Surviving the Expos 20 Roller Coaster Ride

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Santosh P. Bhaskarabhatla

The Expos house, which will be the site of some of your most painful freshman-year experiences.

Expos 20 endows itself with hints of grandeur: “The Harvard College Writing Program is the oldest in the United States,” the Web site proclaims, beside a photo of the Expos office, an aging townhouse painted an unappealing yellow cream color. “Since 1872, when the program was founded, a course in expository writing has been the one academic experience required of every Harvard student.” Dramatically, the blurb concludes, “We welcome you to ‘Expos,’ a Harvard tradition.”

Don’t be fooled by the excitement of tradition—Expos 20 is not all it’s cracked up to be.

But given that the course is required of all freshman—even those who grow up to be the likes of Robert Frost (yep, he took Expos)—here are some trusty tips from The Crimson to make the experience more positive than it otherwise could be.

• Expos courses can look pretty exciting: Creating Monsters, Cities and Globalization, Travel and the Gods...But don’t be fooled. The point of Expos is to teach you to write an academic essay—not to teach you about the course’s subject matter. Suppose your Expos class is nominally about Kangaroos and the experience of growing up in a pouch. You will not actually be taking a class about the kangaroos themselves. You will be enrolling in a class teaching you how to write an essay about kangaroos. And I think we can all agree that a class about writing an essay about kangaroos is significantly less exciting than a class about the marsupials themselves.

• Beware of Expos classes with a lot of reading. Don’t take on more work than necessary by signing up for a course with lots of reading. From personal experience, we recommend Expos classes about art—paintings can be far easier to digest and formulate opinions about than tomes, even if you are not artistically inclined.

• Think carefully when selecting your Expos choices. The Expos Office tries to assign you your top picks, or so it says—somehow, everyone always seems to get his last choice. So make your picks wisely, all the way to the end of the list, or you may end up being the only guy in The Politics of Domesticity in Victorian England.

• Take the time to think about how the courses you pick will fit into your schedule. Your schedule probably won’t be finalized when you section for Expos (you section in the middle of shopping week), so timing things may still be up in the air. But do your best to section for Expos classes that can actually fit into a realistic schedule. If you don’t, you’ll have to pick from the spots remaining after everyone else has already been assigned a class, and the leftovers generally aren’t the prime courses.

• Don’t worry if you get put in Expos in the Spring. You can write a college paper without having had the course and still do quite well—evidence that Expos is somewhat useless. If you feel insecure writing without having taken Expos, you can go to the Writing Center to talk through your paper. It really helps, and unlike a tutor in high school, the Writing Center is not at all frowned upon.

• Meet with your preceptor often. Expos is all about the revisions, so the more your paper changes in the process of editing the better.

• Expos teaches many odd formulations that you will never again encounter in real life. Rather than resist the Expos vernacular, learn it and use it in your Expos essays. And then after the class, use what you like and disregard the rest.

• Expos is notoriously difficult—though it is possible to do well—so don’t be upset if your preceptor enjoys the power trip of giving out some ugly letters.

Expos 20 is a necessary evil of freshman year, but it’s also a course that may impart some benefit if you are lucky—so embrace it. Make friends in Annenberg while whining over the reading, bond with your classmates during peer editing, and maybe even learn how to write a tiny bit better as a result.

—Staff writer Elyssa A. L. Spitzer can be reached at

For more information on the ins and outs of Harvard life, visit the My First Year homepage.