In my more than three years working with the Harvard First Generation Program, I've been asked countless times for my advice for applying to college.
In this article, I hope to proactively offer you some tips which I think are helpful to keep in mind and capture some recurring themes of what I often convey to the many students who reach out to our program!
1. Don't stress too much about test scores!
You want to make sure you put forth the strongest application you can, and if you can re-take your standardized tests that's great. But that said, Harvard has a "whole person" application review process. There are no explicit requirements or cut-offs for test scores or GPAs. A variety of things go into your application, so if you feel like you’re weak in one area, you can certainly make up for it with strengths in others. (For example, you might not have the best test scores, but that doesn't diminish the fact that you may have also taken a challenging course load and/or participated in compelling extracurriculars.) The point is that you shouldn’t sell yourself short by discounting all of the strengths of your application! Tests are important, but they certainly aren’t everything.
2. Participate in extracurricular activities that you genuinely care about.
High school students often feel pressured to seek out the most “impressive” extracurricular activities, even if they’re not of personal interest. I think a lack of passion for your activities can reveal itself in your application and that it’s much more impressive to demonstrate genuine commitment to the activities that take up your time. (After all, being a national award winner is not a prerequisite for admission to Harvard!) When I was in high school, I cared a lot about my school clubs, and I had a passion for mentorship. But I hadn’t racked up a mountain of awards or claims to fame. That you care about what you’re doing is much more powerful, in my opinion, than participating in clubs just to check off a box.
3. Don't neglect the power of a strong personal narrative.
Personally, I think that essays are the most important part of your application, because they’re your best opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants. I also think that essays are the natural place to showcase your personality. When thinking about what to write about, I always recommend seeking the answer to the question: “Why do I get up every morning?” The answer likely won't be immediately obvious, nor should it be. Maybe you’re motivated by some personal experiences from your childhood or background. Maybe you’re excited by your love for research or for a specific area of study. Maybe you’re driven by that future ambition which you know you’re working toward. In any case, essays can take all shapes and all forms. Rather than cater your essay to what you think Harvard will want to hear, I recommend staying true to yourself! Write about what excites you and drives you forward!
4. Don't be afraid to expand your college list.
I can’t speak for everyone, but when I was a senior in high school, I definitely felt like if I made the wrong college decision or applied to the wrong list of schools, that I was going to hurtle down a path of misery and ruin. (A bit melodramatic, I'm aware!) Thankfully, I know today that that is not the case. I think Harvard is an incredible place with something to offer for everyone. But I also think that there are plenty of schools with a lot to offer! I hope you’ll send an application our way, but the kind of students who would be successful at Harvard will find success anywhere.
5. Don't count yourself out!
Finally, I want to speak to the readers who might have self-doubt about whether they could get into a place like Harvard. From my admittedly small sample size, I think that most every applicant to Harvard doubts they'll get in. I certainly didn’t think I stood a chance. But I had mentors who pushed me to apply, so I gave it a shot — not expecting much — and the rest is history! And my story is not an uncommon one among my classmates. Applying to college is scary, but I encourage you to refuse to sell yourself short and to apply to those “dream” schools — wherever they may be. After all, the worst thing they can say is no. I received plenty of rejections along with the acceptances. It’s all part of the process!