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The 5 Percent of Harvard’s 5 Percent

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A Harvard first-year’s first Student Activities Fair is definitely one for the books. I clearly remember the enthusiastic shouting of upperclassmen begging me to comp their club, the shadows cast by countless posters touting impressive accomplishments of organizations, and the sagging bag of free promotional swag weighing down my shoulder as I navigated through the maze of new and exciting opportunities. College is the best time to explore something new, and I remember being eager to branch out of my comfort zone. I later learned that there is one caveat to Harvard’s thriving and inclusive extracurricular scene: To explore something new, you must already be good at it.

My first year was the first time I learned about what a comp is. Through rejection after rejection, I learned that acceptance rates don’t stop at college admissions; in fact, it is only amplified within Harvard’s walls through selective vetting processes and intense rounds of interviews that determine entry to many student organizations on campus. The same clubs that would ask nuanced questions about case interviews or hold auditions that span multiple hours of one’s day would also publicize their recruitment with a friendly slogan of “no experience necessary!” As someone with no experience, I quickly learned the irony of the statement.

To clarify, I am not simply whining about these organizations because I did not get into them. Since then, I have been lucky enough to find a community of support and inclusion in various organizations and have learned how to utilize the strengths I have and grow in areas of improvement.

Rather, I am critical of the fact that my first year — along with that of many others — was defined by unnecessary stress from comparing myself to my peers. Extracurriculars shifted from an exciting prospect of new experiences to yet another competitive indicator of “success” that divided those who came from privileged backgrounds and those who, like me, never had the opportunity to learn the inherent skills that enabled one to pass the initial screening for student clubs. Clubs that seek the best of the best will inevitably have a selection criteria for its members, and that’s fine. But how true is the “no experience necessary” clause, in that case?

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Furthermore, exclusivity in student organizations has come to define Harvard’s social scene. Many of our clubs have a vetting process based on social compatibility or fit with the organization, such as the Hasty Pudding. Others require an application or an interview, such as the Harvard College Consulting Group or the Crimson Key Society. Although a process of selection is understandable to an extent, some clubs are notorious for their rigorous and mysterious standards for entry, and the allure for joining becomes increasingly attributed to prestige. That’s exactly what we need in a campus full of students already plagued with imposter syndrome and insecurity about their experiences compared to others.

In my eyes, comps actually have great potential. They pose an opportunity to teach students about valuable skills that may serve them not just in the organization but within the workplace and their personal lives as well. Comps also allow the student to gauge the social and functional dynamic of a club so that both current and prospective members can determine whether the organization is a good fit.

But none of this requires any aspect of unnecessary exclusivity. If more clubs adopted a completion-based comp — one focused more on educating and supporting prospective members rather than handpicking those already with ample experience — then perhaps our campus culture would adopt an environment more conducive to personal growth rather than the toxic atmosphere of competitiveness, insecurity, and stress we have today.

The College’s Committee on Student Life has recognized this problem and has generated conversation about a potential “audit” over comp processes for student organizations. I’m personally not sure how effective this may be or whether introducing a new factor of potential bias might make things even worse. However, it is a step in the right direction. At the very least, it recognizes that there is a serious problem outside of the classroom.

As students of this institution, we are all capable of learning something new despite how we may feel otherwise. We came to Harvard to grow as thinkers, creatives, and scholars, and college truly is the best time to explore something new. If the organizations run by our peers systematically prevent us from doing so, then it’s time we make opportunities more accessible.

Linda Lee ‘21, a Crimson Editorial editor and Crimson Blog Comp Director, is a Computer Science concentrator in Eliot House.

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