Last week, while I was in the dining hall furiously battling a paper deadline, I overheard someone say, in good humor, that once you get into Harvard, you never stop applying, auditioning, or comping for things. Sheepishly, I glanced at my laptop screen and the minimized window of an application due that very night.
Whoever you are, you perceptive, random person from my dining hall—thank you for making me reconsider why I was writing that six-page application.
Harvard’s environment is competitive. Whether this has to do with the student body’s abundance of ambition or students’ constant need to prove themselves, I’m not sure. The fact that we consider this competitiveness to be normal is disturbing. When we arrive on campus, one of the first things we get is a booklet that says "Comp Harvard." From that point onwards, we assume that comping clubs all the time is simply characteristic of a place like Harvard. We accept it without much questioning.
Is it normal on our campus? Yes. Should it be? No. Everything from joining social spaces such as final clubs or Greek organizations, to trying out new activities, to applying to classes can require some form of an application. But there are better ways to gauge one’s interest or ability when it comes to accessing these spaces.
Harvard has over 400 student groups, which offer an immense range of opportunities for students to explore old and new interests alike. However, having an application system may discourage newcomers from joining, because they are time-consuming and often challenging, which deters students from filling them out. The fear of rejection is as real for activities as it is for anything else. When trying out for new experiences, even if a club is open to everyone, students who have prior experience in the area hold a comparative advantage over newcomers, thus leaving room only for newcomers with astounding raw talent. But, what about the students that are looking to try something new? Not everyone is naturally endowed with talent in Mock Trial or boasts business acumen. But they could if they could access the experience and training, they could reach that point.
In high school, I had the chance to pursue things I’d never done before. But college implicitly demands that prior knowledge we bring from high school. If you want to try something new, but know someone with experience will be given precedence over you, why bother playing an uneven field? Even if one could potentially flourish in a particular group or activity, once they’ve gained some experience, one may never get the chance. Further still, as an international, I often find that I haven’t experienced many of the activities that Harvard offers prior to coming here, because my country either didn’t teach those skills or did so in a different way. For example, the debates system in the U.S. is starkly different from what I was used to. In these cases, American students have a comparative advantage over international students; and if a club can only accept a certain number of members, then international students may never make the cut or get the chance to explore new interests. This may also lead to increased stress levels for students, who not only have to worry about academic performance, but also performance in activities.
While some of these application processes have become less intense, there is still much to be done to encourage a healthier extracurricular atmosphere on campus. The open-comps of student organizations such as the Harvard Political Review and the Harvard International Review is a great example of a manageable and inviting process. This encourages students to pursue their interests in writing, even if they have no relevant experience. In the arts, Harvard Ballroom Dancing and the Noteables are non-audition groups that allow students to explore their interests in dance and music without necessitating any prior instruction. All of these organizations emphasize training, helping students improve their skills or even build them from scratch. I hope other organizations also follow suit.
Extracurricular activities should provide students with an outlet to do what they love or what interests them without the pressure of requiring mastery. Just as people in the real world pursue hobbies simply by devoting consistent energy and enthusiasm, students should be able to do the same and feel welcomed in any field. Student organizations need to reevaluate how conducive they are for beginners, and whether they can improve on that. Though they exist, more inclusive groups need to be funded and advertise on this campus—groups that do not grant entry based on auditions or trials but instead foster unadulterated, no-stress love for expanding our horizons. Who knows where someone might find their niche?
Zuneera Shah, ’19 lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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