Harvard requires two short supplemental essays, and has an optional third longer essay. While this essay is technically optional, we do recommend that students complete it, as every chance to give more insight into who you are should be taken, especially when applying to a school as competitive as Harvard. 

The first of the shorter essays is on one of your extracurriculars. The second is more of a list, and serves as an extension of your activities section. The final optional essay is far more open in topic. While Harvard does provide prompts to serve as guidelines, you are not required to follow or answer them. We’ll provide the questions, examples of how to answer them well, and analysis of what Harvard wants to see below.

Extracurricular - Example

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

Cotton swab, pen, aluminum foil, water. With some cutting, taping, and adjusting, these four materials would form my first stylus.

Dipping the tip into the water, I glided my hand across the touchscreen laptop. Swathes of colors tinted the screen in a bath of shades and textures as I studied my electronic canvas, rods and cones pulsating.

For 5 hours straight, I painted. A Martian landscape, a lively park, the glossy metallic interior of a cylindrical space settlement, futuristic buildings inside a lava tube.

For years, art fell by the wayside. However, when my space settlement design team needed graphics, robots, and construction outlines, I took responsibility. With each stroke, my painting skills recovered bit by bit. Since then I have become completely engrossed in digital design.

I’m eager to explore graphic media design: a synthesis of problems and data, dreams and desires.

Extracurricular - Analysis

This prompt is quite simple, and equally open ended. It provides a place to dive deeper into one of your extracurriculars than you could on your activities list. You should select one that shows you in an interesting light, and that gives admissions officers information about you they would not have otherwise. 

While the word count is quite short, you should try to include more in this essay than a mere description of what you did in this activity. Go into some of the lessons you learned, or display some values or character traits which are inherent to this activity. The goal is to show admissions officers a side of yourself they might not otherwise see, or give them deeper insight into what’s important to you.

In the example above, the author describes their reintroduction to art, and their renewed interest in creating digital art. They demonstrate their creative side, while also mentioning briefly their more intellectual pursuits. This allows the author to give a window into a different side of themselves, especially if they are applying as a science major. Showing their connection to art, a world born of the mind and expressed through color, light and shadow melding, is a perspective most don’t have. This makes the author stand out, and sets them apart from their peers.

Whatever activity you choose to discuss should either complement or supplement the rest of your application. You can dive deeper into an activity which reflects the major you want to do, and feeds into the overall narrative of your application. Alternatively, you can discuss an activity which shows you in a different light, and which adds more depth to your character. Neither approach is necessarily correct, and you should go for the one which lets you highlight the best aspects of your character.

Intellectual Activities - Example

Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (150 words)

SyncED Founder

  • created SyncED after winning the Leading for Life Business Challenge
  • earned financial and Business-to-Business support from the LEAD program
  • proposed plan for common application for high school summer programs and AI college counseling bot to help underserved students
  • consulted with industry experts, such as Pymetrics leadership
  • developed demo website and presented slide deck


Real Estate Mall Renovation Pitch

  • led team in conversion to outdoor mall
  • branded marketing towards sustainability, style, and safety
  • surveyed Cornell students to tailor stores and aesthetics
  • calculated Return on Investment and capital stack to ask for a value-add investment


Hapi Clothing (www.hapi.clothing) Partner

  • developed website and set-up product layout
  • photographer and editor of modeled pics
  • designed logo, early-patron letters, and other informational graphics
  • recorded financial transactions, generated income and cash-flow statements
  • calculated and improved customer acquisition costs, lifetime value, and conversion rates

Intellectual Activities - Analysis

This is a very open question, and is more of a short answer list than a proper essay. This serves as an extension of the activities list, where you can detail the less structured intellectual pursuits you were involved with. This is a place to detail independent projects, deep dives into obscure subjects, or things which were too unstructured to make it onto your activities list. You can also add more detail to entries on your activities list which did not get sufficient explanation there.

In the example above, the author details three of their independent projects, not in full sentences, but in brief spurts, to get as much information across as quickly as possible. If you have many subjects you want to cover, this is a good way to do so. The author demonstrates a high level of involvement in several independent projects, and demonstrates their initiative and intellectual curiosity. 

If you have fewer activities to discuss, then consider going in depth into a single one you were involved with. While it is nice to do as the author did, and show off a breadth of involvement, it is not possible for everyone. You should include activities to paint yourself in the best light, and focus on independent projects and achievements, or ones done outside the structures of school, with friends and peers.

"Optional" Essay - Example

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

And the Oscar goes to…

Movies. Those artistic endeavors with a mind-boggling array of moving parts that somehow come together seamlessly in a tight two-hour runtime. 

Movies were only a guilty pleasure used to fill the blank wastes of leisure time until my penchant for tabulation and data analysis drove me to organize my watching experiences. As I composed reviews for each film in my 80+ ranking list, patterns emerged. From the hypnotic fantasy of The Shape of Water to the hyper-realistic immersion of The Truman Show, each film introduced me to deeply rooted emotions that I didn’t even know existed – the hidden source of the searing beauty I saw again and again.

I was obsessed, but I managed to tear my eyes away from the silver screen long enough to gather a group of friends and enter the International Microsoft Imagine Cup Junior. As my team contemplated the creation of a technological innovation that would help the world, my favorite films fell into place as pieces of a interdisciplinary puzzle:

The Big Short. An insider’s account of the overexcitement and lack of transparency that led to the 2008 housing bubble. Wide-spread emotional perceptions dominated by fear, hope, and greed governed the fluctuations in the stock market. Observing the economic dilemma of shorting a recession, I reflect: how can we predict economic instability and its consequences on society? Perhaps behavioral economics can anticipate the moral externalities that enable financial crises.

Her. An impossible human-AI romance broken by a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of true love. After a depressed writer is ridiculed for his infatuation with an Operating System, he begins to question the validity of their shared emotions. Watching his perception of reality deteriorate, I ask: how can we improve destructive mental states? Perhaps artificial neural networks will allow us to quantify intangible feelings, unraveling the complexity of emotions and their behavioral effects.

Good Will Hunting. A janitor’s existential crisis that catalyzes his journey to self-actualization. Plagued by past and present emotional trauma, a self-taught intellectual genius forcibly represses his mathematical brilliance, continuing to work menial jobs. Witnessing a psychology professor help him accept his latent emotions and talents, I wonder: how can we ultimately attain satisfying lives? Will philosophy ever be able to generate the logic behind the sort of existences we deem fulfilling?  

The strands of inquiry sparked by these films came together in my team’s proposal to use physiological data in conjunction with semi-supervised machine learning to read emotional fluctuations of individuals prone to erratic behavior. If the machine detected alarming levels of sadness or distress, a prerecorded message would play and an emergency contact would be notified in hopes of preventing self-harm. Beyond the exhilaration that came with winning the competition, the experience cemented my belief in the cross-disciplinary pursuit in seeking solutions to humanistic problems. 

I now know that the guiding thread behind my movie ranking choices is a given film’s ability to help us understand emotion, the guiding current of humanity. From the cathartic achievement of “carpe diem” in American Beauty to the unsettling ethics of fraudulent journalism in Nightcrawler, movies are ideal laboratories, creating fictional worlds that magnify the emotions behind social phenomena.

Shaped by my engagement with film, I hope to pursue the interdisciplinary study of Cognitive Science. At Harvard, in addition to taking a robust combination of liberal arts and STEM courses, the Mind Brain Behavior program and Film and Visual Studies secondary will allow me to further probe the nature of our emotions. Whether it’s studying The Cognitive Neuroscience of Film in Italy or learning about emotions in an aesthetic context through Neuroaesthetics, Harvard is the screen on which I will watch my dreams take shape.

"Optional" Essay - Analysis

While this essay is technically optional, we recommend all students complete it. Admission into Harvard is extremely competitive, so any chance you have to show admissions officers more of how intelligent, passionate, and intellectual you are should be taken. This essay is quite long, and is a chance for you to demonstrate almost anything you think admissions officers should know about who you are as a person or scholar. You should cover new ground with this essay, and not repeat topics from your personal statement or the other essays if possible.

In the example above, the author covers many topics, with a through thread of movies. Overall, the essay has traits in common with a why major essay, as it explores why the author is interested in the subjects they are, and what intellectual avenues they desire to explore. They also manage to show off an impressive extracurricular achievement, and discuss the philosophy that underlies their experience.

The end of the essay ties the authors desires to Harvard explicitly. This is helpful, as Harvard does not have a why us essay. While Harvard assumes, often correctly, that everyone who applies wants to attend, it is still good to discuss why you want to attend Harvard specifically. This entire space should not be devoted to the subject, but a couple of lines can go a long way.

There is no single best subject to discuss, but any essay should give admissions officers new insight into you, and explore aspects of your character they wouldn’t see otherwise. The author’s love of films in the above example does this well. This is clearly a passion of theirs, but without this essay, that passion would never be known.

The philosophical dive into the message of the films, and the broader implications of the message, demonstrates the author’s intellectual vitality, and desire to understand subjects from multiple angles. Intellectual vitality is something top schools look for in students, and this essay is one of the best places to show it. Intellectual vitality, put simply, is a desire to learn and discover for its own sake, and a genuine curiosity about the world around you. 

The author does this in their essay when they discuss how they were drawn into understanding why they enjoyed the films they did, and what made those films so enjoyable, and allowed them to convey their message so well. They also displayed it when they combined several of the things they learned to create something new, and in so doing also showed off their ability with science and technology.

Whatever you end up writing about, you should try to display your best self to admissions officers. Show how you celebrate your curiosity and satiate your need for knowledge. The worst thing you can be in this essay is boring.

Harvard Quick Tips

  • For the first essay, get to the point as quickly as you can. You only have 150 words, so make each one you choose count.
  • For the second essay, a list format often works best. You have a very limited word count to use, so make sure you make the most of it. 
  • While the third essay is technically optional, you should do it anyway. This is your best chance to tell Harvard about something that you’re passionate about, and to show them what values you can bring to campus. We recommend always doing this essay.

Transform your college application.

Wendy Y.
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