harvard University? If you were able to mention some specific characteristics about the school, you’re on the right track. However, if you didn’t know where to begin or gave a generic answer like “Because it’s a good school”, you’ve got a little homework to do. You see, one of the most overlooked factors that admissions counselors are looking for is knowledge of the university. They want to see that students are actually knowledgeable about the college they’re hoping to attend.

A man is explaining while a woman listens to him.

While it might seem trivial from the perspective of applicants, it’s helpful to put yourself in the shoes of the university for a minute. With tens of thousands of applicants attempting to get in each year and a great reputation for top-tier offerings, you too might start wondering which students are applying because of a genuine interest in the school and which ones are just hopping on-board the bandwagon. One of the ways universities filter out applicants is based on their familiarity and knowledge of the school. It proves you’ve been taking interest in the school.

2. Demonstrated interest

If you’re wondering how to get into Harvard, sometimes the best thing to do is call and ask! While that’s a little tongue-in-cheek, it does touch upon an important element at the heart of what college admissions officers look for: demonstrated interest. As the name suggests, this refers to all of the many ways in which an applicant can show Harvard University they’re interested in attending. Although some universities don’t officially accept demonstrated interest as part of their consideration, many of the things that would fall under this umbrella are still beneficial.

For example, calling the admission office as a high schooler to ask what recommendations they’d have for an interested applicant is a great place to start. When the time for you to apply draws nearer, you could even visit the university (either in person or virtually depending on the circumstances). Some students even go as far as to send their high school report cards to Ivy League admissions offices to demonstrate their academic achievements. Regular contact helps to keep you informed of any important changes while demonstrating to counselors that you’re serious about your goal to attend Harvard.

3. A high grade-point average (GPA)

Perhaps the most obvious attribute Harvard University will look for in applicants is a stellar GPA. As you most likely know, this rating is an accumulation of your performance in all high school classes. Of course, you’ll still be finishing up some courses when you send in your college application, but your performance from freshman year onward will be under close scrutiny. It’s important to start choosing your classes wisely in order to optimize your GPA. You’ll want to go with classes that are challenging enough that it’s reflected in their weight but not too hard where your performance starts to slip.

So, what does a high GPA mean for Harvard? Well, in 2018, students in the incoming class had an average GPA in high school of 4.18. Furthermore, 92% of these accepted students had achieved an average GPA of 3.75 and higher. Of course, there are students with lower performance than these averages that get accepted, but these are the exceptions instead of the rules. It’s best to aim for the stars when it comes to GPA. Make sure you talk with your high school counselor to get on track for these numbers when planning your classes.

4. Excellent standardized test scores

Closely associated with your GPA and another major attribute Harvard University expects to see from top applicants is excellent standardized test scores. More specifically, admissions officers want to see you crush the SAT and ACT – you know, the two tests you’ve heard enough times to commit them to long-term memory. Yes, those! But, why are they important? Well, these test scores have become a standard benchmark among colleges across the country. As a result, many students want to illustrate their college-preparedness through these exams by performing extremely well. But are they required?

Female student writing in her desk.

 For the 2021-2022 school year, Harvard is not requiring students to send in standardized test scores along with their application. However, admissions officers are still accepting them and will certainly take your results into consideration. Students also have the choice to complete the supplemental subject tests and essay sections. Again, these aren’t required for admittance, but great scores can certainly benefit your application. Accepted students at Harvard generally have a history of performing incredibly well on the SAT and ACT with perfect scores not being unheard of.

5. Contributions to the community

Attending an Ivy League school is a two-way street. When admissions officers consider your application, they’re not only thinking about how Harvard University can benefit you. They’re also interested in what you can offer in return. What can you contribute to the overall Harvard community at large to make it a better and more interesting place for fellow classmates, teachers, and future students? It’s vital to consider this angle when filling out your application and writing your supplemental essays.

Young teacher talking to a group of students.

There’s another angle to this attribute that’s important to mention. While admissions officers definitely want to know how the university and community at large can benefit from your presence, they’re also hoping to determine if you’d be a great fit. Maybe you have some excellent contributions to bring to the table. But, if they don’t line up with Harvard’s culture or goals, then it might be lost on admissions staff. That’s why it’s important to frame your offerings to the university in the light of what it’s looking for.

6. Development and growth

Beyond academic achievement in the form of GPAs and standardized test scores, admissions counselors will also be looking to see how you’re developing. Are you at the peak of your abilities? Have you been coasting, or have you been consistently pushing yourself? You might be the highest performer in your high school, but you’re being compared to some of the best talents in the country when applying to Harvard University. It’s not enough to rest on your laurels from your previous performance. You have to demonstrate how you’re continuing to get better and improve yourself.

A great way to do this is by tying in offering from the university in your long-term plan. For example, if you want to start a business that helps young entrepreneurs gain an edge in the market, you can identify some Harvard courses that will give you the knowledge and skills needed to pursue that goal. This not only demonstrates how you plan to continue developing, but it also shows why attending Harvard is instrumental to that process.

7. Clear goals and direction

In addition to – and in tandem with – continuous development and growth, Harvard Unversity admissions staff want to see students with a clear goal. Where are you heading personally, academically, and professionally? Some students struggle with clarifying their direction because it seems like a complex question. In reality, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do in college in beyond, although specifics help. Instead, Harvard wants to see some sense of direction and goals you’ve set for yourself so they know you have something to work towards while attending the university.

What’s even more important to understand is that admissions officers want to know how Harvard University plays into your short and long-term goals. Is Harvard the best place for you to continue pursuing your goals or will any college do? If you’re confident that Harvard is the best place for you, you need to be able to illustrate it. Find a way to connect your goals and what Harvard has to offer. This correlation will help admissions counselors more easily see you and the university as a great fit.

8. Personal interests

When answering “what do Harvard admissions interviewers look for?”, you can’t remove yourself from the equation. Admission officers will have a tough time assessing your application and your qualifications against other students if they don’t know anything about you. On your application, it’s your job to describe your personal interests in personal, extracurricular, professional, and other fields, in addition to the academic sphere. While education will no doubt be of particular interest to admissions officers, they’re also looking for a larger picture and understanding of what you like.

What classes pique your interest the most? What extracurriculars and out-of-school activities do you participate in? Do you do any athletics? And what about your personal life. Do you have any familial commitments that have shaped you uniquely? In addition to wanting to learn about your personal interests, university admissions officers are also interested in how they’ve shaped you. This information helps academic counselors to determine whether or not you’re a good match for the university in addition to assessing how you’ve developed and pursued your interests over time.

9. What makes you unique

As proud as you should be with perfect test scores and superb grades, these attributes might not be enough to help your application stand out from amongst the hoard of applicants that flood the Harvard admissions office each year. However, there is one unique factor that can help distinguish you from other applicants and catch the attention of admissions counselors. What is it? Well, you of course! The most special and unique thing about an application is the person behind it. While you might roll your eyes at the idea, Harvard admissions officers are very interested in learning more about you as a person.

Where did you grow up and how did it shape you to become the person you are today? What subjects intrigue you the most and why? How do you want to make an impact on the world? While you might not have a chance to cover all of these questions in-depth, you’ll certainly address some – or at least similar versions – when filling out your application. These aren’t trick questions that you have to overthink. You should be honest and candid while also thinking about how you can angle the answers to include Harvard and its offerings to help admissions officers make the connection between you and the university.

10. Exceptional supplemental essays

Each year, Harvard University has applicants respond to essay prompts in order to gain a better understanding of the person behind the applications. After all, the general applications don’t leave much room for students to distinguish or express themselves. This makes the supplemental essays a perfect opportunity for students to set themselves apart from the competition by highlighting their strengths, what makes them unique, and why they’re the perfect fit for Harvard. Given the importance of the essay portion of the application, many students aren’t sure where to begin.

Students working on something while in the classroom.

Well, you’re in luck! AdmissionSight has been helping applicants just like you nail their Harvard supplemental essays to greatly increase their chances of getting into this legendary Ivy League university. We work one-on-one with students and parents to help them gain a better understanding of each supplemental essay prompt along with some specific strategies for answering completely and accurately. Our talented team members also offer essay editing services to ensure everything is in tip-top shape before admissions officers get to see it.

You’re one step closer to getting into Harvard

While AdmissionSight is the perfect resource to help you write an impressive supplemental essay, we also offer a host of other pertinent services that can increase your chances of getting into Harvard. Need assistance choosing the right courses or extracurriculars? We’ve got you covered. What about summer programs? Yes, we do that too! And what about parents who want guidance even before high school? AdmissionSight even has pre-high school consultation to help people get started on their academic planning early. And that’s not all. We offer many other personalized services to support you throughout your academic development.

Why use AdmissionSight? Because we’re experts. We have a long and continuous streak of success stories from helping students achieve their goals of getting into some of the country’s best universities. Our in-depth knowledge of the college admissions process comes from years of professional and personal experience in this field. No matter which Ivy League school you want to attend, we have resourceful insights and helpful services that can make a major difference. Feel free to contact AdmissionSight today to learn more about what we can offer.


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