Harvard Outreach Newsletter

122nd Issue, October 2023

In this issue:

USA College Day, 23/24 September
Crowds at the Harvard table at this year's USA College Day

USA College Day, 23/24 September 2023

It was great to see the many students and parents who came to the Harvard table at USA College Day at the ILEC Conference Centre, London, on 23/24 September.

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. But it is still 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.

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 do so by taking a conversion course in the appropriate subject at a UK university. Aspiring medics can take an accelerated four-year graduate entry course in medicine, whereas in law you will need to do a one-year Graduate Diploma in Law.

USA College Day, 23/24 September
Crowds at the Harvard table at this year's USA College Day

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 2028 (starting in August 2024):

  • 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 may be granted admission if they have significant achievement elsewhere in their application, such as for an extracurricular activity or outstanding potential contributions to the Harvard community.

Harvard Admissions Office 'whole person review'

Candidates for Harvard will be assessed using what is called a ‘whole person review,’ which means that the Admissions Committee considers background and life experience alongside grades and academic performance.

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, including contributions to family or local community.
  • Personal attributes (interest in your academic field of choice, initiative, leadership potential, open mindedness, enthusiasm)
  • 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.

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.

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 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

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 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. 

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 2028 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 at Harvard) 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 not binding and you may wait and see if you get further offers from your ‘Regular Action’ colleges or UK universities before you decide which offer to accept. On the other hand, an offer made as a result of an ‘Early Decision’ application is binding, so you must accept the offer and withdraw your applications from all other colleges 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 optional standardized 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 2024. 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 standardized 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:

If you need additional practice material, hard copy and digital SAT and ACT practice tests are available from online publishers from around £20 to £30.

Widener Library

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