Harvard Outreach Newsletter

120th Issue, August 2023

In this issue:

Harvard Admissions website screenshot

Applying to US colleges for entry in 2024? Start your application now!

The Common Application Form (Common App) for US colleges went live on 1st August, so if you are at the end of Year 12 (England & Wales), S5 (Scotland), or Year 13 (N. Ireland) and intend to apply to US colleges for entry in 2024, you should now register on the Common App website and put together as much of your application material as possible over the summer.  If you intend to take a gap year, it is easier to apply this year, at the same time as your peers, and then defer entry for one year if you are offered a place. 

Last month we outlined the two main application methods, and here is a recap:

The Common App is used by over 900 institutions, including some outside the US, so most applicants are likely to use this method.  Click here to create an account.  

To become more familiar with the different parts of the Common App, go to the Khan Academy Common Application Walkthrough.  This provides informative videos explaining how to complete each of the seven sections, and where to find help if you get stuck.  

Part 1: Setup and college selection 
Part 2: Profile 
Part 3: Family 
Part 4: Education 
Part 5: Testing 
Part 6: Activities 
Part 7: College-specific supplements 

The videos were produced in 2015, so some of the details may be out of date, but you will still be able to see the layout of the form and how to fill out the main sections.  

The Coalition for College was started in 2016 as an alternative to the Common App, and it currently has over 150 colleges signed up.

Last year (2022) the Coalition moved to a new online platform called Scoir (pronounced ‘score’) in order to ‘…simplify the college admissions process. On the Scoir platform, students can search and discover colleges & universities, collaborate with people who support them, and apply to Coalition schools that share a commitment to graduating students on time and with low or no debt.‘ (Coalition website)

Unlike the Common App, there is no specific opening date for Coalition applications. Every member college determines its own application cycle, but most open their applications in July or August.

Full details of Harvard’s application requirements for both the Common App and the Coalition can be found on this webpage.

Harvard Admission website screenshot, students sitting together on Widener Library steps

Differences between US and UK university application systems

Both of the main US application methods differ from the UK’s UCAS system in the following ways:

  • you send your US application directly to the American colleges to which you are applying, whereas you have to forward your completed UCAS form to your school before it is submitted
  • in the US system you apply to the college as a whole, not to a specific department, so your application will be assessed by the undergraduate admissions office, not by departmental tutors
  • you can apply to a maximum of five UK universities through UCAS, but there is no limit to the number of US colleges to which you can apply, and you may apply to both the US and UK systems at the same time
  • if you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, you can apply to one or the other, but not both, whereas in the US you can apply to as many top colleges as you wish.  (However, if you are applying in the Early Action round, check the college website to see if it has any rules about how many/which colleges a student can apply.  For an explanation of the meaning of Early Action, see the October 2022 newsletter).
  • about 75% of the colleges that use the two US application methods also require you to fill out a supplementary form, whereas British universities do not usually require additional material
  • offers of admission to US colleges are not conditional on attaining specific grades or scores in your final A-Level, Scottish Higher or IB exams – but be warned! there is still an expectation that you will achieve grades roughly in line with those predicted, or your offer of admission may be withdrawn.

The personal essay

Most students find that the personal essay (equivalent to the UCAS Personal Statement) is the most challenging and time consuming part of the US college application process.

The essay topics that are being used this year by both application platforms are given below. You will notice that all the topics prompt you to talk about yourself. This is a fundamental difference with the UCAS Personal Statement, which asks you to explain why you are well prepared to follow a particular course of study. But when you apply to a US college, it is not to study a specific subject, and for the first 18 months you will have the opportunity to explore many different topics before deciding on your ‘major’ (sometimes known as a ‘concentration’, or main area of study). So the purpose of the personal essay is to enable Admissions Officers to find out what you are like as a person: your ambitions, interests, opinions, achievements and challenges.

The suitability of the various essay topics to your particular story will be one of the factors that will help you decide which of the application platforms to use. You should try to identify a prompt that will enable you to describe your unique qualities as an individual – something that will set you apart from other candidates. Then plan the structure of the essay and write several drafts. There is an abundance of online material to help you – simply type ‘US college admission essays’ into your search engine.

In addition to the main essay topic, most colleges have supplements in which they require further short essays or memos. Check out what is required by all the colleges on your shortlist before you start writing, as different colleges sometimes ask similar supplementary questions, enabling you to adapt the same answers.

Common App personal essay

The Common App essay titles for 2023-24 are the same as last year.  The essay must be between 250 and 650 words in length.

2023-24  Common App essay prompts

  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.  
  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?  
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted your thinking?  What was the outcome?  
  4. 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? 
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.  
  6. 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?  
  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.  

College Essay Advisors website has produced this useful guide on the 2023-24 Common App essay prompts.

The Coalition personal essay

The Coalition essay prompts for 2023-24 are: 

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. What interests or excites you?  How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future? 
  3. Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others.  What were the challenges?  What were the rewards?  
  4. Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned.  How did you respond?  What did you learn?  
  5. What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced?  What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience? 
  6. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice. 

Recommended essay length: 500 – 650 words.

College Essay Advisors website has produced this useful guide to the 2023-24 Coalition application essay prompts.


Harvard supplement

All first-year applicants to Harvard, regardless of whether they are applying via the Common App or the Coalition, must complete a Harvard supplement with five required short-answer questions:

1.    Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard? (200 words max)
2.    Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words max)
3.    Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (200 words max)
4.    How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words max)
5.    Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words max)

USA College Day, 23-24 September 2023

USA college day 2022
Crowds around the Harvard table at last year's USA College Day, 24 September 2022

This year’s USA College Day is being held on a Saturday and Sunday, rather than a Friday and Saturday as in previous years.  Organised by the US-UK Fulbright Commission, this free event provides prospective undergraduates, parents and teachers the opportunity to meet representatives from over 150 American universities. 

It will be held at the ILEC Conference Centre, 47 Lillie Road, London SW6 1UD (nearest tube and train station West Brompton).  Click here for a map.

It will take place on the following days and times:

Saturday 23 September 2.00pm – 7.00pm

Sunday 24 September 10.30am – 4.30pm.

USA College Day is free to attend but you must register to get a ticket for entry.  Registration will open in late August.

Widener Library

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