How to Get Into Harvard as a Foreign Student

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“How to get into Harvard?” is one of the most common questions asked by you (my readers!). This is why I decided to write an overview of things you need to do in order to even be considered by Harvard University. Everyone has equal chances of getting accepted. Even as a foreigner.

I’m not a Harvard guru, neither I work for the admissions office. I just want to give you some advice on how you can make your dreams come true and get accepted as getting into Harvard is possible. Whether you’re an American or foreign student.How to Get into Harvard as a Foreign Student

How to get into Harvard as a Foreign Student

While this article mainly applies to Harvard it can be helpful if you’re applying to any other good university.

Admission rules vary depending on the level of studies (undergraduate and postgraduate), mode of study (stationary, extension, online etc), faculty and year, so make sure you check Harvard’s Admissions Office website for the most recent updates and the most important: deadlines.

Widener Library

Widener Library, Harvard

Do you know why do you want to study at Harvard?

While Harvard might be your dream school just because it’s the best, it doesn’t mean it’s the best school for YOU. Each Ivy League school or even non-Ivy are different in various ways and you should definitely consider looking into other schools as well. While Harvard was good for me it might not be good for you and it doesn’t mean you’re worse, but your methods of studying and learning are simply different. Here’s what I think you should consider when making a decision if Harvard is for you.

Harvard students are self-starters. If you can’t get yourself to be creative, push yourself to work on your own without a kick from your teachers or parents, then it might not be the best choice for you. I’m not saying that people who need a push are worse in any way, but some people just don’t have a specific character and for instance, this is exactly why so many freelancers go back to the office job in a few months – simply because they cannot work on their own.

As I mentioned in my other article regarding Harvard University the methods of teaching are different at Harvard than anywhere else I studied (and I did study at many universities) as a lot of things aren’t going to be told in the class. I often hear from a lot of friends of mine saying for instance “How did you find out about this study abroad opportunity or these scholarships? Nobody told us anything about this in my school”.

I don’t want to be brutal here, but in fact, nobody told me about it either. I researched, asked around, tried different options and never stopped until I found what I was looking for. This is how everything is taught at Harvard: teachers are there to answer your questions and point you in the right direction in order to help you improve, but not to give you a list of things to learn for the next test. You should know what to do.

Harvard is not the type of college you’d go to just to have fun and attend parties. Don’t get me wrong, they’re many parties and I enjoyed myself, but Harvard students think about their future after graduation and even beyond that. I’ve been working in NYC while attending Harvard to get a professional experience that allowed me to get a placement in Argentina straight after graduation, but I knew that getting the job in South America wasn’t the end of the goals. I planned way further away.

Things you can do to improve your application:

Take care of your grades

A lot of you ask me if it’s important to have good grades in order to be accepted. My answer here is going to be simple: yes, grades obviously matter. Harvard’s acceptance rate is 3%, so people chosen are the best of the best. I know that grades aren’t the most important thing, but they’re still important.

If you’re a foreign student you’re required to take SAT for undergraduate studies and GRE / GMAT for graduate studies apart from the finals required to graduate in your home country. For instance, in Poland, we had to take a final exam and also received other grades and if you want to study in the US you have to take SAT.

Everything matters and while your grades aren’t THE most important thing in your application, someone at the admissions office will look at them at some point so keep them decent.

Find your passion and get noticed

Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate or postgraduate program you need to show Harvard why should they accept you. Why it should be you and not hundreds of other candidates.

Don’t pretend that you love something, but stay true to what you really enjoy. If you love to dance, try to be the best dancer by training a lot. Why don’t you start coding websites if you’re into IT? If you love linguistics, go learn some lesser known languages. The possibilities of things to do are endless! It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re great at it.

It’s all right to experiment with your passions if you’re unsure what do you want to do. I actually tried to do it all. I rode horses, danced ballet, learned foreign languages, volunteered with wildlife and did many other things that supported my application. You can also take part in some international competitions like I did with art history and philosophy.

All I want to say is that you need to get noticed and prove that you’re special in some way. Why? Harvard wants to see that you’re not only smart and capable of learning a lot for the exams. They want to know that you can change the world in by making an impact on other people. If you’re from a small town or country with not that many opportunities make your own opportunities. Eg. learn aerial silks from YouTube – that’s how I started doing it!.

Not all of us are given the same chances and for example years ago in Poland, I didn’t have the same range of possibilities as if I’d been growing up somewhere or example in California. But if you work with what you have people will recognize it.

Don’t be afraid of standing out

I’ve been called crazy for years as my friends and even family couldn’t understand my passion for traveling. They didn’t know why I wanted to help kids and lions in Africa or desperately tried to learn Dutch. I should have been just trying to study in order to get a job that’s respected by society. Later on, just settle down, just like everyone else was doing.

Remember that it’s fine to be different, the more different you are the more chance of getting accepted you have. Be crazy, be original!

Don’t ignore things around you

For many years I’ve been surprised that I can find a common ground with almost anyone and I always had something to talk about. How is it possible? Simply because I never ignore any information around me. For instance, I’m not a bit fan of basketball, but when I had a chance to listen to my friends talking about it I didn’t think that it’s stupid and walked away. By living this way I’ve gained some knowledge about literally everything.P1030163

The most important thing in your application is the student letter

The student letter is the most important thing from your application! It’s your chance to shine and show Harvard who you are. Don’t just write that you’re smart, you’re good at math etc. Tell a unique story as you want this letter to be engaging and not make them stop reading it after the first paragraph. Use this advice also when it comes to cover letter for a job as well.

You also should explain why do you want to attend Harvard (and not for example Yale). This part obviously shouldn’t say that it’s because Harvard is the best.

Your interview can go different ways

I cannot say much about the interview at Harvard as my program was specific and I didn’t have one. However, I had an interview for postgraduate programs at University College London (UCL) and King’s College London and in both cases, I got accepted, so here’s my advice: you shouldn’t talk about yourself too much during the interview, keep it short and try to engage with the person interviewing you.

In the case of UCL my interview was just a casual talk about my passions, plans for the upcoming summer and my potential research. As you can imagine I didn’t speak about heading to Ibiza with my friends for a party in July, but showed that I’ll use the summer to travel in order to learn this and that. I was obviously going to enjoy myself during the summer, but there are many ways to portray the same thing.

My interview at King’s College was more strict. The woman interviewing me wanted to check my knowledge about my BA thesis in order to see if I was actually interested in my topic. I cannot tell you what kind of questions you’re going to get but be prepared for any individuality.

Money = financial aid

You always ask me if you can get a scholarship for Harvard. Good news: you can! Harvard officially states on their website: The financial aid policies for foreign citizens are exactly the same as those for US citizens. All aid is need-based, and admissions decisions are made without regard to whether an applicant has applied for financial assistance. Problem solved 🙂5688848007_1610d99fc2_b

Don’t be afraid of your language skills

If English isn’t your first language you obviously need to pass either TOEFL or IELTS exam. I can’t tell you if it’s easy or not, as it all depends on YOUR language knowledge. But what I can say that you shouldn’t worry about it too much. For a very long time, I was doubting myself a lot. Even after Harvard, I thought that my English wasn’t good enough.

Don’t worry, everyone is in the same position. While I was the only non-native English speaker in my class it didn’t mean I was the worst. Remember that many Americans can’t even spell properly. Many others hold an American passport but English isn’t their first language either. Do your best and you’ll be fine.

I hope I’ve managed to answer most of your questions. If you still have doubts don’t hesitate to post a comment and I’ll reply as soon as I can! Good luck!

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  1. Jonathan
    Oct 15, 2016 / 8:55 am

    Hi! I’m a foreign student from Zimbabwe and I was wondering how important the SAT is when applying to Harvard. My SAT Score is at the 25th percentile and I’m really worried that this will hurt my chances. I’m doing Early Action so I will be unable to retake the SAT before I apply. However, I did great in the Math section but my critical reading and essay scores weren’t so good which brought me down to the 25th percentile. Math is my passion and I definitely plan to study it in college. I guess my question is, will Harvard be willing to overlook my English scores because I’m international and have a Math focus? For what it’s worth, my new SAT scores are 790 in Math and 680 in critical reading and stuff. I do the IB Diploma and get pretty consistent good grades. Thanks so much for your time! 🙂

    • Oct 15, 2016 / 4:47 pm

      Hi Jonathan! Being international gives you no bonus points – there are many foreigners who apply, so nobody cares about your nationality. The most important part of application is as I mentioned the cover letter, so I’d focus on that 🙂 Good luck!

  2. Cherrie Rose Ang
    Jan 27, 2017 / 6:57 am

    Hi, Anna! I really like your article. I am hoping to go to Harvard to improve my understanding of e-learning and distant learning, but I am a bit worried about my grades in my undergraduate degree. I was just an average student since I needed to work multiple jobs along the way to finish my education and help my family. I did not fail any course but I got some low grades. Do you think it will affect my application? I know you said that the cover letter si the most important part but I am still worried. Hope to hear from you! =D

    • Jan 27, 2017 / 2:31 pm

      While the cover letter is the most important, grades matter as well. I know someone who got in with lower grades, but he had outstanding extracurricular things in his CV. You’ll definitely have to pass GRE/GMAT with a perfect score in this case.

    • Ren
      Feb 24, 2017 / 6:23 pm

      Google Harvard Extension School. Easy back door into a “Harvard” degree. If you read her blood g, Ana mentions this is what she did to get into Harvard. And tuition is cheaper than regular Harvard.

    • Feb 24, 2017 / 8:53 pm

      Yes, I took this course, but it looks like things have changed quite a lot. Lecturers used to change every year, as this course was led by Nieman Fellows. I just looked into Martha Nichols and she’s not a Nieman Fellow.

      • Ren
        Feb 27, 2017 / 1:39 pm

        Thanks for your input. I think I’ll sit this one out.

  3. Franz
    May 6, 2017 / 8:25 pm

    Hi anna.. I like your atticle.. I wanted to go to harvard because i want to reach my goals as a lawyer. Really hope to talk to you more one day for strong inspiration

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