How does one unlock the gates of the prestigious Harvard University when the numbers are so profoundly stacked against you? For the incoming freshman class of 2017, Harvard expects to receive more than 40,000 applications for 1600 seats. So getting in—even for the strongest student—is no easy task. That said, if you have the right numbers and follow the right sequence of steps, you may be able to gain the entrance you seek. But before I go any further, you must understand that many before have tried, and failed, to enter the kingdom. Among those who have failed to bend the wind in their favor are countless valedictorians, perfect test scorers, sons and daughters of Fortune 500 executives, and founders of countless clubs, charities, and organizations. While each of these factors is something one should be proud of, overplaying your hand at Harvard will only get you a roll of the eyes from the gatekeepers.
Here are four factors to consider that can get you into Harvard:
- Numbers Matter.
Of course, this is no revelation. Without the right stuff in the form of numerical data, you can’t even cross the mote to approach the doors to the kingdom. This is about as ironclad a factor as you will ever encounter. However, this does not mean that you must have perfect test scores or grades, nor does it mean that you must have eight notches on your AP holster. It does mean that you must have really good test scores, really good grades, and perhaps more than a few AP classes. Harvard will not dismiss your application simply because you have a B in Biology, or if you took only 4 APs. Harvard does, however, require the expected high scores on the SAT or ACT, and on at least two SAT Subject Tests.
- What They Look For.
Harvard understands that you are a high school student, not a CEO, a debutante, or a politician. So, just be yourself! Don’t try too hard to show Harvard how great or successful or polished or powerful you are. Pick a couple of things you do, or have done, and build your application around those things. The folks at Harvard Admissions are quite down-to-Earth. You are far more likely to find them eating at Panera than at Chez Paul, or even packing a bag lunch as they sift through application after application. Their directive, as handed down by the dean of admission, is to find a diverse group of students who will add to the overall culture of the campus. “Obsessive” is a bad word at Harvard Admissions, because obsessive students tend to detract from the Harvard culture. So, don’t be obsessive. Be a real person with attributes and flaws, and with realistic-though-optimistic visions, hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future.
- Plan Early.
Your application should be your emissary. It should tell a story, paint a picture, or represent you in the best possible light. It should illustrate, but not overplay, your strengths. The process of application resume building should begin far earlier than 11th grade. It can begin as early as middle school, or certainly by ninth grade when far fewer students have caught on to the need to pad their application with charitable actions, internships, and diverse cultural activities. And you should know that Harvard Admission has a sniffer out for application stuffing. So, take your eight-page application and reduce it down to two. A daunting eight-page application can actually be a deal killer. Conversely, a short, sweet, impressive application is a breath of fresh air when it is the 100th one they have reviewed on a particular day. As for your essays (Common Application or Universal Application, plus the Harvard supplemental essay) they should be beautiful, masterful, and well constructed to give insights into your persona—who you are and how you think. But as with your activities lists, Shakespeare beats Tolstoy; depth beats breadth. Use your 650 words wisely. Ultimately, it is the topic you choose and your mastery of words that will get you noticed. Ideally, you want to elucidate without bragging or boasting. Don’t tackle world peace on your application essay. You would be better off focusing on the importance of a rivet in a bridge, or the shape of the wing of the peregrine falcon. See the larger picture in smaller details, or the most minute of details in a larger picture—let your choice of topic reveal something about you. You can address world peace after you graduate.
- Play the Quota Card.
I am not referring to ethnic quotas, but rather, to broad human diversity quotas. Think about what you have that Harvard needs. Do you play the trombone? Are you a registered republican? Are you an entrepreneur, an author, or a musician? Did you invent something, discover something, or propose something? Are you published, recognized, or quoted? If you think of the Harvard campus as being the ultimate tapestry of diversity, figure out what kind of square you are—what fabric and color, weight and texture. Make sure Harvard fully understands the value you could potentially bring to the college campus as they prepare to stitch together the freshman class quilt.
So, there you have the four keys to the kingdom. Use them wisely and may the odds be ever in your favor.