Harvard Outreach Newsletter

110th Issue, October 2022

In this issue:

USA College Day goes live again after two years

It was lovely to see the hundreds of students and parents who came to see us at the Harvard table at USA College Day at the ILEC Conference Centre, London, on 23/24 September. And it was particularly gratifying to meet people in person again after the event had to be run virtually for the previous two years due to Covid restrictions.

Many students who came to the Harvard stand enquired about courses in medicine and law, not realising that in America, professional degrees such as law, medicine, and business studies are taken at postgraduate level, not as part of an undergraduate degree.

When you apply to Harvard for undergraduate study, you don’t have to nominate your concentration, or ‘major,’ at that stage, and if you are admitted, you can usually study whatever you like for the first 18 months (except for a small core curriculum). There are 3,700 courses to choose from, and you are positively encouraged to take classes in subjects you have never studied before.

The vast amount of choice within the liberal arts curriculum is by far the most frequent reason given by British students about why they have chosen to study in America: they like the idea that you can try out lots of different classes before making a final decision about your main area of study. If you still want to study medicine or law after you graduate, it is possible to take pre-med and pre-law courses while an undergraduate to prepare you for going on to medical or law school later in your career. But you cannot specialise in these subjects at undergraduate level.

British students who wish to return to the UK after completing a US bachelor’s degree to take up further training in medicine and law can still do so provided they take a conversion course in the appropriate subject at a UK university. A medicine conversion course normally takes four years, whereas in law you will need to take a one-year Graduate Diploma in Law.

The information in the following paragraphs is for students in the final year of secondary school or sixth form college who will be submitting applications to Harvard this autumn for the graduating class of 2027 (starting in August 2023): 
  • Year 13 (England and Wales) 
  • S6 (Scotland) 
  • Year 14 (Northern Ireland) 
Exam grades.  Harvard accepts all UK public examinations equally – it doesn’t matter which you take, as long as the grades are good.  Typical grades of applicants admitted to Harvard are:  
  • GCSE: Grades 7-9 (numbered system), or A/A* (lettered system)
  • Scottish National 5s: Grades A/B
  • AS levels (where taken): Grades A/B
  • A Levels: Grades A/A*
  • Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers: Grades A/B
  • International Baccalaureate (IB): Grades 39-45
But don’t forget that the Admissions Office undertakes a ‘whole person review’ of every candidate (see next section), so students who have the odd grade lower than those stated above are still often granted admission if they have significant achievement elsewhere in their application, such as for an extracurricular activity or outstanding personal qualities and leadership potential.

Harvard Admissions Office ‘whole person review’

Candidates for Harvard will be assessed using what is called a ‘whole person review,’ but the Admissions Office will take account of the fact that many of the extracurricular activities normally undertaken by students had to be curtailed during the various Covid lockdowns.  

The ‘whole person review’ includes:
  • Academic achievement (grades, scores, teacher comments) – Academic fit is most important but other qualities help differentiate among exceptional candidates
  • Extracurricular involvement (activities and achievements outside academic study) 
  • Personal attributes (interest in your academic field of choice, initiative, leadership potential, open mindedness, enthusiasm)
  • Context and background (socio-economic, geographic, ethnic, family background, advantages or disadvantages growing up, barriers overcome) 
  • Fit with the community, potential for contribution to the university, to the education of those around him/her and beyond
Our goal is to obtain the fullest possible picture of the applicant – both past accomplishments and future potential.  Admission is less a reward for what a student has done in the past than a belief and an investment in what he or she will do in the future. 
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
Application forms.  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 scores, 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 School Documents page on the Fulbright Commission website. Scroll down the page and click on ‘you can download our example’ under the ‘Transcript’ heading. 
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 personalized 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.  
Supplementary materials.  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.  
Extracurricular activity.  We recognise that social distancing restrictions over the past two years have meant that most students have 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 anything else you have been doing, 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. 
Interviews.  As many candidates as possible will receive an alumni interview depending on the number of UK applications received this year.  In 2022/23 interviews may take place by Zoom, WhatsApp, telephone, or in person, based on the agreement of the interviewer and applicant.  Your interviewer will contact you directly to fix a date and time after you have submitted your application.

What’s the difference between ‘Early Action’ and ‘Regular Action’ when applying to US colleges?

If you are applying this year for entry to the Class of 2027 you should now be putting together the components of your application ready to submit to your chosen colleges by the Early Action or Regular Action deadline.  
‘Regular Action’ refers to the normal deadline for submitting your application to American colleges (1st January at Harvard, but it does vary from college to college).  You may apply to as many colleges as you like by this deadline.  But if you have one particular institution that is your clear favourite, many American colleges provide an option called ‘Restrictive Early Action,’ or just ‘Early Action,’ which allows you to apply to one US college earlier than the others (by 1st November) and receive a decision by mid-December.  (Note that you can still apply to UK universities if you are applying Early Action in the US).  For the most competitive US colleges, there is no advantage or disadvantage in applying Early or Regular Action, but some colleges may see your early application as an indication that they are your top choice, and may feel more favourable towards your application for that reason.  Check each college’s website to see if they make any statements about possible advantages in the process for submitting an early application. 

Some colleges use the term ‘Early Decision’ rather than ‘Early Action’. What’s the difference?

If you apply to a college ‘Early Action’ and are offered a place, the offer is usually not binding and you may wait and see if you get further offers from your ‘Regular Action’ colleges before you decide which offer to accept.  On the other hand, an offer made as a result of an ‘Early Decision’ application is usually binding, so you must accept the offer and withdraw your applications from all other universities to which you have applied.  This is not a problem if you definitely want to go the ‘Early Decision’ college, but being offered admission will close off all other options so it is very important to check whether an offer will be binding or non-binding before submitting your application.  There is, however, one advantage to applying to an ‘Early Decision’ college: you have a greater chance of being admitted because the Admissions Office knows you are already fully committed to attending if you are offered a place. 
More information about Restrictive Early Action can be found on the First Year Applicants page of the Harvard Admissions website.

What should I be doing now if I am applying to US colleges next year?

The information below is for students in the penultimate year of secondary school or sixth form college: 

  • Year 12 (England and Wales) 
  • S5 (Scotland) 
  • Year 13 (Northern Ireland) 

The most essential thing to do, this year and every year, is to work hard throughout the year to get good grades and/or teacher assessments for all your academic work. 

Other than that, the two essential tasks for applying to American colleges are to research the college system, and to register for next year’s standardized tests if you choose to take them.  

1. Research the US college system.  Use one of the specialist search engines to research the college system and identify a long list, and then a short list, of colleges to which you might like to apply.  There are a number of search engines you can try, including Peterson’s and the College Board.

2. Register to take the standardised admissions tests, if required, and book a place far enough ahead to allow you plenty of time to practise.  If you haven’t already done so, register for the tests now and book a date or dates to take them in the spring of 2023.  You might want to set aside two or three hours’ practice time each week for the next few months so you are at your maximum performance by the time you sit the exams.  Those US colleges that still require standardised tests have no preference between the SAT and the ACT, but the two tests are structured differently, so the one you decide to take will simply boil down to the style of exam you prefer.  A good method of deciding is to take a free online test in both the SAT and the ACT and go with whichever one gives you the better score. 

Here are some links to the free online practice material:

SAT test 

For the SAT, there are also free online practice tools provided by the Khan Academy.

For the ACT test, free online practice tests are provided by Kaplan.

If you need additional practice material, books of SAT and ACT practice tests are available from online publishers at around £20 each.

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