How to Get Into Harvard University - Step by Step Guide

How to Get Into Harvard University - Step by Step Guide

For many students in the U.S. and around the world, gaining admission to Harvard University is a cherished dream. Known for its prestige, Harvard's admissions process is famously competitive and challenging. While acceptance is difficult, it is achievable with diligent and dedicated effort. 

Prospective students should start their preparations early, keeping in mind the slim chances of admission. Harvard graduates are renowned as some of the world’s leading scholars and thinkers, often achieving remarkable success and making significant societal contributions.

Facts About Harvard University
Motto: Veritas (Truth)
Established: 1636
Type: Private
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Athletics: NCAA Division I – Ivy League
Nickname: Harvard Crimson

What is the acceptance rate at Harvard?

Harvard is extremely selective. For the class of 2026, Harvard received 61,221 applications and offered admission to 1,984 students. This results in an acceptance rate of just 3.2%, making Harvard one of the most selective universities in the U.S. For every 100 applicants, only about 3 are admitted. Harvard also boasts an impressive graduation rate, averaging 98%.

Given the highly selective nature of Harvard, you must stand out with exceptional grades and test scores to make it past the initial screening. Additionally, you will need to impress admissions officers with your overall application, including letters of recommendation, essays, extracurricular activities, athletics, and interviews.

This article provides answers to many frequently asked questions about Harvard, offering insights that may help you understand how to gain admission to one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

What SAT or ACT scores do I need to get into Harvard?

Due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and families, Harvard has announced that it will continue its test-optional policy for the classes of 2027, 2028, 2029, and 2030. If you choose to submit test scores, they will be considered during the review of your application. Achieving top scores on the SAT or ACT could provide an edge, but choosing not to submit scores will not count against you.

While Harvard did not release SAT score information for the class of 2026, the average SAT score for the class of 2025 was 1494. Scores varied based on factors such as socioeconomic background, athlete status, and legacy status. 

For example, non-athletes had an average SAT score of 1501, compared to 1397 for athletes. Legacy students averaged 1523, while non-legacy students averaged 1491. Students from households with annual incomes of $40,000 or less had an average SAT score of 1443, whereas those from households with incomes of $500,000 or more averaged 1520.

For the class of 2026, Harvard reported ACT scores at the 25th and 75th percentiles as follows:

ACT 25th percentile score: 34
ACT 75th percentile score: 36
Given the maximum ACT score is 36, a high score is essential for a competitive application.

When deciding which test to take, consider taking a pretest for both the ACT and SAT to determine which one suits you better. Focus your preparation on the test where you score higher. Begin your test preparation early, starting with the PSAT in your sophomore year. 

The PSAT helps familiarize you with the SAT format and can identify you as a promising student to Harvard. Scoring well on the PSAT in your junior year can qualify you as a National Merit scholar, providing a scholarship to help with education costs.

In addition to the ACT or SAT, consider taking SAT subject tests. While Harvard does not require them, it strongly recommends taking at least two. Following this recommendation can strengthen your application. Choose subject tests in areas where you excel and are interested. 

For instance, if you're interested in mathematics, take the SAT Math Level 1 or Level 2 test. If you're inclined towards physics, take the corresponding subject test. Excelling in subject tests showcases your strengths and enhances your application.

Is Harvard test-optional?

Harvard has announced that it will extend its test-optional admissions policy through the Class of 2030. The decision was made in light of the substantial impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students and families.

Applicants who choose not to submit ACT or SAT scores will not be at a disadvantage. However, if you do choose to include your scores, they will be considered as part of your application.

Although subject tests are no longer offered by the College Board, Harvard allows applicants to submit scores from any subject tests taken in the past five years.

High SAT or ACT scores can provide Harvard with additional insights into your academic abilities. If you have achieved a top score on one of these exams, it is advisable to include it with your application. Conversely, if your score is not within the top range, you might opt not to submit it and instead emphasize your strengths and achievements in other areas.

Does Harvard super score SAT and ACT results?

Harvard does not superscore your SAT or ACT results. Instead, admissions officers will consider the highest scores you achieved on each section of the SAT across different test dates, or your highest composite ACT score.

Required GPA

To be competitive for admission to Harvard, you need to earn top grades in high school. According to College Data, for the class of 2026, 76% of admitted freshmen had a GPA of 4.0 or above, and 18% had GPAs between 3.78 and 3.99. Additionally, 94% of admitted students ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes. 

Strive to graduate in the top 5% of your class, and ideally, aim to be valedictorian or salutatorian. Consistently check your class rank and work hard to maintain top grades.

Quality of Classes

The rigor of your coursework is also crucial. Straight A's in easy classes will not impress Harvard admissions officers. They want to see that you have excelled in challenging courses.

Recommended High School Coursework

Harvard does not prescribe a specific academic path but recommends that the strongest applicants complete the most difficult courses available at their schools. The recommended coursework includes:

  • Four years of English with a strong writing component
  • Four years of mathematics
  • Four years of science, including biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course
  • Three years of history, including European and U.S. history
  • Four years of the same foreign language
If your school does not offer some of these subjects, do not worry. Harvard evaluates your coursework within the context of what your school offers. If your school only provides two years of a foreign language or lacks advanced science courses, take what is available and excel. You can also consider taking supplemental courses at a local community college or university.

Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) Courses

If your school offers AP or IB courses, take them instead of regular courses. For example, taking AP Biology, earning an A, and scoring a five on the AP exam is more impressive than taking regular biology and earning an A. 

While Harvard does not grant college credit for AP or IB exams, performing well in these courses and on the exams demonstrates that you have taken advantage of the opportunities available to you.

Dual Credit or Dual Enrollment

If your high school does not offer many AP or IB courses, take the most challenging curriculum available. Many schools partner with local colleges or universities to offer dual credit or dual enrollment courses. Enrolling in these courses can show your preparedness for college-level work and your motivation to excel.

Seeking Help
If you find yourself struggling in a difficult class, consider hiring a tutor as soon as possible. A tutor can help you understand challenging concepts, achieve high grades, and may even spark an interest in subjects you previously found difficult.

By excelling in rigorous coursework and maintaining top grades, you can strengthen your application and improve your chances of gaining admission to Harvard.

Does Harvard accept AP credit?

Harvard does not grant credit for college coursework completed before matriculation. This means that AP tests, IB exams, or dual credit classes taken in high school will not earn you credit at Harvard. 

Additionally, Harvard no longer offers advanced standing exams, so all students start on an equal footing. However, completing these courses can strengthen your application, so you should still take them if available.

Getting into Harvard is challenging but achievable with dedication, focus, perseverance, and organization. Starting your preparations as early as possible is essential.

What extracurricular activities should I participate in to get into Harvard?

Harvard does not look for a specific extracurricular activity when evaluating applicants. Rather than focusing on the number of activities, Harvard values the depth and quality of your involvement. Many students believe they need to be well-rounded and participate in numerous extracurriculars to impress colleges, leading to overcommitment. 

Instead, you should choose activities that genuinely reflect your interests and passions. Seek leadership roles in the clubs or organizations you join. If your school does not offer a club that aligns with your interests, consider starting one.

Additionally, engage in activities outside of school. Identify issues in your community and think about how you can contribute to solving them. Demonstrating a spirit of volunteerism and a concern for others can highlight your character. If you can develop an innovative solution to a community problem, it will further strengthen your application.

What should I write in my personal statement for Harvard?

As part of your application, you will need to write a personal essay. This essay provides an opportunity to tell the admissions officers more about yourself and explain why you should be admitted to Harvard. Avoid simply listing your accomplishments; your essay should not be a repetition of your high school resume. Instead, it should be personal and showcase who you are as an individual.

Expect to write multiple drafts of your essay. Continue refining it until it is the best it can be. Do not let your parents write your essay for you—admissions officers can easily recognize when an essay has been written by someone other than the applicant, which can lead to immediate rejection. The admissions officers want to hear your voice and see the world from your perspective.

Consider asking someone you respect, such as a teacher or college admissions counselor, to review your essay and provide objective feedback. Be prepared to rewrite your essay as many times as necessary to make it compelling. In some cases, a well-crafted essay can significantly enhance an otherwise average application and tip the scales in your favor for admission.

Who should write my Harvard letter of recommendation?

Choose a recommender who is familiar with you and willing to invest the time needed for a robust recommendation. Your letters of recommendation play a crucial role as they provide Harvard's admissions officers with insights into your character from the perspective of others. 

Opt for teachers who have a deep understanding of you both academically and personally. Since you won't have access to their letters, make your selections thoughtfully. Harvard requires two teacher reports, each from different academic subjects. Once you receive your confirmation email, you'll find a link to share with your chosen teachers for their recommendations.

When should I start preparing to apply to Harvard?

Starting your preparations for Harvard as early as possible is highly recommended. Even if you're still in junior high, you have an advantage in laying the groundwork for your Harvard application. For high school students, beginning your preparations during freshman year is ideal. Harvard admires consistent academic excellence throughout high school.

If you're a sophomore, junior, or senior, it's not too late to start, but your timeline will be condensed, requiring more focused efforts in less time. Juniors and seniors who aspire to attend Harvard may not have much room to improve their GPAs, so they should prioritize standardized test preparation. Seniors with strong academic records should focus on completing their applications and maintaining high grades.

Starting early provides you with ample time to prepare thoroughly for the Harvard application process. If you're reading this, hopefully, you've already begun. If not, start your preparations now to make the most of your time.

Does Harvard require an interview as part of its application process?

Harvard seeks to interview applicants whenever possible. If an interview is feasible in your area, you'll receive communication from a Harvard alum via email, phone, or letter. It's crucial to respond promptly if contacted. However, not all applicants will be interviewed, and the absence of an interview request does not adversely affect your application.

If selected for an interview, preparation is key. Numerous online resources and blogs provide insights into Harvard application interviews. Additionally, speaking with individuals who have undergone these interviews can offer valuable perspectives on potential questions. 

While it's wise to anticipate questions, avoid giving rehearsed responses. Aim to remain relaxed and respond naturally to inquiries.

On the interview day, ensure you allocate enough time to arrive early. Punctuality is paramount; arriving late reflects poorly on your reliability. Dress appropriately for the meeting location; there's no need to overdress.

Lastly, attending the interview with a parent is discouraged. Doing so may suggest a lack of independence and confidence. Attend alone and be yourself. Prepare questions to ask the interviewer, showcasing your interest and engagement in the process.

Will visiting Harvard help me get in?

Visiting Harvard can indirectly enhance your chances of admission by demonstrating your interest and providing material for your personal essay. If possible, consider scheduling a visit to the campus. 

Exploring the grounds offers you insights into the campus atmosphere and community, helping you assess if it's the right fit for you. Harvard conducts information sessions and tours for visiting students and their families. If visiting in person isn't feasible, you can still take a virtual tour of the campus.

High school seniors also have the option to arrange an overnight stay at Harvard, where they will be hosted by an undergraduate student. This experience offers a glimpse into life and academics at Harvard. Additionally, you can schedule to attend a class during your visit. For those interested in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a supplemental tour of the school can be requested.

Harvard admissions officers travel nationwide twice a year to conduct information sessions. If you cannot visit the campus, consider attending one of these sessions near you. This provides an opportunity to learn more about the admissions process and get your questions answered.

What does Harvard look for in applicants?

Harvard emphasizes a holistic approach to reviewing each applicant, seeking individuals who will inspire their peers and faculty throughout their college journey and beyond. The admissions officers assess applicants based on several key characteristics:

Growth and Potential: Harvard evaluates an applicant's personal and academic growth, considering whether they have reached their maximum potential and if they've shown initiative and motivation. They look for self-motivated individuals with the capacity to continue evolving and striving for success.

Activities and Interests: The focus is on the depth rather than the breadth of an applicant's interests. Harvard seeks to understand if applicants care deeply about their pursuits, whether they've learned from successes and failures, and if they've maximized their involvement beyond academics.

Personal Character: Character plays a significant role in the Harvard community. Admissions officers examine applicants' choices, maturity, and concern for others. They value individuals who exhibit openness to new ideas, demonstrate grace under pressure, and show kindness and empathy towards others.

Contribution to the Community: Harvard evaluates whether applicants can handle the academic and social pressures of attending an elite institution. They seek individuals who will actively contribute to the Harvard community, both inside and outside the classroom, and who others would want to collaborate with in various settings.

Understanding these characteristics provides insight into what Harvard seeks in potential students and can help applicants present themselves effectively during the admissions process.

What did the 2018 Harvard admissions lawsuit show?

Harvard's admissions process is renowned for its difficulty, but insights from the Harvard admissions lawsuit suggest that certain applicants may have an advantage. Filed by a group of Asian-American students, the lawsuit alleged discrimination in Harvard's admissions, which the school denied.

In a ruling on October 1, 2019, the federal judge overseeing the case found no evidence of discrimination against Asian-American applicants in Harvard's admissions. However, the court did acknowledge the need for Harvard to address any unconscious biases among its admissions officers.

During the trial, evidence emerged shedding light on Harvard's somewhat opaque admissions process. This evidence indicated that applicants from specific backgrounds or regions had a higher chance of acceptance, including:

Students from the 20 rural states categorized by Harvard as "sparse country."
Athletes, legacies, applicants on the Director's or Dean's interest list, children of staff or faculty, or A.L.D.C.s (additional recruited athletes).

Students with particularly noteworthy personal qualities.
Students with compelling life stories and diverse backgrounds.
Each of these factors is examined in more detail below.

Does being from a rural part of the country help you get into Harvard?

Harvard actively seeks students from regions with low application rates, particularly from 20 predominantly rural states. These states, referred to as "sparse country," typically yield minimal applicants each year. The university initiates a recruitment process based on students' PSAT scores, particularly when they take the PSAT in their sophomore or junior years. 

While Harvard identifies potential recruits nationwide based on PSAT scores, the threshold for recruitment activities in "sparse country" tends to be lower on average compared to states with higher application volumes. Evidence presented during the 2018 trial on Harvard's admissions process indicated that white students from "sparse country" had a recruitment cutoff score of 1310.

Does my race or ethnicity impact my chances of getting into Harvard?

Harvard incorporates race and ethnicity into its admissions considerations. Evidence presented during the 2018 trial on the school's practices revealed that Black, Hispanic, Native American, and other minority students had a recruitment cutoff score of 1100, irrespective of their geographical locations. 

In contrast, white and Asian-American females from areas outside rural "sparse country" were required to have a cutoff score of 1350 to receive an invitation to apply, while white and Asian-American males needed a cutoff score of 1380. Students who receive and accept invitations to apply are twice as likely to be accepted compared to those who did not receive invitations.

Does being the son or daughter of a Harvard graduate (legacy status) help you get into Harvard?

Legacy status significantly impacts admissions at Harvard. Athletes, legacies, applicants listed on the director's or dean's interest list, and children of Harvard faculty or staff have notably higher admission rates compared to other applicants.

 Evidence from a 2018 trial concerning Harvard's admissions policies indicated that while A.L.D.C.s constitute approximately 5% of the applicant pool, they represent 30% of Harvard's student body. Moreover, A.L.D.C.s have a 45% admission rate, significantly higher than the overall admission rate of less than 5%.

Does engaging in athletics increase my chances of admission to Harvard?

While being a recruited athlete may enhance your likelihood of admission, merely participating in high school sports won't guarantee acceptance unless you rank among the nation's top athletes in your sport. If you possess exceptional talent, Harvard coaches might reach out to you starting in your sophomore year to begin the recruitment process.

 Throughout this process, continue excelling both in your sport and academics. Even if you're an elite athlete under Harvard's recruitment process, maintain high academic standards and strive for top SAT or ACT scores.

Does being extroverted improve my chances of Harvard admission?

Being extroverted could potentially boost your prospects at Harvard. Admissions officers evaluate applicants based on personal attributes, with evidence from a 2018 lawsuit suggesting that highly extroverted individuals tended to receive higher personal ratings. However, Harvard also encourages rating students who exhibit introspection and reflectiveness more favorably.

Are students from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be admitted to Harvard?
Another group that evidence suggests receives preference in Harvard admissions are those with compelling narratives or disadvantaged backgrounds. 

While financial need is a factor, individuals who have overcome various challenges may also have improved admission prospects. Hence, don't shy away from discussing your life's hurdles and how you've overcome them.

Not fitting into these preferred applicant categories doesn't preclude admission to Harvard, nor does inclusion guarantee acceptance. Regardless of background, meticulous preparation is crucial for maximizing your chances. Organize your schedule efficiently, seek guidance from a college admissions counselor, and develop an individualized plan tailored to your needs, interests, and aspirations.

Furthermore, effective organization not only optimizes your time but also enhances academic performance and sets a foundation for future success. While enrichment activities can foster personal growth, they don't inherently bolster your application. 

Instead of pursuing overseas programs, engage in local opportunities or summer camps aligned with your interests. Alternatively, showcase personal development through summer employment and volunteering if financial constraints limit other options.

How do I apply to Harvard?

Harvard accepts applications through the Coalition Application, Common Application, and Universal Application, without favoring any particular one. Ensure you complete and submit your application early, as the Common Application must be submitted before secondary materials like teacher reports and secondary school reports can be forwarded to Harvard.

Begin your application process well in advance to allow ample time for refinement. Ensure thoughtful responses to all questions and meticulously error-free materials. Having someone review your application before submission is advisable. If the application fee poses a financial burden, you can request a waiver. 

Expect an email confirmation from Harvard within two weeks of submitting your application. If you don't receive confirmation, contact the admissions office at 617-495-1551.

Harvard offers two admissions processes: early action and regular action. Early action is non-binding but restrictive; applicants may not apply to any other private U.S. institution through its early action process if applying to Harvard early action. The deadline for Harvard's Early Action is Nov. 1.

The regular action process has a deadline of Jan. 1, allowing more time for submission. Although applying early action doesn't increase acceptance chances, more students are accepted through this route. Applicants are notified of Harvard's admission decision in mid-December for early action and by the end of March or early April for regular action or deferred early action applicants.

Can social media history impact Harvard admission?

Yes, social media activity can affect Harvard admission. Instances of rescinded admission offers due to offensive online behavior have occurred. In 2017, 10 students lost admission offers after engaging in racially and sexually offensive discussions in a secret group. 

Similarly, Kyle Kashuv, a pro-gun advocate, had his offer rescinded due to past racist remarks. Given these incidents, it's crucial to exercise caution and maintain a positive online presence, as social media activities can influence admission decisions.

When does Harvard inform applicants of decisions?

Harvard notifies early action applicants in mid-December and regular decision applicants or deferred early action candidates by late March or early April.

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