The Ivy Coach Daily

April 17, 2024

Harvard Final Clubs: A Look into the Exclusive Social Organizations

A red brick building is featured at Harvard University.

Harvard University represents the pinnacle of educational prestige in American culture. With a centuries-long legacy of academic, cultural, and professional renown under their belts, Harvard alumni graduate into a world where very few doors are closed to them. In the American imagination, final clubs serve as the most prestigious distillation of Harvard social capital on campus. As depicted by films such as The Social Network , final clubs supposedly count the most elite students as members, throw the most exclusive parties on campus, and channel their alumni into the choicest of careers. But with a phenomenon that so many fantasize about and so few experience, it’s worth asking: are final clubs really what we imagine them to be?

Harvard Final Clubs, Explained

What are Final Clubs, and Where Did They Come From?

The term “final club” is an anachronism that has never been shaken. From the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, Harvard students hailing from elite families would progress through a series of social clubs as they completed their studies. A final club described those organizations that opened their doors exclusively to upperclassmen who had progressed through this system. While a sequential social structure is a thing of the past, the main function of final clubs has largely stayed the same over the centuries: providing the richest students on campus with lavish venues to eat, party, and network.

The oldest final clubs exclusively admit male students, but a handful of all-female clubs popped up following Harvard’s transition to coeducation in the late twentieth century. Despite growing pressure from Harvard’s administration to integrate their membership, only two clubs — Spee and Sabliere — admit students of all genders. Previous efforts to integrate all-male clubs have been met with alumni backlash and internal sanctions.

The Benefits of Final Clubs: Space and Social Capital

On a campus where space to breathe is at a premium, a club’s ability to boast such luxuries as a ballroom in which to party, a courtyard in which to relax, or a library in which to study is a symbol of its status. Within the pretentious club hierarchy, those at the top are the all-male clubs that reside in giant mansions along Massachusetts Ave and its adjoining side streets. The all-female clubs are relegated to inconvenient locations off campus proper, or in the basements of all-male clubhouses, reflects their unfortunate secondary status in Harvard’s social scene.

One of the biggest misconceptions about final clubs is that they are designed to provide their members with secret opportunities for professional placement, and, depending on who you ask, world domination. The flow of final club social capital is much less deliberate and much more mundane. When you draw together the world’s most elite young adults into one room, someone is bound to mention that their uncle is looking for someone to fill a position at his hedge fund, that a family friend is looking for a buyer for her Hamptons home, or that Netflix stock is about to plummet and should be sold off. Exclusive opportunities and resources are certainly provided to members, but the process is less formalized than one might think. 

How Do Students Feel About Final Clubs at Harvard?

Each student, club member or otherwise, must develop their own relationship to Harvard’s elite social scene. Participation in a club is seen as gauche by many members of the student body, particularly by students of color, queer students, and gender nonconforming students. Some members make use of their respective clubhouses just as a means of providing space for their nonmember friends. Some nonmembers balk at the values of the clubs but still party at them on weekends with an ironic shrug of their shoulders. Many students feel ambivalent about final clubs but rally around exclusive organizations of their own, such as the Hasty Pudding or The Harvard Lampoon, which carry out practices just as exclusionary as their final club counterparts. 

It is totally possible to spend four years at Harvard without stepping foot into a club, and to still wind up at the height of one’s chosen industry postgrad. The final clubs find the source of their prestige from the reputation of Harvard University, not the other way around.

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