Applying to Harvard from the UK?Watch
You really do need phenomenal grades and extracurriculars, and high scores on the SATs (the SAT and at least 2 subject tests in your area of interest) are crucial. There are also several essays they require, all of which are very different from a UCAS personal statement. One is the generic Common App essay, which you really have several choices of topics for and would send to most American schools (not all schools use the Common App); in addition, most schools, including Harvard, have a writing supplement of short answers. I believe in their case it's a chance to elaborate on extracurriculars, an extra essay on a topic of your choice, and what you plan to do with your education as an international. You also need to secure two recommendations from teachers, but recommendations for American universities serve slightly different purposes to those for UCAS, so I would look into that and inform your teachers accordingly.
An American university education, especially from LACs (liberal arts colleges) like Harvard and the rest of the Ivies, is much less focused and specific than in Britain. Remember, we don't specialize for A-levels but are expected to take a broad range of courses (one of each of the core math, science, English, history/social studies) each year. This explanation is for American schools in general. You normally don't pick a major to focus on until at least the end of your second year. You'll be assigned an advisor who will make sure you take all the necessary graduation requirements, but the number of required classes is pretty low to allow you lots of freedom to explore other intellectual avenues. In fact, some schools require you to take classes outside your focus, and minors or double majoring is very common. Your major is your main concentration, minors require fewer courses to complete, but both achieve recognition and are granted by the college. Most of the time, you'll pre-register for classes using an online catalog before he semester begins; at Harvard, the first week of the semester is spent "shopping" for classes, sitting in on lectures to determine which you want to take that semester.
I know this is a lot of information and you don't have the context for most of what I said, so please let me know what clarifications/further questions you'd like me to address. It's confusing to apply across educational systems, and I know how helpful talking to someone who grew up in the other system can be (I'm an American applying to the UK).
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