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Optional Essay Harvard

The Requirements: One long essay with no word limit (optional), one 150 word essay (required)
Supplemental Essay Type(s): Additional Info, Activity

Harvard University 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations

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.

First thing’s first. While Harvard lists this essay as “optional,” know that, at least in our minds, no admissions essay is optional. If you have the opportunity to reveal something new about yourself to admissions and speak to them in your own voice, take it!

A “topic of your choice” can be difficult to brainstorm for, especially after you’ve spent so much of your creative energy on your personal statement. But there are other ideas in that head of yours — we know it! Unless Harvard is your first choice and you are tackling this application with an early submission deadline in front of you, you may want to leave this essay until the end of your supplement run. Are you applying to other schools with more specific prompts? Maybe those prompts will pull something unexpected out of your noggin that feels interesting enough to include or expand upon for Harvard? Also feel free to use their sample prompts as inspiration. Overall, remember the purpose of any admissions essay is to showcase something about yourself that admissions would not otherwise know about you. This is called the “Additional Information” essay for a reason — what information would make your submissions feel more complete?

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 briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

This is an activity essay with a bit of a community and leadership-focused twist. Harvard not only wants to know more about one of your activities or work experiences, they also want to know how that experience has proven your leadership and relationship building skills. What have you invested your time in and how has that activity or job made you better able to lead the charge and contribute to the world around you? Be sure to cover something that has not been elaborated on in your Common App or optional-but-not-really-optional Additional Info essay. You want to contribute additional context to what the Harvard admissions officers know about you, and you only have a small space to do it in, so use it wisely.

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)

This is a pretty straightforward prompt. Harvard wants you to list any of your intellectual activities that you have not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Did you try to build an app this summer? Maybe you shadowed someone with a position you’d like to hold one day to get a better idea of what the day-to-day looks like. Perhaps you took an online French course to familiarize yourself with the language before taking a trip to Paris with your family. Harvard wants to know – so get to typing!

One of the most underused tools for standing out in the application process is using the optional essay. It’s hard to write a great optional essay and very easy to write an ineffective one that annoys the admissions committee.

Who should write the optional essay?

Although it’s called the “optional essay,” about 70% of my clients end up writing the optional essay if their schools include an optional essay.

Anyone who has any kind of blemish or red flag in their application should write the optional essay.

Here are some occasions when you should consider writing the optional essay:

  • you have a GPA below 3.6
  • you have a GMAT / GRE score below the 75th percentile
  • you took time off of work or school
  • you are noticeably older or younger than most applicants to your target schools
  • you don’t have a letter of recommendation from your direct supervisor and you think it will look suspect
  • you don’t have much quantitative work experience and you’re applying to a top MBA or MPA / MPP program
  • you were put on probation or received some other kind of disciplinary sanction in college

Why should I write the optional essay?

While business schools have interviews, most policy schools do not include an interview in the selection process. Therefore, your written application is all they have to go off of in deciding whether or not to give you a spot in the incoming class.

I think of the optional essay as your seat at the table when your application gets put in the “maybe” pile and comes up for further discussion by the committee.

A skeptic on the committee says, “Look at how low her college GPA is,” but your optional essay pipes up and says, “True, I have a low GPA in college, but I was an award-winning athlete, an officer of my student government, and I was working to support myself through college. I’ve financially planned well for graduate school, so now I’ll be able to fully focus on my studies rather than juggling too many commitments.”

Without the optional essay, AdCom members are left to draw their own conclusions about why certain red flags in your application popped up—and whether or not those red flags are bad enough to sink your application.

How long should the optional essay be?

This is stating the obvious, but the optional essay should definitely be within the word limit. Additionally, you should try to get your key message across in as few words as possible. Since this is an additional essay, you don’t want to create more work for the AdCom than necessary.

When should I write the optional essay?

I recommend that my clients write the optional essay first. It allows them to get every worry, doubt, and fear out and on paper so that they can move forward with their other essays with a renewed confidence and clarity about why they do have a shot at getting into their dream school.

What should I write in the optional essay?

Since Harvard Kennedy School is the #1 school my clients apply to, let’s use the 2014-2015 Harvard Kennedy School Optional Essay as a case study of how to write an optional essay.

You can apply this same essay structure for any graduate school optional essay—whether it’s MBA, MPH, MSW, M. Ed, or something else.

The Prompt: (applicable to all HKS degree programs)

(Optional) If you have any concerns about your prior academic background, or if you believe the Admissions Committee may have concerns, please give a brief explanation of your performance in college, or your standardized test scores (750 word limit).

  • Directly state the areas of your application you believe may be of concern to the admissions committee.

Then, for each trouble area of your candidacy, follow this structure:

  • Restate the trouble area. e.g. My undergraduate GPA is 3.1.
  • Tell them why this problem occurred. Don’t point fingers or try to put blame on others. Dispassionately explain what happened and take personal responsibility. Be sure to be diplomatic and tactful in your response. For example, don’t write “I was partying too much my freshman year of college,” because that’s troubling to AdComs and no one wants to hear that. Instead, you can get the same point across by saying something like, “I was still maturing and adjusting to the multiple demands of college.”
  • Tell them what you learned from this experience. What did you learn about yourself as a leader, student, and/or member of a community?
  • Tell them what you have done since then to remedy this problem. This is where you show that you are a proactive problem-solver.
  • Tell them what you will do if this problem seems to be a threat during your time at Harvard. What resources on- and off-campus will you use to make sure you continue to excel academically, personally, and professionally during your time at Harvard?

Lastly, end your optional essay with an optimistic and confident statement of your enthusiasm for the program and your gratitude for their consideration.

Voila! You have an optional essay worth reading. Now you can move on to writing the essays that are required for you to get into your dream school.

We’d love to edit your optional essay for your dream grad school. Visit our Essay & Resume Editing page to learn more about our editing services.


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