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Quit the Comp

By Christopher M. Vassallo

From the earliest days of orientation, we hear murmurs about the mythical “comp,” Harvard’s trial by fire. The club fair buzzes with whispers about the relative difficulties of each club’s admittance process. Some clubs are more open about their comps' stipulations. Others, like the notorious Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, keep the particular demands of their comp more veiled. But whatever the demands, it is clear that the system for comping extracurriculars is broken.

A successful comp, one that results in membership at semester’s end, tends to value past experience in the club’s field at the expense of current interest. In extracurriculars that encompass all kinds of debate, performance, and writing, there is a persistent and insidious bias against newcomers. Comps often presume a preliminary understanding of the conventions of each club’s particular genre. For example, to join an improv troupe, you should probably already know about improv’s golden rule: “Yes, and….” All of these fields have unwritten rules. Even if you don’t know the exact format of a staff editorial, I found the Crimson editorial comp to presume a working knowledge of newspaper staples like graf format and academic tone.

But one might be inclined to argue that past experience goes hand in hand with interest. One might assume the most experienced members of a comp class are also the most interested and enthusiastic. But it is important to acknowledge that experience is often determined not by interest, but by opportunity. The comp process puts too much weight on the accident of your high school background, like whether, for example, your school had a mock trial team or a musical instrument requirement, and not more intangible features like curiosity in a field.

Comping community service organizations is particularly restrictive. It serves only to cap the number of participants in a field that desperately needs more. One would be hard-pressed to argue that a group serving Cambridge’s homeless population at the Phillip Brooks House or Boston children with learning disabilities would be unhappy with more participants.

Finally, if you’re comping a business staff position, you better be ready to pay to play. Stratospheric ad sale benchmarks at a lot of organizations are nearly impossible to meet without having the means to exploit a network of past family connections. Either that, or you have to really be persuasive enough to sell local companies on ten thousand dollar ads in a student publication—in which case you probably should not be working for free. Furthermore, business staffs of some of the more selective organizations have a perverse incentive to keep you comping. As long as they know you are still interested in joining the club, they will keep you fundraising aggressively. In this broken system, the compers are the engine that provides the cash.

Comping makes trying new things prohibitively hard. A new interest or passion can seem either too unavailable or intimidating in college if accompanied by a comp. Instead, you might be tempted to select the safest comp. And while you’re at it, you will probably relinquish your creativity and follow the prescribed set of comp requirements to the letter. Rather than mandate a comp that filters by skill, clubs should be more inclusive at the onset and filter by participation and improvement. Clubs should give everyone a foot in the door and distribute the burden of the work more evenly between compers and members. Instead of promising compers that things will get better, they should offer a process that engages and rewards interest.

Here at Harvard, we’re often too driven by an unending quest for exclusivity. For many incoming freshmen ready to “comp,” it seems as if Harvard is not selective enough. In this atmosphere, some clubs insist, against all common sense, that comp does not stand for competition. This comp mindset demands that students strive to be the elect, the chosen few. But, in reality, a toxic fight for membership leaves nobody better off.

Christopher M. Vassallo `20, a Crimson Editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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