How to get into Harvard University

Established in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest and best known university in the USA, if not the world. It has become a byword for high quality education, prestige and success.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University is a founding member of the Ivy League, a group of eight outstanding American universities known for their academic excellence. Ivy League institutions dominate the rankings, and Harvard University has topped the Times Higher Education  World Reputation Rankings since 2011, while the QS World University Rankings 2024, places it fourth , globally, with an overall score of 98.3.

Harvard University has produced eight American presidents, including George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, 62 billionaires, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winners, leading actors and directors, 150 Nobel prize winners  and a host of  Olympic medallists. Harvard University prides itself on shaping leaders in every field of endeavour and, if you want to join its 9,900 undergraduates and become an Ivy League alumnus, you will need to convince the admissions board that you, too, can excel and have the drive and talent to carry on the Harvard University legacy.

How to get into Harvard - The acceptance rate

Harvard University, like every Ivy League university, is highly oversubscribed and around 95-96 percent of applicants will inevitably be rejected every year. In order to maximize your chances of being in the lucky minority who receive an offer of a place, you need to understand the process, exactly what Harvard University is looking for, and how your application will be assessed.

Here are a few pointers for getting into Harvard University:

  • If you are an athlete, your chances of applying successfully are increased 100 fold, since although athletes only make up one per cent of the application pool, they account for 10 per cent of acceptances. “Athletic prospects” is one of the four elements scored in your application form – along with academic potential, extra-curricular activities and personal qualities. The application process offers you an opportunity to submit additional materials, such as artworks, music, choreography etc, and if you are talented in a specific sport, you could consider requesting permission from the Application Committee to upload evidence. Remember Ivy League universities are highly competitive when it comes to sports, and Harvard will always be on the lookout for someone who can make a difference in collegiate athletics competitions- which were the original reason for creating the Ivy League, and include 33 sports:17 played by men, 16 by women.
  • If another member of your family has attended Harvard, you fall into the category of legacy applicant, and this significantly improves your chances of securing a place. The same is true of children of faculty members and staff, and applicants who have outstanding academic achievements, or what was formerly known as the Dean’s List. Taken together, these factors raise your chances of acceptance from 4 to 45 per cent. Some 30 per cent of Harvard’s students fall into these ALDCs categories.
  • Harvard University pays close attention to the letters of recommendation you have to send in from two teachers, and these too are assessed and analysed according to a numerical score. Thus, if you are “the best student I have ever taught”, you will be allocated a 1; if, however, you are “the best student in class” or “the best student this year”, then you will receive a 2 in this section of the process. Choose your referees carefully and make sure that they are aware of guidance for writing recommendations.
  • Harvard has a clear diversity policy and appreciates individuals who have overcome adversity in their lives – whether this is ill health, poverty, obstacles to education – and these in no way disadvantage you when applying.
  • You may be offered an interview with a Harvard alumnus once your application has been submitted. International students will only receive an invitation to this type of interview if there are Harvard alumni available in their country of residence The interviewer will know your name and the name of your school, but will not have access to your application form or any other material. The interviewer will produce a summary of their views and impressions, so take this seriously and make sure that you communicate who you are and what you offer, and why you will make a valuable contribution to Harvard and deserve to study in an Ivy League university.

How to get into Harvard - Getting into Harvard University – what is the university looking for?

Harvard University has set out what it is looking for in applicants and emphasises its holistic approach to candidates. In short, this means that having great scores and passing exams with brilliant marks is only part of the picture. Dean Fitzsimmons, in an interview with the New York Times, took great pains to emphasise how much time is spent discussing every application, and voting on whether or not to offer a place .

Harvard’s list of character traits and descriptions of the ideal candidate can be summed up as: individuals with potential and drive. Like all Ivy League universities, Harvard sees its mission as educating the next generation of leaders, whether this is in politics, administration, business, the law or the arts. Leaders have to show initiative and take advantage of opportunities which present themselves. They should have confidence, energy and a high degree of motivation. Leaders also need to be open to new ideas and have passion mixed with talent.

Harvard University looks for potential, and sets out to discover whether applicants have fully tapped their abilities, know where they are going and have shown engagement in different areas of their life: whether this is in academic studies, employment, sport, volunteering, or  extracurricular activities. The university wants to determine if applicants share its core values, of compassion, honesty and working towards excellence.

Each applicant’s personality is assessed in terms of enthusiasm, achievements, energy and high levels of commitment. If you are passionate about restoring old motorbikes, or etymology, are trying to produce the perfect geranium hybrid or charting the changing flight patterns of storks, tell them! It’s the commitment that counts at Harvard University.

How to get into Harvard - The application process

Harvard University accepts applications sent in through the centralised Common Application. 

You can apply for Early Admission, with a closing deadline of 1 November, or Regular Decision, which shuts on 1 January. Recent research has established that Early Admission is by far the better option, because the acceptance rate is 13.9 per cent, whereas the Regular Decision acceptance rate is a far lower 3 per cent. You will receive a reply by mid-December and mid-March, respectively, depending on when you upload your application. It is important to remember that if you are rejected in the Early Action round, you are not permitted to reapply through Regular Decision.

The application fee is currently $75 dollars, and this can be paid online.

Once you have filled in where you are applying in the Common App, and Elab is here to help you with the application, you will be faced with having to tackle the Harvard Questions.

The Harvard University Supplemental questions cover:

  • personal information
  • family
  • educational history
  • test scores you have achieved
  • extra-curricular activities and interests
  • a writing task – where you can submit an essay of your choice or respond to one of three prompts.

Whichever writing option you choose, try to convey your own, unique voice and produce a thrilling, memorable essay. Getting into Harvard University is  fiercely competitive, so steer clear of clichés and the obvious response. Remain true to your own character and interests, since Harvard appreciates individuality as much as team spirit.

How to get into Harvard - What happens to my application once it is received by Harvard University?

The first reader notes down citizenship, race, whether or not the applicant has legacy status, their test scores, athletic standing and socio-economic background. You, or your school, will be contacted if any information appears to be missing.

A numerical scale, ranging from 1-4, is then used to assess academic and extra-curricular accomplishments, personal qualities and the content of the letters of recommendation, as well as athletic prospects. To take one example, an athlete with national or international level achievements will be given a 1, while someone who is editor of the school newspaper will get a 3, and a student president or a competitor in a state or regional tennis tournament merits a 2. Applicants who are members of hobby or sports teams will get a 4. It is clear that excellence is, once again, the key to the grades your application is given.

As a rule of thumb, candidates with an overall score of 2 and above are passed on to the first committee stage – the subcommittee. The applicant is introduced to the subcommittee by a representative, and the sub-committee members vote whether or not to take the application further and pass it up to the full committee, where the final decision is made. According to the Dean of Harvard, the full committee has been known to spend an hour discussing a single application, since this is a time-consuming and very thorough process, in which each application can end up being read four times.

The Harvard newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, notes that certain applicants have been rejected because a committee member stated  “we have enough mathematicians” or because an interviewer found the candidate “withdrawn”. So, the human element and the quest for a balanced intake both play a major part in whether or not you will get into Harvard University.

It has also been pointed out that several applicants’ offers have been withdrawn by Harvard University after their social media accounts came under scrutiny and revealed sexist, racist or unacceptable views. You would be well-advised to bear this in mind.

How to get into Harvard - The cost

Ivy League universities are not cheap, but over 70 percent of Harvard University  students benefit from the university’s generous financial aid packages. You need to apply for financial aid by 1 November if you are submitting your application for Early Action, and 1 February if you have chosen Regular Decision. This can be a complex and time-consuming task, so contact Elab for help and support in preparing the right paperwork. If you are successful in being offered a place, you will receive an estimate of  Harvard’s aid package along with your acceptance letter.

Harvard operates a need-blind admissions policy. It has a sliding contribution scale when it comes to tuition fees, accommodation, dining plans and expenses. If the family income is under $65,000 a year (and the value of your main home is not taken into account), then you will pay no contribution. Families who earn from $65,000-$150,000 will be asked to contribute from 0-10 percent of the annual costs.

In 2024, the average annual cost of attending Harvard University was $82,866.00.

How to get into Harvard - Is it worth applying?


Harvard University is one of the leading universities in the world and will transform your CV, career prospects and potential. It opens doors you have probably not even dreamed of approaching. Harvard University, like all the Ivy League universities, is a richly-endowed and resourced institution, with outstanding teaching staff. It also has facilities that help it stand head and shoulders above other centres of teaching and learning, not only in the USA, but globally.

If you have an enquiring mind, the energy to push through obstacles, the commitment to pursue your intellectual curiosity, wherever it may lead you, Harvard will play its part in helping you to expand the boundaries of knowledge. Harvard’s General Education Program, which replaced its Core Curriculum, sets out to meet the needs of the students and to create a bridge between education and life outside university. There are eight categories of courses:

  • Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding
  • Culture and Belief
  • Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning
  • Ethical Reasoning
  • Science of Living Systems
  • Science of the Physical Universe
  • Societies in the World
  • United States in the world

I am keen on getting into Harvard University, what is the first step?

Get in touch with us, here at Elab, so that we can  help you to prepare your application for Harvard University. We have sent many students to Ivy League colleges, including Harvard. This is how we can put you in touch with our mentors who are currently studying at this prestigious centre of academic excellence.

Call or drop us an email. Our experienced US consultants will start the process of preparing your application.In addition, they will ensure you meet the requirements and are ready to write the all important essay and present yourself at interview. We will provide you with any information you need on Ivy League universities, Harvard, living in the USA, visa regulations, accommodation, financial aid etc.

In view of the stiff competition for places from highly-gifted students, Elab recommends that when applying to Harvard, or other Ivy League universities, you also consider applying to a few of the other fantastic universities that the USA has to offer, just in case.

  • Introduction
  • Diagnostics
  • Personal Profile Map
  • Research
  • University Report
  • Final application choices
  • Application process plan
  • Mentor Program
  • Exam and Interview prep
  • Document completion
  • Application portal setup
  • Submission
  • Acceptance
  • Pre-departure procedures
  • Finances
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