“You did it!” and “Welcome” sprawl across red brick and colorful autumn leaves. Part of a bulking envelope that the College mails to around matriculating students each year, the Harvard College Handbook for Students offers a peek into undergraduate life. Although the handbook advertises the school’s 400+ student organizations, it offers little insight into their often-difficult application processes.
“Comps are this well-hidden secret that admissions never talks about,” Katherine M. Lempres ’21 says.
The word’s origins, too, are mysterious. As early as The Crimson’s founding in 1873, the word “comp” was used to describe what used to be a competitive process for new members vying for spots in the paper. Today, the word is a staple of campus vocabulary, and though it has no official definition, Harvard students know and use it regularly.
A comp “essentially means an elongated application,” Murimi Nyamu ’20, who has successfully comped Harvard Financial Analysts Club, Harvard Investment Association, and Crimson Key Society, says.
At Harvard, these “elongated applications” are ubiquitous. Ask any freshman, and they’ll rattle off notorious comps like digits of pi. Most student organizations require prospective members to jump over at least a hurdle or two, through completing tasks, demonstrating competence, or sometimes, competiting against candidates.
And many students don’t mind. Fresh out of the college admissions process, many Harvard undergrads associate competition with success. If anything, they seek out opportunities to prove themselves.
“I read this somewhere, that you jump through this huge hoop of getting into Harvard, and you just want to jump through more to get this adrenaline going again,” Lauren Fadiman ’21 says.
Then, somebody gets cut. For some groups, not all of those who participate in the “comp” gain admittance to the organization. So, while students may value the competitive nature of these processes, not everyone can win. Resulting disappointments reaffirm criticisms of Harvard’s internal exclusivity.
“For the very first thing to happen to you—for someone to tell you no, you can’t do this thing that you love—that’s a pretty depressing start to college,” Posy Stoller ’21 says.
With so many organizations having comps and barriers to entry, Harvard becomes a difficult place to navigate. Intense comps often intimidate students, driving them away from new activities.
“Harvard always says that we have a million clubs, so there’s so much that you can do, but in reality, the number of clubs that are completely open is pretty limited,” Stoller says. “College is a chance to experiment and try new things, and comping here just makes that impossible. I wish that someone who would’ve told me it’d be like that before I got here.”
Recognizing widely held frustrations and a need for transparency amongst comps, Yasmin Z. Sachee ’18 and Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18, president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council, created a student organization “Q-Guide” last spring. The Q-Guide is a site of all the student organizations registered under the Office of Student Life, with responses rating organizations and their entry processes, including comps.
One semester yielded 1,200 responses—a good start, but many organizations have less than one can count on a single hand, and some none at all. Updated at the end of each semester, the Q-Guide will serve as a living entity and resource for information and student feedback as it changes over time.
As freshmen scramble to make friends, introducing themselves to new faces in Annenberg, comps can place even more stress on budding relationships. Stoller is hesitant to talk about organizations that she successfully comped in front of friends who didn’t make the cut, and similarly, feels a little jealous of friends who got through comps that she didn’t.
“It’s hard,” Stoller says. “I feel like comping can make you jealous of people, and it can definitely hurt your self esteem.”
COMPETE OR COMPLETE
Completion-based comps, which rarely make cuts based on ability or quality of performance, may be the most accessible. Nonetheless, they can be notoriously difficult.
Students comping the Harvard Financial Analysts Club, for example, must attend one hour of lecture and one other hour of section each week, then complete a mandatory homework assignment. In addition to weekly requirements, HFAC compers are expected to prepare a stock pitch at the end of the comp. For many, this time commitment is equivalent to an academic course.
Julian Ubriaco ’20 said the HFAC comp taught him the basics of finance. Because Harvard doesn’t offer undergraduate finance courses, Ubriaco saw the comp as a valuable way to learn a practical skill.
“I don’t believe people get ‘cut,’” Ubriaco says. “You really have to have poor attendance or not be in contact with the board ahead of time or something.”
That said, HFAC’s requirements usually draw in more ambitious compers in the beginning of the school year, until the semester starts rolling, midterms start hitting, and compers realize that they’ve bit off more than they can chew. At that point, Ubriaco says, many compers drop. Mark Whittaker ’18, HFAC comp director, declined to comment.
The Crimson is also a predominantly completion-based comp that runs through the whole semester. “Joining any of The Crimson’s 10 boards occurs via a semester-long comp process that is designed to be educational and enjoyable,” Crimson President Derek K. Choi ’18 writes in an emailed statement.
Though completion-based comps do not make cuts based on performance, they do have strategies for restricting membership: heavy completion requirements. WHRB, the Harvard Radio Broadcasting club, has a completion-based comp with a large time commitment, according to Lempres, who recently completed the comp. “It was definitely a completion comp, not competitive,” she says. “But it winnowed people down.”
Yet not every comp is completion-based. Indeed, many of the most prestigious comps are explicitly competitive.
Each spring, a wave of red poster covers campus, from chalkboards to toilet stalls to the nook in the bottom of the library shelf. “Comp Crimson Key!” the posters read.
The Crimson Key Society, which organizes Freshman Orientation Week and runs regular campus tours, is one of the most selective. Membership in the organization is capped at 90 each year, which, according to Comp Director Shub Chhokra ’18, an inactive Crimson editor, yielded 30 new members this past spring from an original 261 compers—an acceptance rate just below 11.5 percent.
Chhokra argues that the comp is especially important to Crimson Key. “We really need to vet people before they can be ambassadors,” he says. “We don’t want to just put anyone in front of tourists. At the end of the day, it shines not only poorly on Crimson Key, but also Harvard University, so you need to have a certain quality of your tour and your professionalism. That’s why we have a comp.”
When it comes to selectivity, HCCG also accepts far less members than vying compers. Founded in 2006, HCCG has quickly risen in recognition for its competitive entry process: a two-week application period that the Q-Guide categorizes as a “comp.” In 2015, it declared itself “the most selective pre-professional student group on Harvard’s campus (~12% acceptance rate).”
“HCCG prides itself on its low acceptance rate (after pulling the classic college admissions trick of getting awareness out there to increase the denominator, applications received), leading to a culture of arrogance,” one Q-guide respondent writes.
Isaac Xia ’18, the director of HCCG, declined to comment.
In the two weeks of the HCCG comp, Carra. S. Wu ’21 prepared for an interview and pulled an all-nighter in order to craft a case presentation. She says that what drew her to comp the organization in the first place was its “compelling informational meeting,” and older friends who told her that HCCG was their “defining moment of Harvard.”
Wu defends the demanding and competitive process, highlighting some of its benefits such as bringing her closer to the board members. “I’m glad, in retrospect, that I did that, because now I have some members on the board who I feel really comfortable around,” Wu says.
Other organizations don’t release statistics about their selectivity, yet word-of-mouth stories about both the comps and the internal nature of the organizations themselves draw people in.
Curious about the myths surrounding the comp of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, Stoller went to the first meeting.
“I think the Lampoon is the example of the group that has the mystery, oh-so-exclusive kind of air around them, and that really does draw people to them,” she says. “I’ve talked to a million people who are like, ‘I don’t get the Lampoon, but I want to be in the Lampoon.’”
Alice Ju ’18, President of the Lampoon, wrote in an emailed statement, “There is no social comp, and we have no quotas. The compers should not contact us, think about us, or come near the Castle on Thursdays.”
A SOCIAL COMPONENT
When it comes to organizations with a competition comp, evaluations aren’t always based solely on the quality of the product at hand. Checking off the boxes on requirements and perfect attendance at meetings isn’t always enough. An organization with a competitive comp oftentimes interacts with compers in more informal settings, introducing the potential for another factor of admittance: a social component.
Grace E. Sullivan ’21, who’s currently going through three comps, says that the ambiguity surrounding comps is confounded by the idea of the social comp. “I think that’s also what strikes a lot of people as unfair at first. It becomes alarming,” she says.
The organization Q-Guide tries to quantify how social a comp is by asking respondents to rate the degree to which selection criteria are based on “relevant skills” on a scale from 5 (absolutely) to 1 (not at all). The plurality of respondents rated the Crimson Key Society, for example, a 1.
“Wow! Did not know this q guide let us rate final clubs!” one respondent writes.
The Crimson Key Society is just one of the organizations that faces criticisms regarding the ambiguity of its social component. From the outside, it may seem arbitrary and immeasurable, yet members justify that certain social skills are inherently tied to the quality of the organization’s product.
Luis Viceira ’20, a member of Crimson Key Society, defends the social component of the comp. “For certain organizations, the ability to be social can be measured,” he says. “For instance, how comfortable are you giving a tour in front of someone? Or, on the other hand, you also have to be able to make your audience member relate to your personal stories about being a college student, in addition to knowing all the facts.”
The Organization of Asian American Sisters in Service comp has a social element too: Prospective members must get a meal with every current member. Membership fluctuates around 30.
Karen L. Yang ’20, a member of OAASIS, says that the comp seemed like an extended application process that tested her commitment. “It’s hard for you to keep your eye on what you want, especially when you’re just putting in 27 hours of getting meals with people,” Yang says.
Many times, students feel affirmed when they are invited to be a part of an organization with such a process. Stoller was recently elected to the tech board of Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which advertises itself as “the most fun group on campus. No experience required. No experience preferred.”
“That was a social comp,” Stoller says. She goes on to characterize the competitive process as a bonding experience, “The Pudding is going to be my family now.”
Sullivan acknowledges that social evaluations can be important but appreciates honesty in how she is evaluated during the comp. “I don’t think it’d be possible to remove the social aspect, but it’d be good to have more transparency about it,” she says. “During the [Intercollegiate Model UN] process, they said, ‘This is a question to see how well you fit in with the group.’”
These concerns are exactly what Sachee and Khansarinia hoped to address with the organization Q-Guide.
“We just wanted to make it transparent, or as transparent as it can be,” Sachee says. “Because right now, every year, we get a new class of students that go through the school, and they go through a lot of the comps, and the same conversations that happened last year happens again, like, ‘This comp was really bad, this comp was this and that.’”
FINDING SUCCESS IN FAILURE
Ubriaco comped HCCG three times, and each time, failed.
While the comp processes for many extracurricular organizations exemplify Harvard’s current obstacles of exclusivity, students often see the value in competition.
“Adversity is something that you’ll face in life,” Viciera says. “So it’s important that you’ll handle it in some manner, and that when something doesn’t go the way you want it to that you’ll focus on the next most important thing.”
For overachieving students, comps are also a way to limit overcommitment. “Everyone here wants to do a million things, but if [they] actually do a million things, then they’re all doing a million things that no one’s really committed to,” Lempres says.
Wu agrees, adding that the process is self-selective and promotes a heightened connection to one’s involvements. “People tend to care more about the clubs that they do,” she says.
Reflecting this pragmatism, the organization Q-Guide sets out only to distribute information about comps, not to change anything about them. Khansarinia thinks that it’s not up to the UC or the College to mandate or restrict the comp processes of Harvard’s student organizations.
“If we take for granted that comps are an imperfect process, then the way to change that should be naturally through students who’ve come through organizations who give comps, not because the [Office of Student Life] or the College or us say, ‘Hey, you better change that,’” he says.
Although some students criticize elements of the comp process and call for increased transparency, most do not seek to abolish comps altogether. And it’s hard to imagine Harvard without them.