Harvard College needs no introduction—its name is synonymous with prestige in higher education. This alone can account for the extremely low acceptance rate, which was just 5.2% (out of 39,000 applicants) for the Class of 2021. But there is a way that applicants can improve their chances of getting into Harvard, and that is to write a stellar personal essay.
When applying to Harvard, you are given the opportunity to include supplemental essays to showcase anything you feel was not adequately conveyed through your Common Application or Coalition Application essay. While Harvard’s admissions website indicates that including this essay is “optional,” almost all advisors will strongly encourage you to submit as much information about yourself as you can. Perhaps the fact that over 85% of the Harvard Class of 2017 wrote a supplemental essay might convince you just how important it can be.
A self-portrait on a blank canvas
Harvard’s prompt is notoriously open-ended, and every year applicants find themselves struggling with exactly what they should put in their essays to impress the admissions committee. The 2017-2018 supplemental essay is no different. But because Harvard seeks students who are independent, creative, and self-motivated, this open-ended quality makes perfect sense. This essay is essentially a blank canvas on which you can paint some fascinating aspects about yourself in vivid color.
Painting a multidimensional portrait
When looking over the prompts, consider which one will allow you to write about an aspect of yourself that you didn’t portray in other essays you have submitted. Do not choose the same event, experience, passion, ability, interest, or talent that you used for the Common Application. For instance, if in the Common App essay you wrote about your love of reading and described some of the books you have read, do NOT choose the Harvard essay about “A List Of Books You Have Read During The Past Twelve Months.” Similarly, if you already wrote about your experience backpacking around Asia last year, choose a different Harvard prompt than “Traveling Or Living Experiences In Other Countries.” No matter how profound or life-changing your experience was, writing about the exact same topic or experience is redundant and will not add to the depth of character you need to convey.
Zooming out, not only should you choose a separate topic for your supplemental essay, you should consider choosing an entirely different perspective as well. If your Common App essay is about a past experience, choose the Harvard essay that asks about your future plans. If the first essay is about your impressive abilities, focus the second on how you overcame a challenge or deficit. If in the Common App essay you have discussed your love of organic chemistry, write in the Harvard essay about your weekly volunteering at the local homeless shelter. In other words, deepen the picture you present of yourself. Show how you live (and flourish) in many dimensions!
Distinguish yourself from the field
The one guiding philosophy you should follow in the Harvard essay is to stand out from the crowd. Do not think of it as a chance to merely remind the admissions committee about what you have accomplished, to list more details about your stellar academic record, or to brag about some outstanding marker on your resume. You have to dig deeper and WOW them in order for you to stand out in their minds.
Show your sincerity
Remember to always SHOW your sincerity, your attitude, your excellence in your admissions essays—do not merely TELL about it. You can achieve this by focusing on actions, by using lots of verbs, and by including a great amount of details and examples as you describe your experiences. If playing the piano profoundly affected your sense of what “work” means to you, do not merely write, “Practicing all the time made me realize how working hard pays off.” Show this correlation between effort and understanding of work via anecdotes and details.
Here is what showing looks like: “Three hours of straight practice a day in our windowless basement, six days a week perched upon a hard wooden bench, aching fingers on the keys, nothing between myself and Chopin but willpower and concentration, the haunting sounds of the hammer on the strings my instant reward for uncountable days and years of effort—all of this flashed through my mind on Jun 19, 2016, as I took the stage for my first Tanglewood recital.” A detailed anecdote full of action makes it much easier for a reader to accept your assertion that playing piano profoundly affected your life. Readers can trust the feelings and positions you explicitly state only once you have proved them with examples and details.
Fitting into Harvard’s unique mission
When approaching this essay, it is important to understand that Harvard places special importance on development of passions and community involvement over pure academic excellence. They also are deeply committed to diversity of experiences and views, and this means that they value curiosity in their students: intellectual, philosophical, social, etc. These values are included in their mission statement, which is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society” via “exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing,” which is designed to set students on a “journey of intellectual transformation.”
With these institutional objectives in mind, you should focus on how you can best illustrate your curiosity, your potential for growth and greatness, in your essay. Do this by conveying your passion, and show how your passion drives your potential to contribute to worthwhile advances in society. One way to accomplish this in the essay is to choose a prompt that emphasizes your ambitions or even your plans to use your education. Consider responding to a prompt that explicitly mentions Harvard, or to one that asks “how you hope to use your college education” and become a “citizen-leader.” These provide a great opportunity to showcase those personal attributes that fit the mold of the desired Harvard student.
Only the best people need apply
Another aspect to keep in mind is that Harvard is interested in enrolling people who are genuinely good, in addition to being intelligent, talented, or ambitious. The final line of their mission statement reads: “From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.” The last phrase indicates a person who demonstrates true concern about the world in which they live.
Thus showing a strong regard for other people or animals or expression a sense of duty and honor is a definite plus for the Harvard admissions committee. This is another perspective from which you might portray yourself in your essay—the hardworking, dutiful, kind, compassionate citizen-leader that they want and deserve to have, and the one that wants to be part of a like-minded community. But only focus on this aspect of yourself if you can do so authentically and honestly. The worst thing possible would be to lie or come off as disingenuous to the adcom. So just be yourself, your whole self, and nothing but yourself.
Make it lean and mean
Although Harvard gives no explicit word or character limit for the supplemental essay, most accepted students will write between 500 and 700 words (or about a page when written in Times New Roman 12-point font). This doesn’t provide you a lot of room to ruminate at length on your experiences or to write about multiple topics. Therefore, you need to focus on one aspect about yourself (or what the prompt is asking you to write about) and drive it home. But don’t worry about getting it right on your first draft—write as freely as you can and work on re-drafting and revising your essay once all of the important elements have come to the surface. The more time you spend on the essay, the more polished and powerful it will be. Visit Harvard’s admissions website for comprehensive guidelines on writing this essay.
If you need additional help with this or any other admissions essays, feel free to visit our resources page for more tips and general writing guidance. Best of luck on writing this important essay!
In a previous DIY article I outlined my 3 favorite ways to paint quotes on canvas to create beautiful, personalized pieces of art. I got a great response from the article and lots of positive feedback, so I’ve decided to write another! If you haven’t already, check out my post DIY- 3 Easy Ways to Paint Quotes on Canvas.
In this article I share 3 more easy ways that you can add your favorite words, quotes, sayings, or lyrics to canvas. To get started, you’ll need stretched canvas. I like to use a high quality canvas that is stapled on the back rather than the sides, like this Winsor Newton canvas. Next, you’ll need paint. I find that acrylic paint works best because it dries quickly. You can also use spray paint for some of these projects (I like Krylon brand spray paint best). Finally, I recommend using a finishing spray once you’re painting is done to protect it. I use Krylon finishing spray which comes in glossy, satin, and matte (satin is my favorite!).
A fool-proof way to place letters onto a canvas is to attach them collage-style. This style provides a clean look for your painting and is great if you don’t want to hand paint letters. You can use letters or words from a magazine or pamphlet, print out words, or use letter stickers. You can even cut letters out of interesting materials, like wallpaper samples or maps!
Pros: Easy, adds texture
Cons: Longer dry-time, limited with size, colors, and shapes of lettering
What you need:
Adding a layer of Mod Podge over the letters
Mod Podge (comes in matte or glossy)
- A foam brush
- Letter stickers or cut outs
1. Paint your canvas the background color of your choice. Make sure the color contrasts with the colors of your letters. Let it dry completely.
2. Place your letters or words on the canvas and check their placement.
3. Coat the back of each letter with Mod Podge and stick it to the canvas. Layer another coat of Mod Podge on top. It will look like a white mess, but I promise- it will dry clear! Let the canvas dry.
4. Layer another coat of Mod Podge over the letters to seal any edges and let it dry. You may need to do this once more to ensure the edges won’t peel up depending on how thick your lettering is.
5. Seal your painting with a finishing spray (optional). The Mod Podge acts like a sealing coat, but I like to use the spray finish at the end to fill in any brush strokes that may be left and make the painting appear more even.
Here’s some paintings I created using the collage method of lettering.
In my last DIY I explained one way to use stickers to create lettering on canvas. This technique is a little different- I like to call it “reverse stickering.” It gives the canvas a much different look than the other technique, and enables you to create texture and add different colors .
Pros: Simple, creates more texture
Cons: Letters are limited to the size and shape of the stickers
What you’ll need:
- Vinyl letter stickers (Be sure they don’t say permanent. I use these.)
- Paint brush
Check out these examples of reverse stickering
How to do it:
1. Paint the background of your canvas and let it dry.
2. Stick your letter stickers on the canvas.
3. Carefully paint over your letter stickers. Be sure not to use hard brush strokes or you might move the stickers. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different directions of your brush strokes and thickness’s of your paint! Let your canvas dry.
4. Peel the stickers off the canvas carefully, being sure not to remove any paint. (Tip: you can use an old pair of tweezers to help you remove the stickers).
5. Seal the painting (optional).
3. Paint Markers
Paint pens work well if you enjoy handwriting or calligraphy and want to transfer your words to canvas in your own handwriting. They also works wonderfully if you have a lot of writing or very small print to transfer. If it sounds too intimidating to write directly on your canvas, not to worry– you can sketch your lettering on paper or print words from the computer and transfer it to your canvas.
Pros: Quicker than hand painting letters, more control over the size and placement of lettering
Cons: Less choice with color, easier to mess up!
What you’ll need:
- A paint marker in the color of your choice (I use Tree House Studio brand markers, which I find at Hobby Lobby and come in a variety of colors and sizes)
- Carbon paper and regular paper
- A ruler
- A pencil and a ball point pen
Using a paint pen is a great way to transfer quotes in your own handwriting to the canvas.
How to do it:
1. Paint your canvas in the background color of your choice and let it dry
2. If you’re going to sketch your lettering first, you’ll be using the same method I outlined in my last DIY article. Use your ruler to measure the size you want the lettering on the canvas and make appropriate sized lines to guide you on a piece of paper. Draw out your lettering on the paper.
3. Place a piece of carbon paper face down on the canvas, place your paper with your lettering on top, and tape it down. Make sure your tape the paper in the position you’d like the lettering- use a ruler to make sure it’s centered.
4. Trace over the letters using a ball point pen, pressing firmly. Untape the paper and carbon paper to reveal your transfer.
3. Using the paint pen, trace over your carbon transfer. If you’re using a white paint pen, you may find you’ll need two coats over the carbon transfer.
4. Seal the painting (optional).
Here are some examples of paintings I’ve done using various sized paint pens.
So what do you think of these 3 ways to transfer lettering to canvas? Love them, hate them, can’t wait to try them? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think! And please share, like, pin, or post if you enjoyed this DIY!