So first things first: How long is the 500 kb limit imposed on the “optional” Harvard supplemental essay? Answer—Really, really long. Much longer than any essay you would want to write by a factor of magnitude; see here for more on just how long a 500 kb document would be: Discussion of 500kb.
I would suggest that you write an essay of 1-2 pages, or in word count, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. If in doubt: Write 1 page. Keep in mind your app reader or admissions officer—they have too much to do and too little time. To use the full two pages, you really need to be saying something important on this “optional” Harvard supplemental essay.
Your takeaway: Don’t abuse the app officer with a long essay and don’t repeat things they already know.
But do write the essay, unless you already have an offer to attend (Really, some people, most of them athletes, already know they can go if they want to. Feel that’s unfair? Consider how much money such a person brings to a university via happy alumni at football tailgating parties, etc, etc. It is as fair as life in general is . . . ).
Also remember that whatever you do in your essay, you do it in the spirit of sharing not of lecturing as you offer real insight into yourself, your goals, your values and your interests.
An interesting thought experiment to try before you write any of your college application essays is to consider how your college education might serve others, and how you might become more beneficial to society. As cynical as the colleges may seem at times as they compete for status, I do believe most of them still have that central mission in mind, and are trying to pick students who will go on to change the world for the better. Like the rest of us, colleges do have to earn a living and engage in somewhat less lofty behavior as they do, but still: creating well-rounded citizens is in the DNA of the American university system.
Enough about that. Let’s look at the Harvard prompts for this year.
I started my work on Harvard this year by comparing the Harvard prompts to the University of California Personal Insight Questions (the new name for the application essays for the U.C. system). If you have not seen that earlier post, here it is: U.C. Personal Insight vs. Harvard Supplemental. It would be a good idea to compare prompts across a range of our application targets to see where you can double up,as I do in this post–unless writing 20 or more essays and polishing them in the next three months, on top of your classwork, sounds like fun.
So let’s look at the Harvard prompts for 2016-2017 and then I will link you to my discussion on the traditional prompts:
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?
Please note: If you do not intend to provide a response to this optional question, you do not need to submit the writing supplement. If you encounter any problems submitting your application, please upload a document that says “Not Applicable” and hit submit.
Hint: File should be under 500 KB and one of these types: .pdf .doc .docx .rtf .txt.
The most interesting thing about these Harvard Supplemental Essay prompts is this: with two exceptions, they have not changed since 2013. I will discuss those exceptions at more length in a moment.
For the first six prompts, which are holdovers from the last couple of application years, please click here to get extensive commentary and links on the prompts: Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts. Scroll down to #2 in this linked post, and start reading there. Bonus for Princeton applicants: this post also has a discussion of how to write about books, which you need . . . or might need, if you choose the book prompt for Princeton.
Now let’s turn to the two more recent adds to the Harvard supplemental essay prompt list: the Harvard Honor Code Prompt and the the Harvard Mission Prompt. I will reverse the order as I address them.
There is an overlap between the Honor Prompt and the Mission Prompt in terms of intent, which I explain below when I discuss the drone student, below, but I think you can also see the connection between Harvard’s Mission prompt and the Princeton essay on Service, so let’s start there.
The Princeton Service essay has been around for a long time. Harvard wants to create changemakers, too–why should they leave saving humanity to Princeton. So they are getting into that game with Princeton, seeking the student on a mission to do something for humanity.
This could start in your neighborhood, by the way, so don’t feel the need to be grandiose if this prompt calls to you, and have a look at my much more lengthy discussion on writing a service essay in my very long post on Princeton’s supplements–just use your browser to search for the word Service and you can skip the long intro to Princeton by clicking three times, down to Princeton’s prompt on service. What I say there, outside of the stuff on Woodrow Wilson, also applies to Harvard’s prompt.
Warning: if you are not at all interested in serving humanity, or just know that this prompt will turn you into a cliché machine, move on. But have a look at my discussion on Princeton’s prompt on service first. Maybe this will help you find your mission.
Enough on the mission: Let’s have a look at . . . the Harvard Honor Code prompt: to write it or not to write it.
First let’s look at why this prompt exists, in my opinion: Bad P.R. and Too Many Drones Applying. By drones, I mean that sleek, deadly airborne vehicle that can operate remotely but that is controlled from afar, a vehicle that can do all kinds of things, really, but cannot do anything outside of its programming or what its operators want it to do. Of course what I really mean to discuss is the student that the drone analogy refers to: super high-achieving and sleek packaged, controlled at a distance by parents, and not really thinking for or examining themselves. And doing whatever it takes to get to their target (schools).
And speaking of that bad P.R. doing whatever it takes seems to include cheating, on the way to the Ivy League ( or other elite schools) and apparently continuing to cheat or take the shortcut once there–and this has been a very specific problem at Harvard–take a look: Harvard Cheating Scandal. This has long been a problem that all schools struggle with, but it does seem to be becoming a bigger problem as everybody focuses on some kind of quantifiable outcome in education, like grades to get to the next level, or the diploma that will get you a job, or the job that leads to the next job and the next and . . . so on.
This kind of strategic climbing is not just understandable, it is necessary (to a degree, pun intended), but on the other hand, the most important thing for income is getting a college education and degree–from any of the 500-800 really good four-year colleges in America. The degree itself is, still, the most important thing. Recent studies show that where you go does not matter that much for the income of many majors, especially the technical ones (and in this case, especially for women with technical majors). I have demonstrated this in other posts, if you like, you know, data and empiricism as a proof. I do find that the bright, shiny objects in the Ivy League tend to blind people, though, and make them unable to process the possibility of going elsewhere, so I resist the temptation to add a link here.
If you want to be a general business major, sure, having a Harvard Business diploma is very useful, but after your first job, what matters most is what you did at your first job, and what matters most for pay is performance on the job and your network of support in your professional life–not your college dorm network, though yes, your best friends are likely to come from college. And yes, at some point a college friend or connection could prove useful to your career–but that depends on what they do with their lives as well, doesn’t it?
If I sound preachy to you, go look at this newest Harvard prompt again:
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.
This could be a dangerous prompt. That might be why you would write about it. If you think you will, then you should read closely the Harvard Cheating Scandal article, and see some of its impact–this is, after all, the clear sponsor for the Harvard Honor prompt. How could they not address the problem? Here’s more of the story: Harvard students expelled for cheating. More recently, Harvard students have been taking a pledge not to cheat–check it out: Honor Pledge.
So now you know what Harvard is up to: they want to change their culture. Of course, the difficulty of getting into Harvard, and the very high value people place on that Harvard degree work against that new culture–you have to have the numbers to get in, don’t you? And getting the best results can require a few corners to be cut, right? Talk about a feedback loop.
How could you write this essay? If you have experience with the problem. The downside: looking like a cheater in the event you were involved, or looking to self-righteous or preachy or just writing a very predictable, clichéd essay.
How to solve the problem: Think about your own experience and what kinds of pressures there are in your community. Build from that picture. You are almost certainly feeling some kind of pressure to excel in order to get ahead, or you would not be here. And this can take extreme forms, going beyond cheating to things like the suicide cluster in Palo Alto California–see this article for a good discussion of that: The Silicon Valley Suicides. The evidence suggests that the pressure you see in this article is the same thing that drives students to cheat, at least in many cases.
The depressing thing is how this pressurized system has created young people who see nothing wrong with it. In some cases you will no doubt find some extreme psychologies in these people–hey, every population has some sociopaths and psychopaths in it–but more of more concern is the kind of “so what” cynicism shown by many of the Harvard students who were caught–it was not cheating because everybody does it, it was not cheating, we were collaborating, it was not cheating, we were consulting other sources. Personally, I have a problem with that. So does Harvard. How could you address each of those three attitudes and examine the wider reasons they exist, as part of an essay built on your experience? That is your challenge.
And a good essay about honor would likely use some specific example, or list of examples, from the author’s own experience. I hasten to add, however, that if you were at the center of a cheating incident, you would have to really be able to show a change for this essay to work. I would, in fact, advise you not to write this essay–unless the cheating incident was prominent enough to register on social media. In that case, you probably have to write this essay.
Whatever the case, I think a good essay on this starts with your experience of or observation of cheating around you, but it must pull back to look at the problem as part of a larger problem. Sure, the irony is clear–you are also using this essay as leverage to get into one of the three or four most selective universities in the world. But if it comes from the heart as well as the head, so be it: you will write a good essay and hopefully bring that attitude to Harvard. Use your personal experience, connect the cheating to pressure, connect that pressure to wider social problems–shrinking middle class, pressure on students to succeed, etc–and then show how you will act in an ethical way. Without being preachy. A tough task, but a worthy one. If you touch the reader with your detail and authenticity, you will go far.
But wait, you ask–you are offering to edit my essay, for a fee: is that not cheating?
No. I do offer close advice, but you have to write it. I am your guide, but yours are the feet walking down the path. So to speak. For sure I will give you detailed advice on how to write in general and specifically on this essay, and you will become a better writer after working with me.
If that doesn’t work for you, I will just close this way: the moral world is full of gray with black and white on either side. I would say that I am off-white.
Come back soon for more posts on writing your college essay.