College Essays By Harvard Students: 2019-20
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Even though the Common Application for the upcoming college cycle does not open until August 1st, the new essay topics have been let loose amongst the public since January 2019. The Common Application did not make a conscious decision to do this without reason, its because they are important and a huge time investment for students aiming for the highest colleges.

As admitted Harvard students who recently went through the college application process we know the stress it took to even decide on the right Common App essay prompt to get across the most pertinent information about our personality and character. This post will go over some recommendations of what prompts to tackle and advice for those that should be treated with caution or avoided completely. 


Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This prompt is an essay staple, the icon or study bellwether without which we cannot even imagine a time when the Common Application existed without it. The reason that the first prompt has been, and always will be a solid choice for college applicants is that it cuts to the root of the multifaceted elements of a person’s character and identity. The only major advice that can be offered for this prompt is to not lean towards repeating verbatim the activities that are already listed on your application. That is not to say you cannot use them, I did for example; however you must ensure you use it as a catalyst for greater exploration of values or introspections that define you as an individual. The more specific the event the better as it forces you into greater depth and substantive reflection in order to be successful. This is especially true for colleges like Harvard where they expect their calibre of students to be able to achieve a certain level of emotional depth.

Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 

It is far easier to celebrate triumphs and successes when it comes to stories for college admissions. As such, it is also far more common for admission officers to read cliche success stories over mistakes or vulnerabilities. If tackled correctly this prompt is great as it hits the entire value proposition of the Common Application essay: are you mature enough to have realizations about self-growth and improvement. The chronological direction of the prompt leans heavily on this principle, do not forget to use the second half of the essay to reflect about how it spurred self-growth. 

Prompt #4: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

One of the greatest differences between colleges, and high school will be the lack of self-direction when it comes to academic work. Particularly at elite colleges such as Harvard where overwhelming amounts of studying and assignments can be debilitating to those not completely invested in doing the academic work. Therefore, showing that you have become heavily invested in an intellectual problem, and maybe even felt setback or failure in trying to attain this goal, works wonders for colleges in showing you have a genuine intellectual curiosity for academia. Also remember to show again how this event affected you on a personal introspective level — as always. This strategy can also be applied to prompt #6.


Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

This prompt was absent from the typical Common Application offering from 2013 to 2016 and resurfaced for the 2017-18 college cycle. Upon initial inspection it would appear that a question so broad would facilitate the best responses; however, the lack of direction can lead to essays that lack the introspective focus of the other prompts. Furthermore, the directed prompts are already so broad that if you cannot think of a bespoke essay to fit into these narrative lenses you are likely just trying to regurgitate an essay already written for another class or an arts supplement. This is not the objective of this essay, you do not have much space to show intimacy, humility, and vulnerability to an elite admissions committee like Harvard's. Using this space for something that can be submitted in other sections of the application is a faux pas.