Should I bother applying to Harvard for grad school?

Hi everybody, I’m new here so I hope this is okay to ask.

I’m in the process of applying to grad school right now (political science phd programs) and I’m considering applying to Harvard. I know that no matter what I could always apply and if I don’t get in, I don’t get in but I want to be realistic about the schools I’m applying to. I’m limiting myself to six applications (because applications are expensive and if I don’t put a limit I’ll just end up applying to every school that looks like it’s remotely a good fit, plus I don’t want to ask my recommenders to send letters to a dozen schools). I don’t want to waste time and money applying to a school that just isn’t even remotely realistic when I could have applied to another good program that’s more in my league. I’m wondering now, if Harvard should even be a consideration for me. Some background about me:

I went to a top 12 poli sci undergrad school and graduated with a 3.65 and honors
To graduate with honors I had to complete an honors thesis
I have several semesters experience as a ULA (similar role as a TA but undergraduate)
I have strong quantitative skills (several years experience with coding and advanced regression techniques I used in my thesis, I’d like to think teaching myself what ordered logit regression is counts for something)
I have research experience in economics at a dc think tank
I know my three lor will be strong and one of the recommenders teaches at Harvard in their econ department
Some of my weak points:
I had to withdraw from a couple classes in undergrad due to schedule mishaps (my advisor telling me I needed a class when I already had credit for it) and some rearranging (switching one class for another after the add/drop period) I can technically account for these withdrawals but I’m not sure how I would do that without making it seems like it’s a bigger deal than it is and I’m worried two Ws on a transcript won’t look good
I did pretty bad on the gre. I’m not great with standardized tests and even though I took it twice I just couldn’t bring my score up that much.

Anyway, based on this, do you think I should even bother applying to Harvard? If I should, what kind of chance do you think I’d stand on getting in?

Thanks in advance!

You need to apply to places that have the specialization(s)within poli sci that you are looking for. If Harvard is clearly a good fit for your interests and you can write a compelling application letter, then sure you should apply.
I recommend applying to more than 6. Not only do you want an acceptance, but you want a good funding package. Your letter writers won’t mind if you apply to more than 6 - I recently sent out about 20 for one student and that did seem like a lot. Although you did say that you wanted to not pay for too many.
Good luck!


It would help to know what you think is a bad score on the GRE (or your actual scores). The GRE is not a difficult test and your background suggests that you would do well on the GRE.

What does your advisor say? Professors are the best gauge (in my experience) of where you fall in the grad school applicant pool.


My scores for both verbal and quantitative were in the 150s. I did slightly better on the quantitative than verbal but only by a few points.

I’ve talked to a few people about what schools I should apply for. When I tell them I’m applying to a range of schools (in terms of selectiveness) and then add, hey should I apply to Harvard? They tell me to go for it. I don’t know if this is them genuinely thinking I have a good shot or them telling me to do it because why not and I have other schools I have a better chance of getting into.

Aside from the other advice here, reach out to potential advisors. PhD programs do not have hard and fast rules for admissions. If there is a person there who wants you, that is a huge boost.

Ultimately, what determines whether you are accepted to a PhD program is your CV and your LoRs. You usually need a GPA above that which the program states as a minimum, and they like seeing a GRE score (those programs who still require one) in the top percentiles.

Most important in GPA is your GPA for the courses in your major.

That counts for more than having a super high GPA. Is there anything published from that research, and does it have your name on it?

I don’t think that anybody will care - they are withdrawals, not Fs or incompletes.

Your GRE may be an issue, though.

However, if you graduated from a top program, that helps a lot. The Harvard Department of Government are obsessed with prestige, though not as much as they are obsessed with themselves. More than 3/4 of their faculty did their PhDs at Harvard, so I would actually think twice about doing your PhD there, unless you REALLY want to work at Harvard or at a place where the people in charge are also Harvard graduates - there is a distinct whiff of inbreeding going on there.

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Do you have a preferred specialty area of political science that you would like to study ?

Typical areas of specialization at the PhD level for Political Science include:

American Politics, Comparative Politics, Political Methodology, & Political Theory.

Since you are limiting your target schools to 6 universities, I suspect that your list of 6 comes from these 8 universities: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Michigan, Yale, Duke, & Columbia. Chicago & NYU may be worth considering as well.

Of course, there are a few dozen great universities that one might consider for a PhD in Political Science.

Without significant (preferably published) research & a higher GRE, my best guess is that you might want to expand your list of targeted schools from these universities:

In addition to the 10 that I listed above, consider:

UNC, Ohio State, Wisconsin, WashUStL, UC-San Diego, UC-Davis, UCLA, MIT, Univ. of Rochester, Cornell, Penn, Northwestern, Texas, Texas A&M, Illinois, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Indiana, Michigan State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, GWU, Maryland, Penn State, Rice, University of Washington, Iowa, Notre Dame, Brown, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder, Emory, Georgetown, FSU, & SUNY at Stony Brook.

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I tried to sent this several hours ago but CC wasn’t working for me:

I agree with Publisher. It seems the only downside is the GRE and we don’t know if they were really as bad as you say. The W’s can be explained briefly, just as you wrote here, if need be.

My kid applied to only two grad schools. They had a pretty good idea of funding beforehand, and visited both before applying, met with a potential mentor etc. The important thing is to find the best fit, and that means also finding a teacher/s who fit as well.

By all means apply to Harvard if it is a good fit. You can apply to lots and lots of schools if you wish, but that scattershot method may not be the best approach long term unless you make sure of funding and fit.

Curious: are you a recent grad and do you have any real life/job experience in the field?


PhD applications are different that taught Masters or undergrad. The more you know about what you want to specialize in, and why you want a PhD the better. The fit between what you want to do / what you bring to the table and who they are / what areas have grad student funding is way more important than schedule changes in undergrad. You should be able to identify groups within each program whose work aligns with your area of interest, and be able to show why you would be a good addition to that group.

Remember that a PhD is a research degree, so being able to demonstrate that you are able to frame a research question, figure out how to answer it, and then do it is important.

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Who are these people? Are they your recommenders? Or professors familiar with graduate programs in political science or an adjacent field?

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Stop talking to “People” and start talking to the professors who are writing your recommendations. Lay out your entire course of study (which they may not know), your aspirations and interests, what you hope to do in grad school. Then take that information and sit down with your academic advisor; if you have had any contact at all with the chair of the department, meet with that professor as well.

You will then have a very granular understanding of where you fit in the grad school world in your discipline. People outside of your department have no clue about your strengths, aspirations, who is doing what research, and where you will find an active and engaged mentor.

This isn’t just about Harvard- this is about making sure that you aren’t “wasting” your other 5 applications on programs which won’t be able to support your interests- and you are going to get that from active faculty in the field, not from “a few people”.


My GPA for my major courses is around a 3.6 I think? I don’t remember exactly but I know it’s above a 3.5.

There will be. We’re publishing a report that will likely come out after application deadlines but I can always pass along to admissions.

I’m stressed about my GRE scores. I’ve heard conflicting answers from people on how much it counts. Some people got into good programs with lower scores than me. Others tell me they’re convince the only reason they got into a certain school was because of their GRE scores.

When I say people I’m referring to professors in my department and old bosses who have poli sci PhDs

Yeah I have a couple schools from your first list but most of the schools I’m planning on applying to come from your second list (as does the school I graduated from).

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Both kind of. I graduated within the past year and I’m working at a think tank now.

You don’t “get into” a PhD program because of a GRE score. Although the weight varies by program, pretty much a GRE score can help you can make a cut (or be cut) but it is a filter metric, not a final thumbs up metric. Neither of the two PhD candidate selection committees that I have sat on were at Harvard, but I am hard pressed to believe that it would be different there.

The GRE is what it is. Your focus needs to be on your Statement of Purpose, and on giving your referees a good sense of what you are looking for from a PhD program and what they know of you that you think is relevant to your application.


Many schools of Harvard caliber are not requiring the GRE this year.

Results on Grad Cafe show acceptances with GRE’s in the 150s and GPAs in the 3.25-3.5 range so it certainly doesn’t seem out of the question. harvard political science •

More importantly, ask your advisors what they think, both in terms of research fit, and likelihood of admissions success.