Assembling Your Application
Common Application Form and Coalition for College
The two main application methods to US colleges, the Common Application and the Coalition for College, are similar to the UCAS form in the UK in that you complete it once and then the information is sent to all the schools you list in your application.
The Common Application Form (or ‘Common App.’) is used by over 1,000 institutions, including some outside the US, so most applicants are likely to use this method. Useful information and advice for students and teachers about completing the Common App form is contained in the Common App Ready Toolkit.
The Coalition for College was launched a few years ago with the purpose of making the US college application system more accessible to students with modest means, particularly those whose high schools are unfamiliar with the application process. It currently has over 150 member colleges, including Harvard.
The Student Essay
The Common App. student essay titles for 2023/24 are as follows:
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- 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.
We have collected a few good examples of past UK applicants’ Admissions Essays, just to show you what kinds of writing styles people have adopted. Your own style may be very different; but you can see that the format is not the same as the UCAS Personal Statement. We often find UK students really hesitate about writing something personal, so a little mental readjustment is necessary. Try writing a draft of your essay and showing it to someone who knows you well. Does your voice sound true? Are you saying something about yourself that makes an interesting statement? Will the reader learn something about you as a person that won’t be learned from the rest of your application?
The US application process involves drawing together references from teachers and/or university advisers, but their references ought to reflect not only your academic potential (which would be more typically UCAS), but also your personal qualities. Therefore getting the right references is important. Start thinking about which teachers know you best as a person and would have something to say about your contribution, not only to your subjects, but also to the school community and beyond. Teachers can see good examples of Teacher Reports which we have assembled. It’s a good idea to draw your teachers’ attention to these in advance of when you need the reports so that they can see how the style and content differs from the UCAS model. Rather than asking them to produce a report in the middle of the application season when they are busy with all the UCAS procedures, make sure you get that request in early!
The Student Transcript is a document provided by your school as an official record of your academic performance, which might include:
The School Profile is a description of the school and the community it serves and must be submitted by your school alongside the student transcript. Context is very important for a US college application as it helps admissions officers to make sense of the numerical data. It might include the following information:
There may be further materials you want to submit – published poetry, music, artwork, science research, and so on. These materials are all optional and should only be submitted if you have reached a significant level of expertise in the field. Check with each college to see how they wish to receive such materials. For Harvard, details of how to submit supplemental materials such as documents, articles and media (video, audio or images) can be found towards the bottom of the Application Requirements page of the College website.
Athletic applications at Ivy League colleges
The Ivy League is an athletic conference formally established in 1954, and is made up of eight universities in the eastern United States: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. The term is often used to refer to the universities themselves, but strictly speaking, it is an athletic league where the eight colleges play each other in a variety of different sports.
Commenting on its foundation, the Ivy League website states that:
“…one of its defining principles was a commitment to access and opportunity exemplified by need-based financial aid. Another was that its recruited athletes be academically representative of each institution’s overall student body.”
In Harvard’s case, this means that all admitted students – whether they are athletic recruits or not – automatically get access to financial aid if they need it, and the amount they receive is means-tested against their family’s income and assets. It also means that athletic recruits go through the same ‘whole person review’ (see above) as other applicants, and have to be able to offer both academic excellence and significant achievement outside the classroom in their applications.
Student athletes must be of a very high calibre. The rule of thumb is that they need to be playing their sport at a national, rather than regional, level. High-calibre candidates are encouraged to contact the head coach of their sport (details on the college websites) with details of their athletic achievements, and to ask the coach directly about the level of interest in them as potential athletic recruits. The coach might then invite some candidates for a trial, and may decide to support some of the applications. However, only the Admissions Office at each Ivy League school has the authority to admit an applicant and to notify the applicant of admission.
Under certain circumstances, the Admissions Office may issue a letter prior to the final admissions decision indicating that a candidate is ‘likely’ to be admitted. This means that, as long as the applicant sustains the academic and personal record reflected in the completed application, the institution will send a formal admission offer on the appropriate notification date.
International athletic applicants are treated in exactly the same way as US citizens, both in terms of recruitment and financial aid.
For further details, see the Ivy League website.
Standardized test scores.
For the next three years (graduating classes of 2027 – 2030) standardized testing is to remain optional at Harvard. Please read this Admissions Update for the 2023-26 Application Cycles.
Harvard accepts the Common Application or the Coalition Application – it doesn’t matter which you use. If using the Common App, note that you must submit your own sections of the application before your supporting materials (Secondary School Report, Teacher Reports etc.) will be transmitted to the Harvard Admissions Office. Be sure to study the Application Tips on the Harvard website.
School reports and teacher recommendations.
As you will be submitting your application before you have taken your A Levels, Advanced Highers or IB exams, your school should provide your predicted grades in your School Transcript and submit the actual grades as soon as they are released in July or August. School Transcript templates may be downloaded from the ‘Applying for an undergraduate degree’ page on the Fulbright Commission website. Scroll down the page until you reach ‘School Documents’ and then down a bit further to ‘Transcript.’ Then download the appropriate template for the type of exam you are taking.
Applicants must ask two teachers in different academic subjects who know them well to complete the Teacher Evaluation forms – these are in addition to the character reference supplied by your Head of Sixth Form or teacher in charge of university applications. In your application confirmation email, there will be a personalised link to send to your recommenders (referees). Examples of what we consider to be helpful teacher reports can be found on the Harvard UK Admissions website.
At the discretion of the Admissions Committee, supplementary materials – such as music recordings, artwork, or selected samples of academic work – may be evaluated by faculty. These materials are entirely optional. Scholarly articles, research, creative writing or other documents of which you are the primary author should be submitted in the ‘Upload Materials’ section of the applicant portal. You may submit optional supplementary media materials (e.g. videos, audio recordings, or images) electronically via Slideroom.
We recognise that social distancing restrictions during the Covid lockdowns meant that most students were been unable to follow their usual activities outside academic study. You will not be disadvantaged by this – everyone is in the same boat. But do tell us about activities of note which may have occurred during lockdowns, such as starting a blog, setting up a special interest group on the web, looking after a sick relative, or helping your local community in some way.
As many candidates as possible will receive an alumni interview depending on the number of UK applications received this year. In 2023/24, interviews will take place either face to face, or remotely by Zoom, WhatsApp or telephone. Your interviewer will contact you directly to fix a date and time after you have submitted your application. Interviews are not required and not having an interview does not disadvantage your application review.