Comping Harvard

There are some things you shouldn’t share

It’s over. You worked on it for months, edited and re-edited, did your best to look like you’d fit in. You think you deserve it, but there’s no way to be sure. Now all you can do is wait.

Sound familiar? Everyone at Harvard went through this. Filling out the application, honing the essays, trying to convince your mother that listing “international diamond theft” as a hobby would not result in legal action. Reasoning with your mother, who by now was hysterically shouting: “But what if they think you are a diamond thief?” Leaving it in, but worrying about it a lot. Yes, everyone went through that. All the people around you—from that girl in section who tries to relate everything to Schopenhauer to those guys in your entryway who never leave their room—managed the bizarre alchemy of the Harvard application and transformed a plethora of extracurricular and curricular achievements and one or two “outstanding” essays into an acceptance letter.

Yet once you get to Harvard, this sequence has another name: The Comp. Apparently, those who make it into Harvard find the process of writing extensive applications, undergoing interviews, and waiting for long periods of time so stimulating that they feel compelled to replicate it as often as possible in their daily lives. This is why most of the major extracurricular organizations at Harvard come equipped with some kind of elaborate “comp process.” Applying and being accepted to Harvard was the highlight of many overachieving lives. Why not repeat this for every organization students might be tempted to join? Those who are accepted to Harvard feel confident that they have been separated from the goats. But are they sheep among sheep? This remains to be seen.

The process of winnowing may begin even before students arrive at Harvard, as some experience the rarefied pleasure of applying to one or more pre-orientation programs. The Freshman Urban Program, for instance, gleefully informs applicants that: “Due to limited space and resources, we can only accept a fraction of those who apply, and we maintain an active wait-list.” And this is nothing compared to the bewildering array of “comps” that await students after they register. Sometimes it seems that what actually binds all Harvard’s 6,000-plus undergraduates together is their deep passion for applying to things.

“Comp” itself is a term of indeterminate pedigree. The Crimson claims that it stands for “competence”; other organizations use it as a stand-in for “competition.” Yet whatever its etymology, “comp” is essentially a euphemism for “apply to.” When out in the world at large, Harvard students prefer to shroud their doings in mystery, confounding their hometown friends with tales of the “script comp” or the “Crimson comp.” This term is unknown even at Yale. And Harvard students would prefer it to remain ambiguous. To have to admit to ex-colleagues from the Debate or Fencing team that their primary hobby is now “applying” would be too much. Harvard students love to comp. But they hate talking about it.

And this is why the revelation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s college application by 02138 Magazine seems like such a violation. His earnest, hand-written insistence that “Amidst a hectic week of work, fencing has always proven to be the perfect medium,” provokes a knowing grimace. “It is both social and sport,” Zuckerberg continues, warming to his subject, “mental and athletic, and controlled yet sometimes undisciplined. Whether I am competing against a rival in a USFA tournament or just clashing foils, or sometimes sabres, with a friend, I rarely find myself doing anything more enjoyable than fencing a good bout.” For Harvard students, this is uncomfortably familiar. Our desire to laugh at Zuckerberg also stems from a desire for self-protection. Harvard is filled with students who wrote application essays about their love of long showers—“Within these glass walls I can cry, and my tears are washed away by the stinging hot water of the shower”—their passion for the New York Times—“What I like most about the New York Times is that it is consistently abounding in interesting and informative articles”—and the fact that “I see my life as a mosaic.” And these are people who allowed their essays to be published in a compilation! What about those of us who never want to think about international diamond theft again?

Harvard’s myriad comps combine all the pleasures of applying with the thrill of what for many Harvard students is an exciting new possibility: rejection. And this is in fact a good thing. Without rejection, acceptance would lose its cachet. Besides, as T. H. Huxley observed, “There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life.” Each comp gives Harvard students the chance to catch up on all the lessons of failure that they missed out on earlier. For valuable as the “Harvard name” is, it does not magically unlock every door. Success requires effort, diligence, and the ability to take rejection in stride. Harvard’s comps give students the opportunity to learn this before they are thrust into the real world, where things will no longer be handed to them on silver platters, unless they work in the catering industry. And this is an important lesson, although an ability to write a moving essay about your maternal aunt’s devastating lifelong battle with leprosy never hurts.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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