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Harvard Divinity School Admissions Essay Topics

Hello everyone, we hope you are taking good care of yourselves as you prepare your application materials. As prior applicants, current students, and Graduate Assistants in the Office of Admissions, we know how stressful a time this can be. We’ve gathered quite a bit of behind the scenes information throughout our experiences in each of these roles, so we thought we’d write a blog to help you out. We’ve divided this post into two sections, beginning with a Q+A between Graduate Assistants Emily Rogal and Mikaela Allen and ending with a section featuring Application Myths, also produced by Emily Rogal and Mikaela Allen. Enjoy, and let us set your minds at ease!


Q: What sorts of things should I talk about in my SOP?

Mikaela: Good question! As you know, the Statement of Purpose is one of the most important aspects of your application. You should not slack when it comes to your SOP. But relax, you got this! You should present your authentic self, making sure to emphasize how HDS can help you achieve your goals. Questions to consider include: How has my background brought me to this moment, and how has it prepared me for HDS? What does HDS offer that I can’t find in another program? How does HDS fit into my long term goals? What faculty might I want to work with? Why? What courses might I want to take? How do my goals and studies connect to my interests and passions? What do I hope to accomplish with my degree?

Don’t forget to triple-check your spelling!

Q: What is the minimum GRE score and GPA?

Emily: Okay, first, take a deep breath! Having your entire personhood be contained in two numbers is totally scary, but what helped me during this time is knowing that the Admissions Office of HDS takes a holistic approach to reading the application. There is no minimum for either of these numbers.

When I was applying, I really freaked out about the GRE. I went to a small liberal arts school where I hadn’t touched a piece of math for my entire four years. Taking the GRE was extremely stressful! The best advice I have is to spend some time studying (if you can, test books are usually helpful), and dedicate the time to it that you can.

In terms of your GPA, it can feel scary to submit your academic records with no room for explanation. That’s why there’s actually room for an explanation! If you have any grades, or a period of time during your academic career where your grades don’t accurately reflect your capabilities, it might be beneficial to write what was happening in the “Academic History” section of your application. At the very bottom, there is space for you to write a note to the Admissions Committee anything about your academic records that requires further explanation.

Q: What did you do when you felt overwhelmed or inadequate?

Mikaela: During my application process, I made sure to stop for the day whenever I felt overworked so my Statement of Purpose and essay would reflect my clearest mind. Burnout and feelings of uncertainty are normal. Whenever you feel application burnout, go talk to your friends, grab coffee with a professor or colleague, or play with your dog. These types of activities will bring out your best self and remind you why you are applying whenever you become overwhelmed. Like all crafts, SOP writing needs space, more so than your average paper. Remember to listen to music, read your favorite authors, and go out with friends. Your application is for the benefit of your future, but don’t forget to take care of yourself in the present.

Q: How did you feel after you submitted your application?

Emily: Eventually, you’ll reach a point in your application where you’ve studied for the GRE for too many hours, spell checked your statement of purpose too many times, and double checked that your letters of recommendation have been submitted for the eight thousandth time. When you reach this moment, it’s time to submit your application!

Submitting the application can be both a sigh of relief and a huge source of anxiety. After you’ve submitted your application, first, take some time to congratulate yourself for a job well done. Making application to a graduate institute is a ton of work, and you’ve done it! Emerge from whatever library or bedroom or cave you’ve been living in for the past few months and do something to celebrate with friends, ride your bike around a park, pet your dog, and eat a lot of ice cream. Now is the hard part…waiting!


I don’t need to apply to financial aid, I probably won’t get in, anyway, right?

Emily: No, absolutely wrong! In mid-January, after submitting your application for admission, you will receive a link to apply for need based financial aid. Many folks choose to not apply for aid because they either think they will not get in, assume they won’t qualify for need based aid or feel as though they are likely to receive merit based aid. The majority of HDS’ financial aid is devoted to need based aid so all students are strongly encouraged to apply for need based aid. Additionally, if you choose to not apply for need based financial aid and are not offered a merit award, when you receive your acceptance letter, you will not receive a financial aid package. By the time of acceptance, all of the money will have been given out. Please apply for financial aid, and if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to our Office of Financial Aid at

Emailing or mailing the Admissions Office a copy of my book or dissertation can substitute the GRE, the Statement of Purpose, and letters of recommendation, can’t it?

Mikaela: Nope! Nothing outside the required application materials is considered as part of your application. If you do not complete the requirements, your application will not be considered complete, even if you sent us your book.

Note: If you have already received a graduate degree, you may choose to self-waive the GRE by checking a waiver box within the application. If you are still working towards the completion of your graduate degree, you should request a GRE waiver, which includes an individual review of your previous graduate work. You can also find this information in the application instructions.

I should only start talking to my partner/friends/children/dog about moving once I get accepted.

Emily: The Office of Admissions won’t give you an extension to make your decision because you just started thinking about going to HDS! Once you submit your application, definitely start thinking about what it would look like to relocate your life to Boston if you’re from out of town. For housing, looking at resources like Boston Housing groups on Facebook, the Harvard Off-Campus Housing website, and the Boston Craigslist housing can be helpful. You may also want to look into living in a graduate dorm through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Other options include the Cronkhite Graduate Center, and other housing options within the Graduate Commons Program. Additionally, beginning to have honest, open conversations with your family or partner will be beneficial in the long run. Now is also a good time to consider moving expenses.

I should email or mail my official transcripts to you after I submit the application.

Mikaela: False. We only require that you send your official transcripts after you are admitted and if you elect to attend HDS. At that time, you will only need to provide official transcripts for those institutions from which you have been conferred a degree. Until then, unofficial transcripts from each post-secondary institution you attended, showing all undergraduate and graduate work, will suffice.

Note: All unofficial transcripts must be clearly legible and show the full name of the applicant and academic institution, courses completed, grades received, duration of study, and degree or diploma received, if applicable. All foreign transcripts, including grades, grading scales, conferrals of degrees, and records of all courses, seminars, and examinations taken, must be in English or be accompanied by a complete official and literal translation signed by the translator. Under no circumstances may an applicant translate their own transcript. The translator must also certify that the original transcript came to them directly from the educational institution. Please remember to upload your transcripts with their accompanying translation.

My friend told me that calling the Admissions Office every single day is a sure-fire way to get in.

Emily: While our office is definitely happy to answer any outstanding questions you have in between submitting your application and hearing back, it’s definitely a myth that you need to contact us frequently to “stay on our radar.” Focus your energy on what you want to say to the Admissions Committee in your application, but be sure to contact us if we can help you with something specific! We are here to assist you as you navigate the application process.

I don’t have to upload my transcripts from community college.

Mikaela: False. You must upload ALL transcripts from each post-secondary institution you attended and received academic credit, including courses taken at a community college, even if you did not earn a degree from said college.

I can’t apply if I already have a graduate degree (or two).

Mikaela: Not true! Many of our students have already earned graduate degrees. HDS understands that people have many reasons for coming back to school, including career changes and professional development among others. However, because you already hold an advanced degree, we encourage you to use the Statement of Purpose to indicate how another advanced degree will benefit your professional and academic goals. Good luck!

Thank you for reading! We hope this post has been helpful to you. Feel free to contact us at if you have any questions or concerns. Please note that we Graduate Assistants will be out of the office from December 18th, 2017 at 5PM through January 5th, 2018 at 9AM EST. During that time, feel free to email your questions to Also bear in mind that the Office of Admissions itself will be closed from 5PM EST on December 22nd, 2017 through 9AM EST, January 2nd, 2018.

Good luck with your applications!

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Successful Admission Essays

When you first learned to drive, it was one thing to sit in driver’s education class to learn the theory of driving, but it was another thing entirely to sit behind the wheel and actually drive. Like learning to drive, essay writing is best learned by experience. From reading these essays, you’ll see that there is no absolute “right” or “wrong” way to write an essay. In fact, there are an unlimited number of topics to write about and ways to approach the essay. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a professional writer to write a great essay.

What we hope you’ll learn from these essays is that to write the strongest essay possible, you just need to be you. Present where you are and what you’d like to achieve by furthering your education. This is what these students did, and they are all well on their way to their goals. Important note: Please remember that these essays are only examples of ways that some students have successfully written their admission essays. Your essays will naturally be your own.

Nancy H.

Mount Holyoke College

Nancy H. had a brief college stint after high school but left and pursued a successful career in publishing. She became the director of sales and marketing at a publishing company, but she was denied a well-deserved promotion because she didn’t have a college degree. It was then that Nancy decided to earn her degree no matter what. At first she attended community college courses via the Internet to accommodate her work schedule.

She later applied to Mount Holyoke College to a program for older re-entry students. She says, “That made a huge difference. I felt that there was going to be a certain accommodation for my past but that I would still be held to the same high standards as their other, traditionally-aged students.”

When she applied to Mount Holyoke College, she tried to convey to the admission office her academic passion and what she wanted to achieve. She says, “The college would rather have someone who has a plan and changes her mind later than someone who is ambivalent and unfocused.”

Nancy is currently studying for a master’s of theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. Why study religion? “Religion is one of many lenses available for viewing the human experience and how people create meaning in their lives,” she says, adding, “I think that religion is unique because it is nearly universal, has historical evidence that is among the oldest remnants available and provides one of the few windows on women’s contributions.”

After Harvard, Nancy plans to pursue a Ph.D. and teach at the college level one day. But she doesn’t want to limit herself to teaching. “I want to use the lessons that I’ve learned to act and be an activist in community efforts fostering harmony, peace and coalition building,” she says.

Nancy’s Essay

I have a successful and rewarding career working for a publishing company whose books help people learn. For me, that has been about as close to “right livelihood” as I have ever enjoyed. My children are grown with families of their own a few hours away. I live in the country with deer and wild turkeys as neighbors. The ocean is a short drive away. What more could I want?

When I went back to college last year, it was for the purpose of freshening my business skills. My plan was to get an undergraduate degree in business then proceed to an MBA. Along the way, something unexpected happened. While studying Western Civilization-Ancient World (History 4A), I was struck by the role of women throughout ancient history. What happened that made women’s roles so subservient? I was sufficiently intrigued to follow that up with Western Civilization-to the 1800’s (History 4B) AND Philosophy-Comparative Western Religion (PHIL 25). I discovered that some scholars claim that during the Inquisitions and European Witch Hunts, 9 million women were killed. While the number is in dispute, it is agreed that this was the largest non-war-related murder of a people BY THEIR OWN in recorded history. Wow! And that was just ONE compelling insight that got me stirred up. (You did ask me to be brief!)

I couldn’t put the topic down. And the topic wouldn’t let me put it down. It seemed that around every corner I was finding books or articles that continued to stimulate more questions. So many questions and so little time! I work between 40 and 50 hours a week with extensive travel. I was sufficiently challenged taking two college classes over the Internet. I just couldn’t seem to find extra time to explore these issues as fully as I wanted to. It was becoming evident that it mattered more to me to ask the questions and look for the answers than maintain my employment. One day while clicking through screens on a completely unrelated topic (as if there are “accidents”), there was a small banner ad about girl’s education. To this day, I have no idea why I felt compelled to click on that small, obscure ad. I don’t even remember the specifics of the ad, something about supporting educational options for girls. My eye caught the fine print at the bottom, “Sponsored by the National Ad Council” (or whomever) and “Mount Holyoke College.” I clicked on the MHC link and my life changed.

That night I read virtually every page on the website. I read the course descriptions, read about the dormitories, read what they were having for breakfast next week. I read about the professors, about the facilities and of course, about the Frances Perkins Program. And then, just to make sure, I opened the site map and checked that I hadn’t missed anything. Here was a community of smart women engaged in exploring the world in a way that I keenly wanted to be part of. And there was a special program for older re-entry students. Not just a program but a real community of older students. I looked at their pictures and read their stories. They were like I was! It sounded too good to be true! When I read the descriptions for major studies for women’s studies (i.e., “provokes questions, discussions, disagreements and illuminating insights”) and critical social thought, I knew in my heart that this was where I was supposed to be. Here I could explore the questions that have made me restless and hopefully find some answers that would be relevant. And do it in a community-based context that would be a valuable part of the process (I appreciated that 98 percent of the students lived on-campus.)

I’ve got to tell you that just because I got the wake-up call, I didn’t immediately respond with, “Okay, let’s go!” I struggled with fear and self-doubt and denial. But the call didn’t go away. Rather, I found myself at work, while on hold, clicking back to the MHC website for just another peek. Even though only a week had passed since the first click on the MHC website, it was now or never. The deadline for application was only weeks away. I sent for the application for admission.

Now I have gratefully accepted the gift of the call. It’s what I have to do. It’s what I choose to do. What a treat to have something in my life that makes me feel so engaged, so passionate, so alive! It is so important that I will give up my security; I will give up my possessions (yet another prospective tag-sale about to be in progress!); I will give up my current way of being to plunge into this Sea of Uncertainty. Is the water cold? I don’t know. Where will I end up? I don’t know. For now, I’m secure in the belief that it’s the journey, not the destination. I’ve always known what I need to know, when I need to know it. And so here I am. I am knocking on your door and asking you to invite me to join you.