My standard advice to anyone interested in a specific school is to make sure to find and carefully study their version of a “What we look for” admission webpage (it could also be in an admission FAQ, spread over multiple pages, or so on). These can sometimes seem very similar at first look, but the more you really look at them in detail and compare, the more you get a specific vision of what a particular college is looking for in its applicants.
And here is Harvard’s:
A couple high level notes.
Like pretty much all “holistic review” colleges, Harvard is interested in more than just your academic credentials (although very good academic credentials are a given) and your individual achievements. They are also interested in what sort of person you are, and how specifically you as a person will fit into their school community.
Harvard in particular puts a lot of emphasis on how you will interact with your fellow students. Right at the top, they lead off with:
In our admissions process, we give careful, individual attention to each applicant. We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.
OK, so what they are saying here (and many other places) is they think how students interact with each other and in fact their professors is a critical part of their educational mission.
I’m going to emphasize a few more things on that track, just because I think these are the sorts of things applicants to Harvard often overlook. Harvard phrases all this as questions, so here are some key related questions:
What sort of human being are you now? What sort of human being will you be in the future?
How open are you to new ideas and people?
What about your maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure?
Would other students want to room with you, share a meal, be in a seminar together, be teammates, or collaborate in a closely-knit extracurricular group?
I note Harvard, like most “residential” colleges, offers a wide range of student activities, including club/intramural sports, debate, fine and performing arts, publications, student government, cultural organizations, charitable organizations, and on and on. And so when they talk about being a teammate or being in a closely-knit extracurricular group, they likely have in mind the range of specific activities at their school.
Indeed, when you look at their first-year supplemental application:
They actually have a specific list of 48 Harvard College sports and activities, of which you can choose two (including intended level of participation for sports). I note I think a lot of HS students think it would be most impressive if they founded their own club–that shows initiative, right? And I do think that can be OK, particularly if you can show how that club became a very valued part of your HS community. But otherwise, I think colleges like Harvard typically value more joining an activity that is already an important part of that HS community, developing within that organization, and eventually achieving a leadership position. Because that is the sort of thing that will likely have the most impact at Harvard too.
OK, so again at a high level–I think a lot of people see Harvard as a place for the smartest, most hard-working, most ambitious students. And for sure, those can be relevant factors for Harvard.
But Harvard gets way more such applicants than it can admit, and it actually isn’t particularly interested in trying to rank them strictly by academic qualifications/individual achievements, and then admit the top people by such a ranking. I encounter many people who believe Harvard SHOULD be doing that, but Harvard disagrees.
Instead, once Harvard has identified you as good enough in terms of academics (and to be sure, they have high standards for this, but not so high, such that many more applicants than they can admit will meet those standards), they really want you to ALSO be the type of person they are describing here, the type of person who will get involved in depth in college activities with their fellow students, and really be valued by their fellow students.
Again, I am emphasizing all this because I think a lot of people have a conception of what Harvard is looking for that doesn’t really match what Harvard is actually looking for. Or perhaps more precisely, it is incomplete, in that it does not place nearly enough emphasis on these personal factors, and specifically does not place nearly enough emphasis on participating in the sorts of “normal” student activities that are a large part of college life at Harvard.
So as you think about where you want to apply, including Harvard, I would suggest you reflect on whether you are the sort of person Harvard is looking for. And if you believe you are that sort of person, I would then think carefully about how to demonstrate it in your application.
Meaning at this point, your academics and achievements will largely take care of themselves. But how will you communicate effectively to Harvard that they can be very confident that other Harvard College students will want to room with you, share a meal with you, be in a seminar with you, be your teammate, or be your collaborator in a closely-knit activity? I think that is a harder challenge to meet than many realize, and yet a critical one if you want the best chance of admission.