Programs’ selectivity is a draw

While many Yale students are working hard this week to finish up the fall semester’s work, some 80 or 90 sophomores are giving themselves an extra task. Along with their term papers and in-class finals, they are working on a “brief (5-7 pg) personal statement” for their application to Ethics, Politics, and Economics, which is due this Monday.

Mitchell Ji ’09, who is considering applying to EP&E next year and has already taken a look at the application, is skeptical about the EP&E Web site’s description of the application process.

“Five to seven pages?” he said. “That’s definitely not that brief to me.”

The program in Ethics, Politics and Economics is one of only five majors at Yale that require an application. At an already highly selective university, exclusive majors, especially EP&E, frequently draw special attention from an increasing number of undergraduates. While some students said the exclusivity of these programs can be stressful and perhaps unnecessary, professors defended the application process as a way to ensure the right number and type of students are selected for the programs.

Faculty associated with EP&E said the program’s selectivity is a function of faculty availability, class size, and the major’s requirements. Since EP&E is a program, not a department, and has no permanent faculty, it has limited resources and limited space for students, said Director of Undergraduate Studies Ange-Marie Hancock.

“We are dependent on the largesse of departments like poli-sci, econ, philosophy and sociology to allow faculty to teach in our program,” Hancock said in an e-mail. “Thus we limit the number of majors in order to provide the best educational experience possible.”

The application process, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said, can help EP&E take advantage of scarce resources. Professors like Kagan, who teaches the EP&E prerequisite class “Introduction to Ethics,” are more willing to reserve spaces for EP&E majors in their classes because they know EP&E students are often especially strong, he said.

“One of the things that makes this something I’m willing to do is the experience and the knowledge that EP&E students are very good, and that it’s going to be a rewarding thing to do,” Kagan said.

Professor Seyla Benhabib, the director of EP&E for the past four years, said ensuring the EP&E program enrolls the right type of students is another important reason the major requires an application. Not only are EP&E students required to demonstrate competence in major requirements like quantitative analysis, Benhabib said, they are responsible for designing a program of study based on their specific interests.

The major culminates in a senior thesis project. Past topics, Benhabib said, have ranged from Internet democracy to the condition of the subordination of the “untouchables,” India’s lowest social caste. Benhabib said she looks for students to come into the major working towards a clear goal.

“You don’t want to admit someone into the program who is not going to be able to do this type of work,” Benhabib said. “We are looking for students who really have a sense of how or why they want to do this.”

Kagan also stressed that the application process is meant to identify students who will take advantage of the major’s special interdisciplinary approach. He said there is a normative and an empirical side to every problem.

“The program is grounded in the recognition of the fact that many, many social issues need to be looked at simultaneously from two standpoints,” he said. “You need students who are going to be able to see both sides of this equation.”

A committee of Yale faculty makes the admissions decisions for the EP&E major. The committee reaches its decisions before winter break and releases them to students during the first week of the spring semester.

Students applying to EP&E said they have mixed feelings about the major’s selectivity. David Shapiro ’08 said that, overall, he is glad the major is selective because otherwise he is afraid it would be too big. But on a personal level, he is a little less happy with having to apply.

“Granted, it’s causing me more stress because I’m not sure I’ll get in,” he said.

A current female applicant who asked to remain anonymous expressed more specific concerns. Since she arrived at Yale, she said she has designed her academic program around the requirements for EP&E. As the application time approaches, she worries that if she is not accepted she will have a hard time turning to other majors.

“Coming in as a freshman, I knew that’s what my major was,” she said. “If I’m not an EP&E major, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

But Shapiro said the major’s selectivity could in some ways be a boon to applicants. Many students who come in thinking they want to major in EP&E, he said, are scared off by the competition and end up not applying. Shapiro said he knows dozens of students in his year who have chosen not to apply for this reason.

“Students at Yale have a fear of failure, in my experience,” he said.

In fact, freshmen may be much more likely than sophomores even to declare their interest in EP&E. On thefacebook.com, more than 50 freshmen but only 14 sophomores list EP&E as their major.

Ji said he thinks some freshmen are drawn to EP&E as a result of its selectivity and prestige, but many of them will think harder about actually applying.

“I want to take the courses and make sure I want to apply before I go through the process,” he said.

Sophomores who have chosen to apply to EP&E have a wide variety of interests. Rob Nelb ’08 said he is interested in EP&E because it will allow him to pursue his interest in health care policy. EP&E, Nelb said, will allow him to combine a study of the ethics of “how we value health and life” with knowledge of political economy. Other applicants said they are writing their personal statements on issues such as inequities in funding of public education and violence in the Middle East.

The application for a major in cognitive science is also due Monday. Like students in EP&E, students in cognitive science are responsible for designing their own course of study, Paul Bloom, director of undergraduate studies for the major, said in an e-mail.

“Each cognitive science student crafts his or her own program, revolving around a certain theme, for instance, communication in humans and other animals, or emotion and the brain, or the development of moral understanding,” Bloom said. “The application ensures that each student has a coherent program in mind, one that gets approved by the DUS and the chair.”

But unlike EP&E, most of the students who apply to cognitive science are accepted into the major, Bloom said. In recent years, there have been as few as 15 to 25 applicants.

The art, architecture and international studies majors also require applications during the sophomore year. International studies, which can only be taken on as a second major, typically receives 90-100 applications and admits 60-75 students, said Nancy Ruther, associate director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. Space in international studies is limited largely by the number of year-long senior seminars, a requirement of the major, that the program is able to offer, Ruther said.

When making its decisions, Ruther said, the international studies admissions committee looks for students who can fill requirements like foreign language competency as well as those whose interests and abilities seem to fit with the major.

“The committee looks for, obviously, whether you can handle a double major, because it’s more demanding than a single major, and for your interest in things international,” she said.

In any selective major, both faculty and students face trade-offs, Benhabib said.

“There are both the burdens and the privileges,” she said. “And hopefully the privileges outweigh.”

Professor Shelly Kagan teaches a seminar on Normative Ethics, a class which counts towards the Ethics, Politics and Economics major.
Betny Townsend
Professor Shelly Kagan teaches a seminar on Normative Ethics, a class which counts towards the Ethics, Politics and Economics major.

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