Stretching the truth to get into top classes

Some people will do anything to get that last coveted seat at the seminar table.

“I said that I played King Lear and Hamlet in high school to get into a Shakespeare seminar,” one sophomore said.

The sophomore did not play Hamlet or King Lear. In fact, she’s not even male.

Although her scheme did not get her into the class, she asked to remain anonymous because of plans to apply to a similar course next year.

As the reputations of repeatedly offered seminars have snowballed, the amount of students vying for a few hotly contested spots has grown. To stand out in a crowd, it has often become necessary to e-mail, phone, and even beg professors in person to try to gain a last-minute admit.

Many have found that honesty is not the best policy.

“The amount of students was overwhelming,” said English professor Wai Chee Dimock, who teaches a seminar on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. “I left the room briefly, and when I came back I was just horrified.”

To filter the applicants, most professors ask students for their class years, majors, and reasons for wanting to take the course.

So what stops people from lying?

“This is Yale University, and we operate on the honor system,” said Michael Kerbel, who teaches a seminar on the films of Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. “At some level, I had to trust the students and take their word.”

This honor system, however, is often abused. In classes where a large amount of students need to be considered, professors rarely ask for transcripts or check the information given.

“Once I was trying to get into this English seminar, so I put down that I was an English major,” Julian Graham ’03 said. “But I had no intention of majoring in English.”

Other students try to appeal to the professor emotionally, hoping that this will override barriers of year and major.

“I always tell them that I’m not in their major,” Nicole Dixon ’04 said. “[I explain] this is their last chance to convert me before I’m lost forever.”

Even transcripts cannot tell a professor which students are accelerated to a certain year and which aren’t, and acceleration credits frequently give some candidates an edge of which the professor may be unaware.

“I accelerated, so I said that I was a junior history major,” Bryony Roberts ’04 said. “I had to provide a transcript to prove my major, but ended up getting into the course.”

Acceleration is a perfectly legal way to increase one’s chances of being admitted into a seminar, and in the end a sophomore majoring in chemistry can easily look like a junior majoring in French without technically lying.

The flip side is that juniors and seniors lose whatever advantage they may have had over sophomores.

“I really wanted to get into the Austen seminar,” Melissa Doscher ’03 said. “And as a junior English major, I thought that I should have been admitted.”

Some professors have started weighing the question “Why do you want to take this class?” more heavily than concrete information, a step that has brought an onslaught of personal anecdotes and shameless begging.

“Some people say they absolutely positively need this class to graduate,” said Michael Mahoney, who teaches a class entitled “International Development in Historical Perspective.”

“It was difficult to choose, but I considered people who got in touch with me ahead of time,” Mahoney said. “Having enthusiastic students makes teaching more fun.”

Kerbel received a deluge of personal information, as his class touches on artists near and dear to the hearts of many students. Nearly everyone applying to the class, however, had what they considered to be a special connection to Spike Lee, Woody Allen, or Martin Scorsese, and therefore, professions of love had little impact on admission.

“I got a lot of personal anecdotes about people’s lives growing up in [New York] City,” Kerbel said. “But there were so many students that I didn’t take anyone who was a freshman or sophomore.”

Some students get in with a combination of deception and pure tenacity. Brian Kendig missed the first day of Elementary Italian and found himself the 19th person in a group that the professor intended to reduce to 15.

“She told everyone who wasn’t preregistered and there on the first day to leave,” he said. “I wasn’t there but I stayed anyway. Then she stopped and recounted and saw that there were only 14 people in the class, and one of them was me. I told her the truth later but I guess it didn’t matter.”

Despite the desperate lengths that Yalies may go to in search of the perfect schedule, professors seem grateful for those students who realize that there are other classes in the blue book. Throughout the madness, glimmers of chivalry and apathy still remain.

“I asked people to volunteer to leave, and some people guaranteed spots actually gave them up,” Dimock said. “I thought that was pretty remarkable.”

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