Acing Rejection 10a

We have all been recipients of “that” email: a brief, painstakingly polite message thanking us for our dedication (as far as dedication can be demonstrated through a brief written application) and notifying us that, most unfortunately, there simply isn’t space for us. And more often than not, these rejection emails come from our peers, the same people we sit next to in section and bump into in dining halls.

Indeed, along with Expos 20 and Life Sciences 1a, freshman year also seems to offer students an excellent Rejection 10a course in how to handle being cut from clubs. Students go from being the proverbial big fish in a small pond to members of entire school (both literally and metaphorically) of big fish. We don’t always know how to handle a “no”, when we have based so much of our self-worth off of external achievement, a rejection feels like either a heartbreak or a mistake.

Conversations circle back again and again to critiques of Harvard comp culture. At Peer Advising Fellows training over the summer, we discussed strategies for coaching our advisees through rejection. The Undergraduate Council recently introduced a Q Guide for comps to help new students study up on which comps have cuts, which take the most amount of time, and which select based on merit.

Yet few suggested that comps be fundamentally reformed. The classic Harvard answer as to why comps exists is that there’s simply no other way. And it’s hard to argue with this. Harvard students don’t sign up for one club, they sign up for twenty, thus forcing organizations to make cuts simply to have a manageable number of people. It’s a cycle quite similar to college admissions, where acceptance rates go down, causing students to apply to yet more groups, thus further dropping the acceptance rate.

The solution then becomes, rather than doing away with competition, flipping the scripts on how we mentally approach comps and application processes. Entering freshman year, many students hate even the thought of rejection, having just fought their way through college application season. Rejection in this context feels like a statement that you simply aren’t “good” enough—you haven’t studied hard enough, done enough extracurriculars, written a strong enough essay. Freshmen enter Harvard with almost a formula for success in mind: If we simply have racked up enough achievements in high school, we should get what we want.

At Harvard, students need to learn that rejection stems from and symbolizes something entirely different. Even the most objective comp cannot avoid a heavy degree of subjectivity and bias. Every organization comes with its own culture, its own idea of what the “right” type of person is. Comps look less at an applicant’s past accomplishments than their future potential to flourish in that organization. Rejection is thus less a reflection of an applicant’s personal shortcomings and more that they may simply not be the right fit in the eyes of upperclassmen.

Merit of course still plays a role—despite my love of a capella, my tone deafness may preclude me from membership in the Opportunes—but I urge students, especially freshmen, to bear in mind that many rejections are made at the margins. Decisions are often necessarily arbitrary. With so many qualified applicants, deliberations often end up fixating on questions like, “Will this person be invested in our organization? Will they fit with our community?”

So as much as comp processes carry the inevitable sting of rejection and anxiety, we should not allow them to define our worth or the future contributions we will make to campus. Instead, we ought to look at them as an effective, albeit painful, way of navigating Harvard’s overwhelming buffet of extracurricular options. It takes time and Doodle polls and awkward interviews, but in my experience, students eventually are able to discover the communities and opportunities that fit not just their resumes, but also their passions.

Jenna M. Wong ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Kirkland House.

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