Hi I transferred to Harvard fall 2017, and I'd love to help you anyone applying/clarify any questions you might have about transferring (and/or advice about transferring colleges in general).
This is coming out a bit late, but I thought that it'll still help someone. I wrote it out to be more general advice, hopefully it'll help people next year, too.
I actually wrote some super super long thing out but it goes way over the character limit for this box so these bullet points are a good summary. Also, I realized that while there are similarities in the other transfers' applications that I've read, even with only 12/13 people getting in, there is more variation than you would think. So it is really hard for me to give advice, because I don't want to put anyone in a box. None of this is a rule. None of this comes with any insider knowledge from Admissions. It's not all wrong, but it could be less generalizable than I make it seem, or that I think it is.
There's so much more that I can say here besides what I've written (particularly about Harvard vocab/what it is like to transfer), more than happy to help please ask away. Will probably only monitor this thread for the next ~week.
Some immediate thoughts:
(1) I have not heard of a single recruited athlete to come through the transfer program in the last 4 years. None. None. Zero! It isn't common at all, and we all think that it is a hilarious misconception that it is the norm. (Watch next year be the year that the entire women's rugby team comes from the transfer program haha.)
(2) There is talk that Harvard is actively trying to get more veterans to come (2 transferred this year, out of a transfer class of 13), so maybe that's something you want to nudge someone you know on. There's a guy in his 30s who transferred this year, if that helps convince you to apply. [no I do not think this will change your chances of getting in, assuming you are a nonvet]
(3) Getting in will take some luck (that's what it felt like, at least), but I wouldn't focus on that: try hard and put your personality and enthusiasm into the application and school. Do your best, then don't worry about it. Transferring in general is a hard process.
(4) At least half of the people that I know that transferred in did not think that they seriously had a chance to get in because of the low acceptance rate.
(5) The number one characteristic among people that transferred was that they were genuinely nice. It was almost shocking how /normal/ everyone was. Yes, a few were absolutely brilliant and probably got into every school they applied to, but that's like two people. Certainly not me (technically me because I only applied to Harvard lol, but I don't recommend that, I don't think it helped me or anything either).
(6) You should really find out what it is you want before applying, and by that I mean figuring out if you even want to apply to Harvard. I was more in the "why not apply?" camp, and while I don't regret applying to and transferring to Harvard, I wish I had done more research on other schools. UPenn looks like a great school to me, too, (the person who transferred in from UPenn thought this was funny when I told this to her, haha).
On the idea of "knowing what you want to do": I sketched out 3 or 4 different paths that I was interested in taking at Harvard, then submitted about the one that I thought I could write about best. Would recommend that method if you are uncertain.
(7) When asking for letters of rec, I asked my professors in person and gave a brief summary of why I wanted to go to Harvard, and then sent a few paragraphs to my professors later about my goals/high school activities/life when following up over email. I think that helped, because my professors didn't really know me, even though they did think highly of me.
(8) Going around the group that first night, everyone had a clear cut reason to transfer that they could say, basically immediately. (You get asked that so much once you get on campus, too.) I think somewhere in my essay I wrote something explicit like "I want to transfer because . . . . " You don't have to do that, but I mention that I did that because a good, clear reason should be in there.
Every person's application that I read (like 3) went back to this reason in some shape or form in basically every single one of their essays. Including the one about the favorite book. (So like one person's book touched on a subject that they were interested in and talked about how much they wanted to continue studying it, or mine talked about a famous American novel and how it changed my ideas about American inequality and I think I namedropped a lab I wanted to work in. . . you don't have to do that). I honestly don't think I mentioned a reason in the "what would you do if you didn't get in," but my direction was clear that I was still going to pursue similar goals.
(9) The motivated reason for transferring to Harvard were the hardest part for me, so I'll put a bit more down here.
My reason for transferring was that I would've lost my scholarship if I changed my major to what I wanted to study, Computer Science. I then went on to talk about how the computer science and economics opportunities that I wanted were at Harvard.
What I didn't write down was "If I changed majors, I would have lost my scholarship, and also my academic advisor told me that I would never get straight A's (which is such bull), and the kids around me don't care, and also I'm too close to home, and also they messed up my housing, and also they "lied" to me about what scholarship money I would be receiving . . . twice . . . and not in a good way." Even though it's all true, it's not good to write it down like that. (I may have written more about that scholarship thing, but it all faded away in the application and I am 100% certain that they came away from my application knowing that I wanted to study this new major X and that I would've lost my scholarship if I had changed to it, because that's the big idea/selling point.)
It's a hard balance to get right between giving reasons for why you want to leave as well as talking about your future plans. How negative do you be? Have you made your point? Have you made your school look so bad that you now look bad? It's all about how you describe it. I would definitely lean away from too much negative description.
I would suggest staying positive, focusing on the future plans, while making it absolutely clear and well-defined that there is some good motivation for leaving. Looking back, I think a good way to think about it might be "what you are running towards at Harvard, and the reason why you started running," but maybe that is a little confusing.
You should probably write something down before worrying too much.
(10) I honestly think those three guidelines on Harvard's website really are what they're looking for, and that if you doubt any of the things I've written here, then you should at the very least trust their website: https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/application-process/transferring-harvard-college
This is funny writing this up, because I am sure there were 15 other people who had just as good if not better applications than mine and just didn't get in. It's hard, guys.
Is it less than 3 days before the deadline, and you only just now realized that you want to go? I'd say write something up - 4 or 5 people from my year who got in filled out the application like that. Maybe your application will come across as more genuine. But if it isn't 3 days before the deadline, DON'T WAIT DEAR GOD WHY WOULD THAT THOUGHT EVEN CROSS YOUR MIND
open to any feedback about this post, too!