Making the most of Yale: one senior’s advice

A month ago yesterday, I received an e-mail from a precocious freshman asking his senior friends to share with him all the essential tidbits of Yale wisdom we had accumulated over the past four years.

I told him to learn it the hard way, that uppity freshman, but maybe he was right. I used to think Yale was a free-for-all, a place where wheels are constantly reinvented. In reality, Yale is a community that thrives on institutional memory. There is rarely anything you will encounter in New Haven that someone did not experience before you at this 306-year-old university.

On the other hand, this knowledge should not be limited to those who knew in advance to ask for it. So, to be fair, what follows is a top-10 list of things I wished someone had told me as a Yale freshman:

10. Think long and hard about doing Directed Studies. Simply put, I wish I had not been in DS freshman year. I didn’t realize the extent to which I wanted to explore. The three classes in DS are more alike than not. DS does not get all the best professors or most talented students, contrary to popular belief, and being unable to go out Thursday night is a sacrifice not to be taken lightly. Also, unless you major in one of about four disciplines, you will have to play serious catch-up sophomore year.

9. Take a class with Donald Kagan and with Akhil Amar. “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” and “Constitutional Law” are must-takes for any major. Kagan’s lectures and passion are mesmerizing, and it’s been said that Amar is on the short list of possible Supreme Court nominees.

8. Shop sections in addition to lectures. Section will make or break the class. And no matter how much you love your professor, a grad student will be grading all your work. Make sure you find one you like. Particularly in big lecture courses, the section leaders vary dramatically. Until TA evaluations appear at this school, you’ll just have to use trial and error to find the best section.

7. Pick a small major, if possible. Access to professors is a blessing you will not appreciate in your first year. Most students do not come to Yale knowing their academic passion, but an instructor providing close guidance will increase your chances of discovering it. This kind of access is hard to find in one of Yale’s huge departments.

6. Find one or two professors in your field, and latch on. Learn everything you can from them. Go to office hours. Take their seminars. You will form lasting academic friendships, and you will have valuable letters of recommendation down the road.

5. Go abroad sophomore year. The culture here is not to go abroad junior year, unlike at most schools, because of Yale’s junior-heavy extracurricular structure. But now that sophomores are allowed to go abroad, it’s a perfect compromise.

4. Don’t waste freshman summer. Having spent many of my high-school summers doing things that I thought would help me get into places like Yale, I pretty much wasted my college freshman summer being a lifeguard. Unless you plan to travel abroad over the summer, find a job in a corporate atmosphere to have something on your resume. Don’t be afraid to ask your roommates’ parents for help in securing a job — Yale is as much about the people (and families) you meet here as it is about the classroom.

3. Get an I-banking/consulting internship junior summer. I go back and forth on this one, but the worst that happens after your summer is you’ll have a name on your resume that nearly every future employer respects, perhaps the knowledge that you don’t ever want to do it again, and a nice chunk of change. If you’re half-competent, the best that happens is you’ll have a nearly guaranteed job when you graduate.

2. Don’t be afraid to hold out senior year. On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to take the first full-time position you get offered. Investment banks and consulting firms have a natural advantage because they recruit early, but many more interesting offers come along later in the year, including travel grants and employers that can’t afford to spend their money on info sessions. While you may not have your job secured come November, you will at least enjoy your next two years.

1. Meet older people. Yale is not just a place to grow academically, but to learn how the world works from those just a few years older than you. Make connections and build friendships with people in other classes as well as in your own. When you find that your relevant work experience is having written “Remedial Media” for the Rumpus and you’re sleeping on the street in a few years, maybe you’ll have someone to call for a job.

Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. This is his last regular column.