Comp, a uniquely Harvard undertaking, fills a series of different roles for undergraduates seeking to join student groups on campus. It ensures that new members fit into the organization, indoctrinates them in the functions of the club, and teaches them new skills. Whether it’s over in a couple of weeks or fills up the entire semester, whether it’s a straightforward checklist or a highly challenging competition, comping is an investment of time, energy, and effort to demonstrate one’s willingness and ability to actively commit.
Harvard’s social clubs were among the first to institute a comp-like process at the College. In fact, the selective nature of campus extracurriculars began with the very first club at Harvard. Known as The Institute of 1770, this speaking-club-slash-social-fraternity was founded with the intention of improving its members’ oratory skills. Membership was competitive from the start. Originally open only to seniors, the semi-secret Institute later allowed promising juniors—and, occasionally, even exceptional underclassmen—to join.
One of the next organizations to hand-select its members was the Porcellian Club. Founded around 1791 (precise date unknown), this “Gentleman’s Club” admitted members based on the principles of “Sociability, Brotherly Affection, and Generosity.” They looked specifically for those who possessed the “spirit of a true Gentleman” and could best fit in with existing members of the organization. As a result, membership often depended on one’s previous social network.
Established in 1795, the Hasty Pudding Club, a patriotic-organization-turned-social-club, centered on fellowship and the performing arts. Even at the time of its founding, membership was highly exclusive and invite-only. While initiation rites for the Pudding were always kept secret, students trying to join would often be publicly seen “hastily” running in the Yard and reciting poetry to themselves.
The Institute, the Porcellian, and the Pudding were the first to formally establish competitive selection processes. Membership to each of these social clubs was largely based on connections between younger students and existing members. These organizations kept their numbers low, their selectivity high, their basis of selection a secret, and their membership exclusively male.
The Harvard Crimson (founded in 1873) was the first organization to use the word “comp” to describe the method of hosting a formal competition for new members who wished to join the organization. There is some debate about whether the etymology of the term “comp” stems from the word “competence” or “competition.” The distinction is important. A competence-based selection processes would admit all members who fulfilled all requirements, whereas a competition-based selection processes would have cuts from each round made by the existing board members. Today the term “comp” is used interchangeably for both approaches.
First known as “The Magenta,” The Crimson began by publishing issues twice a week, similarly to a literary magazine. Since Crimson editorial boards were originally limited to a set number of members, not everyone who “comped” could join the board. The comp process commenced with potential members receiving invitations to try out for the paper. In order to be elected as member of the paper, candidates had to both follow through with the comp process until completion and prove themselves capable of doing the work of a provisional editor. Students who successfully finished the comp would then join The Crimson.
“Competitions” historically drew crowds. Hundreds would show up to the initial comp meeting, with the numbers diminishing as the comp process proceeded. During this period of testing, club members could select the students who seemed most capable of doing the work while potential members could decide whether or not the club was a good fit for them. Moreover, comping fostered a learning environment in which younger members could gain knowledge passed down from their upperclassmen mentors on the board.
Although the comp process originated in the exclusive and secretive traditions of campus social clubs, it has evolved to become increasingly transparent. Today the comp for many extracurriculars focuses more on completion than competition.