What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard?

Does Harvard University have a preference for a certain type of applicant? Do they prefer toppers, all-rounders or creatives? Find out here about what kinds of students get into Harvard.

Do you need straight A's to get into Harvard gpa

Everyone thinks that Harvard accepts only toppers or academically strong students. And while there’s some truth to this sentence, it doesn’t explain why all toppers won’t get admitted to Harvard. And why sometimes just an above-average student may get a spot.

Well, from my experience at the university, meeting many different types of students from College and different grad schools, I did notice many common traits almost everyone had. Not just the students, but I noticed these traits even in professors and some staff members. So I definitely can say that Harvard prefers some certain qualities in students they admit.

What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard?

Generally, Harvard prefers hard-working, exceptional students who exhibit a potential for success in future. They admit students who are passionate, well-rounded and can get used to the immense study load at Harvard. Most importantly, they like to admit those who have an interesting story so they can add to the diverse student body, who other students can learn something from.

When going through you application, Harvard is looking for potential in its prospective students. “Program admissions committees review all applicants in a comprehensive way, considering their past educational attainments and the contributions they can make to the academic community and to their field of study,” mentions Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS) Admissions FAQs page.

So let’s take a look at these personality traits and qualities one by one:

1. Hardworking

What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard hard-working

Harvard University has an inside joke, that for those who can’t get in, getting into Harvard would be easier than graduating from Harvard. That’s because Harvard is actually “var-hard”. Get it? Very hard!! The course-load is immense. Readings, class notes, assignments, presentations and case-studies prep, there’s a lot going on everyday.

And on top of that, there’s no dearth of extra-curricular activities available for every type of student. Furthermore, on-campus socialization activities and guest lectures leave little time even for meals! So it’s no surprise Harvard would only want to admit students who can take all this. Both emotional strength and academic is required for dealing with the competitive and busy environment. So Harvard prefers students who have already exhibited traits of being hardworking, which can be shown in your previous grade-cards, recommendation letters and GRE/SAT scores.

2. Well-Rounded

What is the Importance of Extracurricular Activities for Graduate School Admissions

Harvard doesn’t just admit all A-grade students. They also look at an applicant’s extra-curricular activities. Basically, they like to know what the student did during their free time during school or at work. They prefer all-rounded students, since they are measuring an applicant’s potential for success. And success doesn’t only depend on your hard work, but also other qualities like networking abilities, grit, team-work and more. So an inclusion of activities or merits on your application that exhibit these traits can make your application stronger.

Also read: Extracurricular Activities for Harvard Applications: Make It Count!

3. Exceptional or Unique Among Peers

Application Tips Harvard College

Harvard is one of the topmost universities in the world. So they get to choose truly extraordinary applicants. And this is where your personal essay or recommendation letter comes into play. They are looking for examples that show why you are the right choice amongst all applicants that have a similar profile as yours.

For example, many students from your country who have similar academic or work experience as yours are applying for the same program. So Harvard would prefer a student whose  application really stands out. So before applying, make sure that your application has examples of why it should be you. What’s special in your profile? Everyone has some unique strengths, make sure yours show clearly.

4. Interesting & Coherent Story or Personality

What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard hard working

An application is never looked at in bits and pieces by the admissions office. It’s always judged as a whole package, including test scores, grades, recommendations and essay. And Harvard prefers students whose application can showcase the personality of the student properly and holistically. So your background, personality traits, abilities and merits should all be highlighted, but never be self-contradicting. For example, if you’ve mentioned that you like to participate in school debates in your personal essay, but your recommenders mention that you’re introverted, it won’t show your story properly.

Additionally, your application should also showcase an interesting story. For example, if you have been in the army, or had an interesting experience from childhood that is now motivating your academic and professional goals, write about that.

5. Smart or Sensible

shilpa-ahuja-how to get into harvard

Most ivy league universities prefer students who are not only academically strong, but are also smart. They are also judging your common sense and IQ, not just your grades or test scores. Harvard does mention that usually, students who get good school grades also exhibit a high IQ. However, they don’t just prefer students who know how to pass exams, but also who can exhibit problem-solving abilities or creative thinking.

6. Confident (But Not Arrogant)

academically strong students presentation

Confidence is something that comes through merits, self-motivation and practice. Confidence  shows that one is brave, and will not be afraid of life’s future challenges. Harvard wants confident students, as this will not only help them balance the work-life balance easily, but also help them succeed in life. And Harvard of course, wants to admit applicants who can be successful in future, since they’re also investing in you.

The simple fact that you’re applying to Harvard also shows confidence. But you can’t just say that you’re confident, unless you wanna be thought of as conceited! However, it can also be shown with examples in your recommendation letters, or through your extra-curricular activities. For example, have you participated in any public-speaking events, or led any school clubs, or shown any entrepreneurial qualities?

7. Focused

harvard-university-what kind of students get into

You application should show a focus. If you ask me about what kinds of students get into Harvard, focus would be one of the top qualities on my list. This is one of the most important traits, but often overlooked, especially by the students who try too hard to get into Harvard and fail. A lack of focus will show in your application easily. For example, applying to too many programs, or having contradictory traits showcased in your application, or having way too many extra-curricular activities in your resume.

So make sure your application showcases that you have a focus in life. That you’ve chosen a clear path and are on it. Your interests and end-goal should be very clear to the admissions office, through your choice of program, your extra-curriculars and your other things.

8. Passionate

What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard

A lack of passion makes one’s personality dull and unimaginative, and makes a person easily distracted. Passion is the basis of self-motivation, which results in grit, perseverance and hard-work. And these eventually lead to success. So Harvard prefers passionate students.

Your passion should be directly related to your life’s ambition. Additionally, your application should exhibit that you’re driven by it and that’s why you’re working towards your goal. Joe Blitzstein, Professor in the Harvard Statistics department, who is involved in Harvard graduate admissions, mentioned on Quora, “We are looking for people with demonstrated achievements in, passion for, and potential for success in the field.”

9. Curious

What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard confidence

Barely anyone would add curiosity to the list if you asked them what kinds of students get into Harvard. However, Harvard loves students who love to learn, as the university experience is all about learning. Someone who doesn’t really, really loves to learn new things will neither enjoy nor be able to survive Harvard.

Joe Blitzstein also mentions in the same Quora answer, that a good application should show, “a trajectory where the student has challenged himself or herself, deeply investing in the learning process (beyond as well as in the classroom) rather than merely having good grades. “

So I hope this answers your question on what kinds of students get into Harvard. How many of these traits do you have? And don’t forget, just having these traits is not enough to get admission into Harvard. As I always say, your application needs to showcase these traits, too, and have good grades, recommendations, etc. Let me know if you have any more questions in the comments below, and I’ll try to answer them, too!

All the best!

1 thought on “What Kinds of Students Get into Harvard?”

  1. It is amazing to me that so many schools stress the increase in income that may come from graduate work as the reason to continue one’s education. I am 90, have two master’s degrees, and would like to get a Phd in philosophy, that is, I would like to study, slowly and carefully, what the extraordinary minds of the world have thought. I do want credit for my studying. Also, I want someone (a tutor) with whom I can share both my acceptance of ideas and my doubts. My husband (deceased) had such a luxury at Cambridge for his Phd. I have a thirst for knowledge. I’m sure your students do also; however, I think there should be more questioning of accepted truths as well. I spent the weekend with Descartes. “Cogito ergo sum” What does it mean? I have read “Meditations” and much else in the encyclopedia. As a student, would I have time to wonder? What is the relation of psyche to soul? Where do these concepts come from? What is duality (body and soul). It takes time to think.


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