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Last updated March 21, 2024

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How to Get Into Harvard

Key Takeaway

Ok, ok. No one's going to get into Harvard because they read a Key Takeaway — even though we're generally known across the land for writing some heaters. Here's the key takeaway: work hard. Write some damn fine essays. Pray. (Apply to some safeties.)

What, like it’s hard?

Legally Blonde reference aside, if you want to get into Harvard, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. It admits a measly 4% of its applicants.

If you want to avoid being in the 96%, your grades alone won’t cut it. Your application has a lot more work to do.

In this guide, I break down what it takes to get into Harvard and show you how to craft an application strategy that will catch your Harvard admissions officer’s attention.

Ready? Let’s go.

How to Apply to Harvard

You can apply to Harvard either through the Common Application or Coalition. Harvard doesn’t have a preference, so you should use whichever system you prefer. Regardless of how you submit, you’ll have several boxes to check off your list.

Harvard requires:

  • Your completed application, including an activities list and personal statement
  • The Harvard supplement
  • Your standardized test scores (currently optional)
  • Your official high school transcript
  • A School report
  • A counselor letter of recommendation
  • Two teacher letters of recommendation

If you’re applying to any other colleges (which you should be—don’t put all your eggs in the Harvard basket!), then you’ll likely have several of these items already ready to go. Just be sure to save enough time for the Harvard supplement.

Harvard Application Options

Harvard has one of those almost-Early-Decision-but-not-actually-Early-Decision options called “Restrictive Early Action.”

Technically, it’s not binding in the same way an Early Decision application is. But it is, as the name implies, restrictive.

To be more specific, it restricts the kinds of other early applications you can submit. If you apply REA to Harvard, you can’t apply Early Action or Restrictive Early Action to any other private institution in the United States. You also can’t apply Early Decision I anywhere.

For the majority of applicants, an REA application to Harvard just doesn’t make much sense. It’s too restrictive and limits your other (more realistic) options too much.

If you’re not willing to deal with that level of restriction, then Regular Decision is probably the way to go.

Harvard Application Deadlines

Restrictive Early Action: November 1

Regular Decision: January 1

How hard is it to get into Harvard?

It should go without saying that getting into Harvard is hard.

It’s among the top few most prestigious universities anywhere in the world. In terms of acceptance rate, it ranks alongside schools like Stanford and MIT.

To be frank, your chances of getting into Harvard are so low that we categorize it as a “super reach” for basically every student. When acceptance rates get so low, the Harvard admissions committee has thousands and thousands of the world’s most qualified applicants to choose from. You simply can’t predict who will be good enough to get in.

What does Harvard look for in applicants?

Harvard has an entire website section dedicated to what they look for in applicants, but I want to draw out a particular excerpt:

Harvard admissions officers select applicants “who seem to use to offer the most promise for future contributions to society.”

They go on to say that sometimes those who are most prepared academically don’t offer the most promise, and sometimes those with the most promise lack adequate academic preparation.

This point comes back to one of our guiding principles at Admit Report: colleges, especially the most selective ones, want good alumni.

Think about it all the Harvard alumni you can name. They’re some of the most famous people in the world and in history. Why? Sure, the fact that they attended Harvard likely has to do something with their fame. But there’s another reason.

Harvard admits applicants who they think will be good alumni. They’re people who are unafraid to go out into the world and do something. They have the book smarts, but they also have a kind of boldness—that “promise” that the Harvard admissions page describes.

If you want to get into Harvard, you have show them that you’re that kind of person.

Easy, right?

Let me pull out one more excerpt, which I think you’ll find illuminating. Harvard says: “We believe that you should prepare for college by mastering certain subjects and skills.”

While it may seem overwhelming to have to show that you’re in the same league as Yo-Yo Ma, Conan O’Brien, and T.S. Eliot, you don’t have to be anyone but yourself. To make yourself a compelling candidate, however, you’ll need to find where you excel and run with it.

Harvard GPA requirement

Harvard’s application review process is holistic, so you don’t need a specific GPA to apply.

But c’mon—it’s Harvard! You’re almost certainly going to need a good GPA to get in.

So what’s a “good” GPA? Well, of Harvard’s class of first-year enrolled students, almost 73% had a perfect 4.0 GPA. I’m not exaggerating. That’s almost three-quarters of the entire class. Moreover, 93% of Harvard’s first-year class were themselves in the top tenth of their high school graduating classes.

If you want to get into Harvard, your GPA will probably need to be perfect or near-perfect.

Harvard SAT Scores

Harvard doesn’t have any score cutoffs, and it has announced that its test-optional policy will remain in place for students in the 2027 to 2030 classes.

If you’re deciding whether to submit your scores, there are a few numbers you should know about. The following ranges are what we call the “middle 50%,” which represent the score ranges in which the middle 50% of enrolled students scored.

Let’s take a look.

SAT Reading: 730-780

SAT Math: 750-800

ACT Composite: 33-36

So of those who submitted the ACT, the middle-of-the-road half earned somewhere between a 33 and a 36. If you want your scores to help out your application, they should be within these ranges—or, even better, at the upper end. Note that a 36 is a perfect score on the ACT, so fully 25%+ of Harvard’s class who submitted an ACT had a perfect score.

There’s a lot of nuance that goes into deciding whether to submit your scores, so be sure to check out our test-optional strategy post for more information.

Does Harvard superscore?

“Superscoring” happens when a school takes your best scores for each standardized test section, even if you earned them in different test sittings, and combines them into one “superscore.” This process is a huge help for applicants because it often leads to a higher composite score than from a single test date.

When it comes to Harvard, there’s some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that Harvard doesn’t technically superscore, meaning they won’t create a new superscore for you. That said, you’re still able to submit all your scores, and Harvard admissions officers will still take note of your highest section scores. So it’s not a formalized superscoring process, but they won’t completely ignore your best section scores, either.

What high school coursework do I need to get into Harvard?

Are successful Harvard applicants actually mutant super-students? Perhaps. But they take high school classes, just like the rest of the world.

So what makes the difference?

For starters, successful Harvard applicants take course rigor to the next level. They load up on as many AP, IB, or dual-enrollment classes as they can, and they do really well in them. They may even take on extra academic challenges, like self-studying for an AP exam, taking summer classes at a community college, or doing online coursework through programs like Coursera.

Successful Harvard applicants also focus on learning for learning’s sake. Harvard is Harvard because it’s filled with people who have an unrelenting drive to ask questions and find answers. If you want to join their community, you should act like it—when in Rome!

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the course disbursement Harvard recommends:

English: 4 years

Math: 4 years

Science: 4 years

Foreign language: 4 years

History: 3+ years

Interestingly, Harvard is quick to note that you don’t actually need to take calculus to get into Harvard, even if you’re planning on majoring in a STEM field.

As you’re planning your coursework, you may find that you’re limited by what your school offers. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Harvard admissions officers will always look at your school report to contextualize your transcript, so you won’t be penalized because you have fewer options. That said, you’ll get extra attention from your admissions officers if you find out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities to make up for it.

What extracurriculars do I need to get into Harvard?

Remember what we went over in the “What Harvard Looks for in Applicants” section? Well, your extracurriculars are a big part of where you can demonstrate your “promise.”

What your extracurriculars specifically are doesn’t matter nearly as much as why and how well you do them. Whether you’re involved in academic extracurriculars like research or out-of-the-classroom activities like theatre, you’ll need to make sure you write about them in a way that is compelling to admissions. Hint: see the next section for more on how to do this.

Final Takeaways + Harvard Supplemental Essays

Alright, take a deep breath—you’ve made it through the guide! We’ve covered a lot, and some of the information was intimidating. But since you’re applying to Harvard, I know that you’re up for the challenge.

Once you’ve got your Harvard application strategy down pat, it’ll be time to move on to your Harvard supplemental essays. We have a lot of advice about your essays, so we’ve broken it up into a separate post. When you’re ready, hop on over to our Harvard Supplemental Essay guide to get started.