Harvard University Guide

The Ivy Scholars guide to Harvard University’s culture, admissions, and other essential information for prospective students and their families.

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mascot: John Harvard, The Pilgrim

Type: Private Research Institution

Population: 6,500 undergrads, 23,000 total

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About Harvard University

Built in 1636 along the Charles River a few miles west of Boston, Harvard University is considered the oldest institute for higher learning in the United States. Known for its academic prestige, this Ivy League has the largest endowment of any academic institution and is a highly residential college with a postgraduate focus. It’s often said that those who graduate from Harvard will become the political and scientific elite of the world.

Harvard University Statistics

Year Founded: 1636

4 Year Graduation Rate: 98%

Gender Distribution: 51% male, 49% male

Acceptance Rate: 5%

Residency: 17% in state, 62% out of state, 21% international

Location Type: Urban

Schedule System: Semesters

Student/Faculty Ratio: 6:1

Average Class Size: 12

Demographics: 41.8% Caucasian, 31.16% Other, 13.5% Asian, 8.19% Hispanic/Latino, 5.35% Black

National Rankings

US News Rankings:

  • #2 National Universities
  • #2 Best Value Schools
  • #5 Writing in the Disciplines
  • #10 Senior Capstones
  • #14 Undergraduate Research/Creative Projects
  • #17 Most Innovative Schools
  • #21 Study Abroad
  • #25 Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs
  • #34 Best Undergraduate Teaching
  • #58 First-Year Experiences

Independent Rankings:

  • #1 Hardest Colleges to Get Into in America per Niche
  • #1 Research Universities per Forbes
  • #1 National Universities per The Times of Higher Education
  • #4 Top Private Universities in America per Niche
  • #4 Best Colleges in America per Niche
  • #8 Best Value Colleges & Best Career Placement per The Princeton Review
  • #13 Colleges with the Best Professors in America per Niche
  • #14 Best Colleges for Student Athletes per Niche

Harvard University Admissions Information

Application Deadlines:

  • Early Action: November 1st
  • Regular Decision: January 1st
  • Transfer Deadline: March 1st

Notification Dates:

  • Early Action: Mid-December
  • Regular Decision: Late March

Acceptance Rates:

  • Early Action: 13.9%
  • Regular Decision: 3.21% 
  • Transfer: 1%

Average Applicant Pool: 43,000

Average Number of Applicants Accepted: 2,000

Average Number Enrolled: 1,600

Application Systems: Common App, Coalition App

Average GPA: 4.18 weighted

SAT Scores: 25th percentile – 1460, 75th percentile – 1580

ACT Scores: 25th percentile – 33, 75th percentile – 35

Comprehensive Breakdown

Demonstrated Interest: Harvard does not consider demonstrated interest.

Recommendation Letter Policies:

Harvard requires two teacher recommendations in different academic subjects. Additional recommendation letters are accepted after you apply.

Harvard Essay Prompts for 2021:

  • Common App Personal Statement (650 words)
  • Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)
  • 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)
  • 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:
    • Unusual circumstances in your life
    • Travel or living experiences in other countries
    • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
    • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
    • How you hope to use your college education
    • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
    • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
    • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
    • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?
    • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.
  • For International Students: What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive? (0-50 words)

Harvard Essay Writing Tips


  • Transfer students must have completed at least one year of academic coursework, but no more than two. On average, 12 transfer students are accepted each year. Only students enrolled in liberal-arts style programs are allowed to transfer (as opposed to vocational or professional schools).
  • The application must be submitted on the Common App or Coalition App. Harvard’s supplemental essays are required, as are standardized test scores, two letters of recommendation from college instructors, and college and high school transcripts.

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Harvard University Academics

Core Requirements:

  • Approximately ⅓ of undergraduate courses go towards core requirements.

Courses of Study: 

Majors are referred to as “Concentrations”. Popular majors include: Computer Science, Political Science and Government, History, Public Health, Psychology, and English.

Minors are referred to as “secondary fields”.

AP Credit Policies:

  • Harvard will grant credit for Advanced Placement exams only if a student activates Advanced Standing. Incoming students who have taken AP exams need a total of 32 credits to be eligible for Advanced Standing. Credits are earned by scoring 5 on a minimum of four AP exams. Harvard confers 4 or 8 credits for each eligible AP exam depending on whether the exam covers one semester or one full year’s worth of material.
  • Comprehensive AP Credit Information

Academic Strategy

Admissions Criteria: 

The three key aspects of admissions are: academic excellence, extracurricular distinction, and personal qualities. Students who excel in all of these areas are the ones Harvard actively looks for.

All applicants are rated on six-point scales (with 1 the highest) in the following categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, recommendation letters, personal, and alumni interview/overall rating. These grades may also have a +/- score, like letter grades in school. The overall rating is the most important, students with an overall rating of 1 are always accepted, those with one of 3- or below almost never are. The two most important categories within their rating scale for the overall rating are academic and personal.

Harvard states on their website the questions they try to answer about incoming students. The overall theme of the questions is: What has the student done, what does the student care about, and what does the student have the potential to do?

Legacy status is considered. Recruited athletes do have a boost in admissions, so long as their application is otherwise also strong.

Almost all students admitted to Harvard participate in an alumni interview, although it is technically optional.

What is Harvard Looking For?

Their goal with the admissions process is to separate the students who are “perfect” but just good, and the students who are “perfect” and great. The review process is holistic, with candidates examined by individuals, the most qualified then examined by regional subcommittees, and finally the top candidates debated by the full committee. 

They want students who will contribute meaningfully to life on campus, both as leaders and as people. They want to see both the academic and social impact admitted students will have on the campus environment. While students should have a singular focus, they should be strong across the board academically and in terms of their personal characteristics. 

Thanks to a recent lawsuit, Harvard’s admission rubrics have been released. While all ratings are still subjective, they do give an idea of what the school is looking for. Students earning a perfect 1 for academics will not only have perfect grades and test scores, but show a strong potential for future academic growth, and evidence of learning and conducting research outside the classroom. Test scores and grades which are merely excellent will earn a rating of 3.

A 1 in extracurriculars goes to students who have shown distinction in their activities at a national or international level, with potential for future growth. A 3 is for students who participate deeply, but don’t have any particular distinction to differentiate them. 2s go to students with statewide or regional distinction and a high level of involvement.

The athletic rating is the most straightforward. 1 is for recruited varsity athletes, 2 is for strong athletes who are recruited, and 3 is for students who did a lot of sports, but not at a high level. Scores of 4 or below represent students who didn’t or couldn’t participate in sports.

The personal rating, which was the main subject of the lawsuit, is also the most subjective. The rubric denotes students scoring a 1 are “outstanding” while those scoring a 6 display “Worrisome personal qualities.” Being “generally positive” will earn a 3, being “bland” a 4. The main takeaways are don’t be a terrible person, and don’t be boring, especially in the interview.

The letter of recommendation ratings are more subjective, but follow that the more highly praised a student is by teachers, the better the score. Thus the best student ever/in ten years, will likely receive a 1, while a generally positive letter will earn a 3.

Harvard Strategy:

Students who earn a score of 1 in any of the categories for admission are incredibly rare, and those who do, especially in social, academic, or extracurricular, are far more likely to be admitted. Thus your main focus should be determining where best you can stand out, and shoring up other areas so that they pass muster with a 2 or 3.

The students with the highest chances of admissions are the special cases: recruited athletes, legacy admits, children of faculty, and special interest students recommended by deans. As most students will not fall into any of these categories, they should instead focus on where they can best stand out, and making sure that they have accomplished things of note in their chosen area. 

Harvard has and maintains a commitment to diversity; this was part of the reason for the lawsuit. Thus students who stand out from their peers are of greater interest, and have better chances of admission overall.

For the best shot at admissions, your scores in academics, social, extracurriculars, and recommendations should be 3 or higher. Athletics doesn’t hurt you if it’s low, but can help if it’s a 1. At least one of your scores should reach a two, and the more you have in that range, the greater your chances. Students with a 1 in at least one category had their admissions chances increase ten-fold, students with an overall score of 1 were always admitted. Thus you should hone your strengths, and shore-up any potential weaknesses.

Special Programs

Honors Programs:

  • English Honors/Departmental Honors (based on work done in concentration)
  • Latin honors/College Honors (based on entirety of student record)

Research Availability:

  • Research is available to all Harvard undergraduates as early as their freshman year.

Study Abroad: 

Business Options: 

Harvard does not have an explicit pre-business track or concentration. With that in mind, there are majors available that are geared towards a pre-business mindset.

Pre-Med Options:

While Harvard does not have a pre-med program, they do provide recommendations on which courses to take to remain on a pre-med track.

Pre-Law Options:

Computer Science Options: 

Additional Specialty Programs: 

Programs for High Schoolers:

Harvard’s Summer Programs have two offerings for advanced high schoolers, both a two-week and a seven-week program. These allow students to get a feel for college life, and a sense of what they might learn. The longer program allows students to take courses for credit.

Student Life at Harvard University

School Motto:  Truth

Mission and Values:

  • Mission: “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.”
  • Values: Respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others; Honesty and integrity in all dealings; Conscientious pursuit of excellence in one’s work; Accountability for actions and conduct in the workplace.

Harvard Housing and Dining System:

Harvard’s Residential College System consists of four residential neighborhoods called Yards. First-year students live in one of 17 dorms next to Harvard Yard and eat the majority of their meals in Annenberg Hall. Classrooms, libraries, mail, and Annenberg are all within a five-minute walk of every first-year dorm. Most dorms are suites with two to four bedrooms and a common room.

  • Annenberg Hall: Click this link to view a sample menu of the food offered at Annenberg Hall. 
  • The House System: The upper class House System is one of Harvard’s best known traditions. At the end of your first year, you’ll be placed into one of Harvard’s 12 Houses. Each House accommodates between 350 and 500 students and forms a small academic and social community within the larger context of the College.

Housing Statistics:

  • Freshmen are required to live on campus.
  • 98% of undergraduates live in on-campus housing for the entirety of their stay.

Campus & Surrounding Area:  

  • Separated by the Charles River, Cambridge and Boston encompass the Harvard campus giving it both a college town and city college feel. Harvard houses many artisanal coffee shops, book stores, and museums that contribute to the campus’s overall hipster-like quality.  
  • Nearby attractions include museums, Fenway Park, The Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall, Boston Harbor islands, Atlantic beaches, ski slopes and forests.
  • Virtual Tour



  • The Game – Since 1875, the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs have faced off in an annual event simply known as “The Game.” It’s more than just a football game—it’s a rivalry that stays with Harvard students throughout their lives.
  • Cultural RhythmsCultural Rhythms is an annual cultural festival that celebrates Harvard’s rich diversity by showcasing student performances and ethno-cultural cuisine from over 30 student organizations.
  • Yardfest – An all-day event that happens every Spring semester and includes student-led opening acts, celebrity performances, and a barbecue in the yard.
  • ARTSFirstThe ARTS FIRST festival is a four day event filled with performances, exhibitions and art-making opportunities for Harvard students, faculty and affiliates. 
  • First-Year Day of ServiceThis is an annual Harvard College event that introduces first year students to our neighbors in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville through service.
  • Housing Day – The week before Spring Break, first-years learn their upper-class housing assignments.
  • VisitasEach year, Harvard admits are invited to come spend a few days on campus. During Visitas, admitted students stay in first-year dorms, eat in the dining halls, take part in events, attend classes, and meet others who are considering Harvard.

Student-Run Organizations: 


Greek Life:

Greek organizations are not seen as compatible with the university’s Jesuit mission, so none are recognized officially by the school There are still 10 fraternities and 11 sororities at the school.


While Harvard isn’t known for its nightlife, being sandwiched between the cities of Cambridge and Boston offers plenty of opportunities for a fun night out.

Financial Information

Yearly Cost of Attendance:

  • Total: $75,890
  • Tuition: $49,653
  • Fees: $4,329
  • Room & Board: $18,389
  • Books: $1000
  • Personal Expenses: $2,500

Financial Aid, Scholarships and Grants:

At Harvard University, the Griffin Financial Aid Office provides 100% need-based aid allowing students of all financial backgrounds the opportunity to attend Harvard. For families with annual incomes below $65,000, the expected contribution is zero and families with incomes between $65,000-$150,000 will contribute between 0%-10% of their annual income.

  • Over 50% of students receive need-based scholarships
  • 20% of students attend Harvard for free
  • The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Scholarship program offers more than 2,000 opportunities to receive financial help.
  • Students can apply for need-based scholarships and grants through FAFSA.
  • If you are a Massachusetts resident, you may be eligible for a Gilbert Grant.

Additional Financial Aid & Student Loan Information

Net Price Calculator 

Scholarships Opportunities


Fun Facts

  • Harvard University was originally called “New College” and was originally a school for educating clergymen.
  • The Statue of Three Lies in the Harvard Yard is the third most photographed statue in the US. It contains three incorrect facts: 1) John Harvard was not the founder, he was the first benefactor. 2) Harvard was founded in 1636, not 1638. 3) The statue is actually not John Harvard, as there are no living representations of him.
  • Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence attended Harvard including John Hancock, John Adams, and Samuel Adams. 
  • Eight Harvard alumni have become US Presidents: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Rutherford B. Hayes, John Quincy Adams, and John Adams.
  • The dents in some of Harvard’s sidewalks are believed to be from cannonballs thrown from dorm rooms windows during the American Revolution. 
  • Harvard Library is the largest academic library in the world.
Wendy Y.
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