What Harvard Wants: Habits of Mind

What do the most selective colleges believe incoming students should know and be able to do so as to make the most of their post- secondary learning opportunities? A Harvard University booklet, “Choosing Courses to Prepare for College,” draws largely from a study of how Harvard students’ high-school preparation affected performance in the college’s Core program of study. For Essential Schools, several recommendations stand out particularly.

  • Though the booklet lists areas of study primarily by discipline (English literature, foreign language, history, mathematics, and science), it emphasizes “important knowledge, skills, or habits of thought, rather than naming specific courses.” Research and writing stands as a separate category equal in importance to any subject area. The principal message: Depth matters more than coverage, since high school programs vary. Use your school’s strongest teachers and resources to take the most demanding courses you can find.
  • In English literature, Harvard emphasizes critical and analytical reading. Make reading as deep as possible in a particular area, the college says, rather than superficially covering unrelated readings. “Besides reading novels for what they can tell you about life in [other] times and places,” the booklet reads, “you will notice how authors treat different problems or how they treat the same problems in different ways.” (Essential questions, anyone?)
  • In foreign languages, Harvard advises studying one foreign language and its literature in depth rather than a smattering of several languages.
  • In history Harvard urges students to take much more than their required American history course, arguing that the rigorous study of history provides a more basic preparation for college work than other social sciences courses. By taking additional courses that focus on time periods or other areas, the college says, students learn to understand “the assumptions underlying our political, social, and economic institutions.” Studying ideas and institutions in a historical context, it writes, teaches students “to think about these matters analytically; to understand not only what happened but how and why.”
  • Four years of high school mathematics alone won’t do the trick, Harvard says; students need to “acquire the habit of puzzling over mathematical relationships.” Don’t just memorize formulas and definitions but question and understand them, Harvard urges, asking students to solve hard problems containing applications. “The ability to wrestle with difficult problems is far more important than the knowledge of many formulae or relationships,” the booklet says. “It is not what courses you have taken, but how much you have thought about mathematics, that counts. More important than the knowledge of a specific mathematical topic is the willingness to tackle new problems.”
  • “The study of science begins with the habit of asking questions,” Harvard advises, asking students to study the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology for four years if possible. The booklet urges practice in the scientific processes of performing experiments, making measurements, and developing theories to explain and predict phenomena.
  • Research and writing about texts is key to preparing for college, Harvard says: “If you read with curiosity and purpose, you will be able to take notes more easily, to weigh one author’s view against another, to categorize your research under leading questions, and to form your own observations and opinions.” Write regularly in coursework and journals “to find out what you think,” it says, asking students also to reflect critically on their own writing.

Following its advice will not ensure admission, the booklet admonishes. Harvard selects students not only by their academic preparation, it says, but by many other criteria. “Most of all we look for students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them, and who are likely to continue to do so throughout their lives,” the authors conclude.

A Crefeld School Transcript

This is the second page of a student’s transcript from the Crefeld School, a small Coalition member school in Philadelphia serving grades 7 through 12. The first page contains basic student data, then lists course topics (under such headings as “Social Studies Topics,” “Science Topics,” and “Electives”), year of completion, and grade.


  • Analytical Reading Skills
  • Mechanics of Writing
  • Essay Writing Skills
  • Classroom Discussion Skills
  • Research Skills
  • Computation
  • Experimental Procedures
  • Analysis of Arts
  • Inquiry and Questioning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Prompt Homework Completion


  • Mathematics Concepts
  • Applying Math Concepts (Tests and Homework)
  • Science Content (Tests and Homework)
  • Application of Science Concepts


  • Social Studies Content (Tests and Homework)
  • Application of Social Studies Concepts
  • English Content (Tests and Homework)
  • Literary Analysis


  • Community Service Project
  • Instructional Activity
  • Study/Proposal Topic
  • Cultural Appreciation Topic
  • Creative Exhibition
  • Post-Graduation Plan


  • AP = Advanced Placement test taken or planned
  • NA – Not Applicable
  • INC = Incomplete
  • A = Excellent
  • B = Good
  • C = Average
  • D = Below Average
  • F = Failure

The Crefeld School Does NOT use G.P.A.’s, class ranks, percentiles, weighted courses, honors course designations, or credits accumulated. Students are graded on the basis of their own personal growth, effort, and ability and not in comparison to other students. Inquiry & Expression grades are determined by the faculty in conference.


All students are required to follow a core curriculum. The Core Curriculum includes Humanities (social studies, literature, language arts, and fine arts) and Math/Science (mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology). In addition, all students are required to participate in physical education, community service, and two electives each semester. Only courses designated “elective” permit student choice. Humanities and Math/Science each meet 7 hours/week. Electives and Physical Ed. each meet 2.5 hours/week. All students are required to perform 2 hours of community service/week. Students graduate when they have completed a 3 semester residency, satisfied all curriculum requirements, passed all 5 senior exams with a grade of 90% and completed a portfolio of 6 exhibitions of mastery.