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The Harvard Application Essay for 2013-2014: Back to the Future

In Harvard Application 2013-2014, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Supplement, Harvard Supplemental Essays, Intellectual Experience Essay, Ivy League Application Essays on December 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Or to the past, because Harvard’s prompts are a blast from the past, especially if the past is the old Common Application Prompts.

The prompts that Harvard has up this year are a mix of old Harvard prompts and the prompts that your older friends or siblings wrote for the Common Application if they applied in recent years.   I’ll analyze the prompts separately, in order, right after this message:

Editing Update, 12/26/13:  I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have 1-3 essays that need editing for a final app, contact me by splicing this address into an e-mail, with the heading “editing request” and a brief description of what you need:  wordguild@gmail.com

Final requests taken on Sunday, 12/29/13.  

And now, here is my Harvard analysis: 

1. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Required, 150 word max, Paste in).

150 words is not much space, which reinforces that this “essay” prompt is meant as a chance either to elaborate on material you (hopefully) already listed for them, or to describe an interesting aspect of your life that merited essentially a footnote in your application or that is not visible at all.  Choose wisely, by which I mean, look first for ways to offset weaknesses and next for ways to play up strengths that may be apparent in your application, and choose a topic  that shows a person who truly  is curious instead of a person who is merely trying to look as if he or she is curious .

If you appear to be a stereotypical asocial math and computer whiz, try to find a way to talk about something else–your stats and classes should already show your prowess in these fields, supported by your transcript, so maybe you should talk about your love of windsurfing or (harmless) flash mob organizing.  If you are weaker in math, find a way to offset that–your love of philosophy and logic, through your sideline, studying Zeno’s paradoxes, or perhaps your organizing skills or ability to find your way in the dark without a compass.  Be creative.

It’s fine to repeat things that are prominent on your “resume” so long as you are truly and deeply enthusiastic about the topic you choose.  You can sneak in some other things by showing, for example, how your interest in Topic A lead you to Topic B, the subject of your essay here (or paragraph, probably).

As for essays on work, I wouldn’t necessarily say not to write about your job flipping burgers, but you might want to give it some heft.  Try reading or at least perusing Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed for some ideas on how to add depth to an essay on your fast-food/entry-level side job.  Internships will hopefully also provide fodder for an intellectual experience essay.

Now let’s look at the remaining prompts as a group, with links to topics that can be used to address the prompts:

2. 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 (Optional, 1300 word Max, Paste In) 

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


My first advice is this:  You should, of course, write this extra, “suggested” essay.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard  has for the most part just  rearranged some words  from last year’s  prompts.  The prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate was introduced last year, and is either borrowed from recent Stanford supplements or great minds really do think alike.

This year’s prompt on an intellectual experience was added as a word change to a similar, earlier prompt and  is  much broader than that earlier prompt  on an academic experience, which it replaced in 2012.  Academic limits you to school and maybe that internship or research project you did.  Intellectual does not limit your topics as much. Music, film, rock climbing, almost any serious human endeavor or experience can have an intellectual aspect to it, if you look at it the right way.  Books, of course,  are an ancient source of intellectual experiences and these will be a specific focus in this post.

I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013 that relate to or could be topics for this years prompts.  These posts will help get you started as you generate ideas.

I  address the list of books essay  in a separate post–this essay can take various forms, but avoid just making it a list of book blurbs; find a way to tie the books together, based on some sort of shared idea or other connection.  The posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

My full-package college application clients are all done with their apps, so I will have some space for new editing work from today on through the 28th of December, 2013.  You can e-mail me at wordguild@gmail.com to inquire.  Good luck and Good Writing.

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