What is a Harvard Interview Like? By a British Harvard Student
Harvard University is one of the most exclusive institutions in the world, with an average admissions rate of 5% for its undergraduate applicants. It’s not that surprising, therefore, that the admissions process itself is a pretty thorough and complex one.
As someone who has been through the Harvard application process itself, I can give some advice on what the interview is like, and how to prepare for this part of the admissions process.
In this piece, I’ll chat about my own experiences with the Harvard interview, and about how it was my favourite part of the whole application process. I’ll also talk about the sort of topics you’ll likely talk about in your own interview, and those subjects you’ll likely avoid.
If you want more in-depth information on how to prepare for the university admissions process, visit the Resources section of the A&J Education website.
Where Does the Interview Fit in in the Harvard Admissions Process?
In its basic form, here are the steps which your application will go through in order to be a successful applicant to one of the world’s most prestigious universities:
- The initial recruitment stage: the university admissions board actually begins to reach out to and contact especially talented American students several years before they’re due to submit their university applications. The admissions office collects data on standardised test results, while sports coaches from the various Varsity teams may begin to get in touch with standout school athletes during their sophomore or junior years at high school.
- The interview process: as you can see, it’s pretty early on in the application cycle that you’ll be able to sign up for an interview with one of over 15,000 Harvard alumni that are situated around the globe. If you’re not able to meet in person, it’s likely that you’ll be able to take part in a remote, online chat with your assigned interviewee.
- The admissions officers read your application: in this first round of application analysis, your designated officer will read through your CommonApp application and look for certain types of data and information, including extracurricular achievements, family background and socioeconomic status, test scores, and personal character. You can find out more in-depth information about this process by looking at The Harvard Crimson articles on it, but, in short, you’re aiming for a low (1 or 2) score in each or several of these four categories; academic, personal, extracurricular, and athletic.
- The admissions committee takes a vote: this is the famous part of the Harvard admissions process, where the top applications are presented to a subcommittee of influential admissions officers. If this committee passes a majority vote for your application, it will move on to the larger committee (made up of around 40 people). Again, if the majority of this committee vote for your application to be successful, it’s pretty likely that you’ll get an email accepting you to Harvard University.
- You receive a decision in your email or by post: it’s at this point that you’ll know for certain what the college’s final decision is.
How Many Applicants Does Harvard Interview?
As mentioned earlier, Harvard will interview most of its applicants. This is because it has the resources, and the vast alumni network, to do so. Wherever you are in the world, if you get the opportunity to register for an interview with a Harvard alumnus who lives in your area, you should grab it with both hands. These interviews are an informal, constructive, and holistic process that most applicants will enjoy, and they are an excellent opportunity for alumni to gauge the “potential” for a candidate to make a “special contribution” to the Harvard community.
Does Harvard Interview UK Applicants?
In short, yes. There is a vast network of Harvard alumni interviewers based in the UK, so you’re very likely to receive an invitation to an interview, whether it’s in a neutral location like a café near your house or online.
If you’re given the opportunity, try to attend an in-person interview. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Body language: when it comes to reading body language cues, you can’t beat in-person contact. You’ll get a far better sense of the interviewer’s energy, whether they want to steer the conversation in a different direction, whether your jokes are landing properly or falling flat! If you’re a particularly animated person or storyteller, you’ll find that you’ll be able to engage the interviewer far quicker if you’re talking to them face-to-face, rather than over a telephone or through a pixelated screen.
- Genuine human engagement: following on from the last point, it tends to be easier to build rapport with a stranger when you’re meeting face to face. The conversation may well feel more natural, and you’ll each be able to gauge the vibe of the other participant much quicker than you would do in a remote, or online, setting.
- It shows that you’ve made the effort: if your interviewer proposes that you meet them in a location that’s a few hours away from your house, try to take them up on it if you can. Expending the time and energy to smarten up and travel to your interview demonstrates that you have personal initiative and that you really care about this opportunity. As with everything, actions tend to speak louder than words. If you work really hard to sort out your end of the interview process, this will speak volumes.
Who Will Interview You?
Again, this question has a pretty simple answer. You will be interviewed by one of the 15,000 Harvard alumni across the globe. Needless to say, the graduate interviewer will be someone that lives and works near your area (if possible).
The Harvard alumni network is comprised of many different types of Harvard graduates. For example, I was interviewed by a Harvard alumnus who received a PhD from the university, before working there as a visiting professor twenty years later. Our interview took place at his office at a university that was a thirty-minute bus ride from my house. You may have an interviewer who did a Masters at Harvard, worked as a visiting lecturer, or even did their undergraduate degree at the college.
Make sure you take time to research and find out more about your interviewer before you turn up on the day. If they’re in academia, check out the relevant university web pages to find out about their specialist subjects. Find out a bit about their past association with the college if you can, and take some time to draw up a list of questions that you have about Harvard and their experience there.
Interviewers want to see that you’re inquisitive and interested in searching for, engaging with, and absorbing information from them in these conversations. The more motivated and driven you are to have an enjoyable and insightful interaction with them, the more likely it is that they’ll rate your intellectual “potential”.
Before my interview, I did the necessary research and saw that my interviewer had special interests and expertise in aspects of political history, particularly French history. This interview took place in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks at the beginning of 2015, so I made sure that I was clued up on that situation before heading into the interview. Sure enough, a section of our conversation veered into abstract political questions about freedom of speech and contemporary French society. Taking time to absorb and develop opinions on current events while checking out the interviewer’s background can really play into your favour come interview time.
Example Questions and Topics of Conversation
So, what is a Harvard interview like? These types of interviews are a whole different ball game to their Oxbridge equivalents and provide alumni interviewers with an hour-long opportunity to get a holistic and very real sense of your personality, including your academic, intellectual, athletic, and creative, community-based interests.
Various iterations of the famous Harvard Admissions Office Interviewer Handbook place special emphasis on alumni diving below the surface when it comes to the interview process, moving beyond surface questions about current events and happenings to garner a sense of the interviewee’s authentic passion to change and think about the world in a different, more sustainable way.
It’s worth saying that although alumni are given a lot of freedom when it comes to deciding upon the topics of conversation in their interviews, there is a basic framework that the 2013-2014 Harvard interview handbook asks alumni interviewers to adhere to during the process.
What is a Harvard Interview Like? Topics Which Interviewers Will Avoid
Here are some of the topics interviewers probably won’t breach with you during the process:
- An in-depth provocation of your school grades and exam results: it’s pretty unlikely that interviewers will focus too much on your academic transcript or high school grades when they chat to you. This type of quantitative information is already readily available to the admissions committee in your applications. Interviewers are far more likely to ask you about academic projects or papers you’re working on: they want to gauge your intellectual passions, not waste time talking about standardised test results or grades.
- The other colleges and programmes which you’re applying to: it’s unlikely that Harvard alumni interviewers will press you to find out where else you’re applying to in the States or around the world. Again, these types of questions might make you feel uncomfortable as the interviewee, and that’s the last thing the interviewer will want to do. They know that you’ll be best able to demonstrate your intellectual “capacity” and vibrant personality when you’re feeling at ease.
- Extended or “prolonged discussions of political and personal issues”: again, it’s likely that interviewers will try to avoid getting into a discussion of partisan political views or opinions with interviewees. If they do want to talk about politics, it’ll be along more abstract, theoretical lines, so that they can see the way you grapple with and think about large, complex and nuanced ideas. As I’ve mentioned before, the interviewer won’t want to generate long conversations that will either make you uncomfortable or affect and influence their own personal political biases.
Topics You’re Likely to Talk About
Here are the types of topics you may well talk about during your interview:
- Your creative, academic, spiritual, or athletic community: one of the most important factors that the Harvard Admissions officers are looking for in prospective candidates is the ability and potential to bring something special and constructive to the college community. The Harvard interview template is designed to gauge the size and type of “special contribution” that any given candidate can make to the college as a whole, and to the wider global community once they graduate. As such, interviewers will want to know all about the influence you have and the work you do in your pre-existing communities.
- Your hobbies: interviewers will often start the process by asking you about one or two of your extracurricular activities and hobbies. This type of approach tends to help put interviewees at ease, as they’re discussing something they’re naturally excited and passionate about. Remember, as well, that prestigious American liberal arts colleges like Harvard will place far more emphasis on your extracurricular activities than more grade-focussed UK equivalents like Oxbridge, St Andrews, or LSE. During my interview, we talked about my love for alternative, quirky modern music and I bemoaned the direction Radio 1 was veering towards when it came to using social media trends to pick which music to play. As you can see, a couple of questions about your hobbies can lead to an insightful and engaging conversation about wider social issues.
- Your thoughts on wider socio-political trends and ideas: as mentioned above, it’s pretty likely that the conversation will veer towards more abstract and complex ideas naturally and organically. Interviewers aren’t just trying to get a sense of your personality and extracurricular passions: they’re also looking to gauge your intellectual “capacity” and adaptability when it comes to engaging with more complex topics.
It’s also well worth noting that Harvard alumni will tend to ask you pretty simple questions to begin the interview. The best interviewers will take some time settling you down before allowing the more stimulating, insightful conversations to develop.
What is a Harvard Interview Like? How is the Interview Scored and Marked?
At the end of the interview, your alumnus will write up their thoughts on the conversation, focussing mainly on the following aspects:
- A synopsis of where they think the candidate is going in their lives and what they’re going to achieve moving forwards.
- Thoughts on the “special contribution” the applicant may or may not make to the Harvard college community.
- Thoughts on how the candidate would make use of going to Harvard. An insight into whether the applicant’s character means they would get the most out of this college education.
- A number of quantitative scores, focussing on factors like their personality, athletic and academic achievements. Generally speaking, the Harvard Admissions Office only uses this grading system to filter out the interviews that clearly didn’t go well, with applicants that score poorly across all numerical categories unlikely to be considered too much in the next phase of the application cycle.
It’s important to note that the Admissions Office will place far more emphasis on the interviewer’s synopses of the applicant’s talent, motivations, and interests rather than on any numbering system.
How Should You Prepare for a Harvard Interview?
As I’ve already mentioned in this piece, the Harvard interview is pretty different from its Oxbridge equivalent, with far wider-reaching questions about topics like your hobbies, extracurricular activities, and the role you play in your local academic, athletic, and creative communities.
As such, the best thing you can do when it comes to preparing for the Harvard interview is to not overdo it. Don’t stress or psych yourself out by feeling like you need to come prepared to pitch a groundbreaking original academic idea or sell yourself as the songwriter, biologist, or poet of your generation. You will perform at your best in the interview if you are yourself, as clichéd as that sounds. The interviewers aren’t looking for a polished, refined article: they want someone with “potential” to change themselves, their local communities, the Harvard college student body, and the world, and they are well-trained to notice this “potential” in the most unassuming and unexpected of places.
If you’re searching for actionable tips when it comes to preparing for your Harvard interview, then here are a few of the ways in which I got ready for my one:
- I looked up my interviewer and found out about his academic and extracurricular interests. It’s always well worth doing this, because these interests may dictate the direction your interviewer may wish to take the conversation. It also shows the alum that you’ve taken the initiative and time to find out about them before turning up to the interview.
- I made sure I was relatively keyed up on current events in the news. Again, I thought some of these events could come up over the course of our chat. For instance, I used to start debates with my mum and dad at the dinner table about certain socio-political ideas: this helped me to cut my teeth for the interview process.
- I didn’t overthink it. I didn’t put too much pressure on the interview itself, instead of making clear in my mind that, whatever happened, I was going to enjoy the opportunity to speak with an excellent and renowned academic for an hour.
- I made sure I was comfortable at all times. I wore clothes that were relatively smart but comfy, I took the bus to my nearby town while listening to some of my favourite music, and I got to the university campus early so that I could stroll up to the interview office and take in the fresh air without feeling rushed at any point.
And that was about it. You can’t really game the system when it comes to performing well in your Harvard interview. Over the course of the hour-long conversation you have with the alumnus, it’ll become clear to the interviewer what your genuine passions are and what things excite you in your life. When you talk about your extracurricular activities and achievements, your interviewer will see from your years of action in certain aspects of your life what really matters to you. You can’t take up any of these longer-term activities in the weeks leading up to your interview just to try to prove a point.
Trust your talent, trust your personality, and above all, trust your potential. Interviewers will respond best to candidates who are candid and self-reflective, with an unerring self-confidence and belief in their capacity to do something special in the world.
Above all, enjoy the process. Remember that the vast majority of interviewees will not get accepted to Harvard, and many of these candidates are some of the most exceptional young minds, athletes, and personalities of your age around the world. If nothing else, try to view the interview as an incredible and enjoyable opportunity to speak to a Harvard alum about topics that interest and fascinate you. I remember that I loved every single minute of my Harvard interview because my interviewer sensed what I really wanted to talk about and went with me on it. It was an enlightening conversation that I reminisce about happily to this day.
The interview with an alumnus in your local area is arguably the most enjoyable part of the Harvard University application process, as it gives you the opportunity to talk about big ideas and personal passions with an articulate and equally passionate interviewer.
Here are the key points to remember when you’re embarking on this journey:
- Think about the “special contribution” you can make to Harvard, and to the world as a whole.
- Trust in your own talent and character. Know that your personality will shine through in the interview.
- Relish the opportunity to speak to a knowledgeable Harvard alumnus and have an intellectually exciting and insightful chat.
If you want more in-depth articles about relieving stress during the university interview cycle, check out this piece in the Resources section of the A&J Education website.
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