The Harvard Comp Process


Competing for competence. 

The Comp. Most freshmen have never heard this word before arriving on campus, but by the end of Opening Days it will be one of the foremost of innumerable ‘Harvard-isms’ that dominate the vocabulary of first semester. The comp is the process by which thousands of Harvard students attempt to demonstrate their worth to extracurriculars in college after demonstrating their worth in extra-curriculars in high school. Officially, the comp stands for competency, but after my first few weeks here, I definitely get the feeling that it actually stands for ‘competition.’  Despite the insistence on the term representing ‘competency,’ it is mentioned in a Crimson article as early as 1953 clearly referenced as a ‘competition.’  At many comp meetings this definition can be felt in the tense atmosphere. Look to your left. Look to your right. Only a select few will be a members of this organization come semester’s end.

Most publications have an article quota of some sort and performance groups (ranging from a cappella to mock trial) typically do application/audition/application rounds. There’s often a difference between the comp expectations for long established publications like the Lampoon or the Advocate and newer groups (though in Harvard terms that could be anywhere from 100 to 1 years old). The new ones tend to have a fairly reasonable comp, something appropriate to the work of the organization and feasible for harassed college freshmen. This is also related to their number of applicants, often less than the more prestigious groups. Some particularly distinguished clubs create a sort of foreboding performance atmosphere: dark circular basements, cigars, candles, incense, a high table with members of the board looking down at compers. Perhaps as a tradition this makes sense; the organizations promote the image they desire and the ‘comp-ers’ can choose for themselves whether they have the motivation to commit for the long-term.

Each student organization claims there are benefits to the process, even if you are rejected. Groups insist that their comp, while it may be a long and highly selective process, will ultimately train prospective members in useful skills, whether or not they achieve the lofty positions of ‘editor’ or ‘freshman member of an extra-curricular.’  Some will be dismayed by a rejection after two months of dedicated attendance and work, others know the effort that they have put in would and has paid off.

Most freshmen arriving on campus have not been anticipating an experience described by various students as ‘ridiculous’, ‘stupid’ and ‘excessive.’  The comp process takes mostly freshmen, newly initiated into the exhaustive schedule of a Harvard student, and adds to their workload in unexpected ways. Once the comp process is over and official membership begins, many organizations demand much less of student’s time than they did during the actual comp, but for now it’s a struggle. Harvard freshman are undoubtedly independent and capable, but the first month of the college experience is a trying time to find your passions rejected in favor of an increasingly difficult battle of competitive competency.

As freshmen, many others and I don’t feel qualified to comment on a community practice so integral to the club system. We know that it is a difficult process to recruit new members and also maintain the quality of performance, but approaching each pursuit with a common app style essay or constant anxiety is deterring even for enthusiastic students (though for Harvard students obviously not an insurmountable issue). Problematically, the people who choose to reject that system are incapable of bringing a reformative perspective because of their outsider status. Organizations with highly demanding comps are self-selecting new members that are willing to undergo and perpetrate these practices in the future as they become slightly more ridiculous each year. It’s not entirely clear why the procedure has become more rigorous as the student population stays relatively stable. In 1989 the Lampoon required 6 essays that could be waived by a vote; now Lampoon compers, generally acknowledged to be the most put upon, write more than 9 pieces before they are even called members. For business comps, the required ad sales have reached shocking heights.

Why we do we it, you ask?  We participate because of the determination to pursue a passion through the only conventional avenue. A prospective journalist arriving on campus is drawn to the Crimson, a literary type has heard of the Advocate, and a student who enjoys singing knows about the various a cappella groups. Some want to pursue existing interests, and some want to go after new and exciting prospects. Unfortunately for the latter, the comp process can be a barrier to the exploration of different activities than the ones explored in high school. This runs somewhat contrary to the promotion of liberal arts education at Harvard. After we went to numerous presentations during Opening Days on the value of exploring different disciplines, in extracurriculars we are limited to those in which we already excel. The comp can also exacerbate the experience of ‘relative deprivation’ (as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his controversial book David and Goliath) of feeling inadequate in one’s context instead of looking at the bigger picture. Students qualified to at least explore an area of interest are not accepted through a comp at Harvard while they might have easily succeeded elsewhere.

Perhaps I’ll be able to better understand the ‘quirks’ of this process on the other side. After all, none of us are immune. This piece is my first step in comping the Independent.


Claire Rivkin ’19 ( is comping the Indy.