Elis graduate with no skills — and few prospects

March Madness isn’t over yet. Who cares? The admissions game is the most closely followed varsity sport at Yale, and this week brought us some great news: Our team has bounced back from an off year to place second in the division. Well done.

Of course, the fact that Yale’s admissions become more competitive every year is a bit troubling to current students. We joke that “I couldn’t have gotten in here if I were applying now,” and for many of us —statistically speaking — it’s true. It’s not that the senior class has a serious concern about being usurped by incoming freshmen but that there is a necessary consequence of competitive admissions: People have to work harder to get into college than ever before.

That’s more than disturbing. For Yale, in its current undergraduate form, it should be downright alarming. Life before college seems to have fallen into step with life after, making “college success” a stepping stone to nostalgia rather than the real world. When getting into Yale, and getting out, the relevant question is: “What have you done?” But our liberal-arts education teaches us to valorize “the life of the mind” over petty tangible accomplishments. Like it or not, many of us discover too late that we’ve fallen behind the pre-professional herd. The liberal arts may “train you for nothing and prepare you for everything,” but the rest of the world isn’t always prepared for us.

The Yale name still opens plenty of doors, but it’s no secret password to professional success. Sometimes, in fact, it’s a liability. Many future employers, and the rest of the world, associate Yale most frequently with two things: Old Ivy tradition and pointy-headed intellectualism. This is obviously an over-essentialization, and the pop-culture Yale is often patently unbelievable (see also: Skull and Bones conspiracy theorists, C. Montgomery Burns). But like any good cliché, there’s a great deal of truth to it: Both of these attributes describe the concept of the “liberal arts,” which animates the structure of an undergraduate education here, and therefore its tone.

The difference between liberal-arts and pre-professional programs isn’t just content but outlook: No Yale student is being taught who to be, and this is crucial. There are thousands of subtle behaviors that make the difference between professional competence and incompetence; I’ve flunked interviews because the interviewer feared that clients wouldn’t be able to keep up with my rapid-fire speaking style. Insisting on the primacy of the mind — as the education I’m getting does — makes this sort of concern seem superficial. But the mind needs a body to carry it, and “carrying oneself professionally” isn’t on the Yale syllabus. It might be more important than what is.

Admittedly, schoolwork isn’t the be-all and end-all of college; the only people who think Yale is just about class are the pre-meds (and the Marxists, but there are even fewer of them). Despite Yale’s pop-culture image, it’s actually traditional to eschew pointy-headed intellectualism — Kerry and Bush, everybody knows, got Cs. But the Yale they attended deliberately shaped its students into “Yale Men” inside and outside the classroom, and that was what made their future careers.

In a meritocracy, making up pre-professional ground in our spare time looks somewhat different: pouring ourselves into extracurricular activities in an effort to give us the training our B.A.s won’t. The set-builders at the Dramat are the closest most Yale students get to manual labor, and the College Dems’ state lobbying team helps move bills through the Connecticut state legislature; at these points, Yale and the real world miraculously converge. It’s exhilarating, and for many it’s a good career move.

But these students are those who throw themselves least into the liberal-arts ideal that is central to the Yale education. Those who allow themselves to be prepared rather than trained fare less well. I bash UCS career counselors as much as the next person, if not more, but I’ll say this in their defense: It’s not their fault that consulting and i-banking are the only industries designed for people with a lot of mental potential and very few practical skills. The rest of the working world doesn’t seem to need us.

If the liberal-arts education is in fact the key to creating “global leaders,” Yale needs to stand up and fight back (rhetorically, if nothing else) or resign itself to becoming a training ground for career academics. The hyper-powered class of 2012, and all other classes that get into Yale because of what they’ve done, shouldn’t have to face a choice between refusing to put their education first and having nothing to render them employable but the Yale name.

Dara Lind is a junior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Anonymous

    Here's my advice for you: graduate school.

  • Hieronymus

    (Adding to #1's suggestion) Or the officer corps.

  • Old Blue '73

    If you thought, and still do, that a liberal arts degree from Yale would be a job training program, you should not waste any more time there. Finish the semester and transfer or start over again at an engineering school or some vocational program. It's not unusual for college juniors to have the light go on that they actually have to do something other than academic work to prepare for finding a job. The tasks can either be parallel (you work in the summers at real jobs and try to figure out what you want to do, and you look into management training programs available for college grads) or serial (you go to grad school for particular market skills--law, business or whatever).

    The value of a good liberal arts education is that you learn how to find answers to questions, how to analyze the answers to decide which are good and then how to communicate those good answers to others in an organization. The subject matter of your study is less important than your demonstrated ability to delve deeply into the subject matter and to report well your findings. Your grades sometimes are an indication to employers that you're good at the process. What it is you learned is less important to a prospective employer than your demonstrated ability that you can learn at a high level.

  • Harvard '02

    Transfer to a better school. You'll have to wait a little longer, though.

  • Nick S

    Yale's distribution requirements are pretty minimal. They still leave students with more than enough room in their schedules to take classes which give them tangible skills--languages, math, economics. We can supplement this not just with extracurriculars, but summer internships as well. I would argue that it is fully within students' power and responsibility to develop skills if that's what they think will serve them best after graduation.

    And as #1 pointed out, graduate school is another great way to develop skills in one's field of interest.

  • Anonymous

    I don't know whether to feel insulted by or pity Ms. Lind, or both.

    The attributes of a Liberal Education are more important now than ever. Knowing how the world works and how to reason, research, speak and write is becoming more important as the world grows more complex. And most schools are no longer teaching these essential skills, focusing only on technical job prep skills.

    In my career since graduating, I have found that a Yale pedigree has opened doors for me, and others, because it is assumed that we are well-rounded and know how to reason, speak and write, rather than being just technicians.

    For Yale and other "elite" schools, it is folly to try to be more pre-professional or focus more on "job skills." If a student wants to learn marketable technical skills, he would be much better served by a two-year Community College, or a local adult-ed program.

  • Anonymous

    "I’ve flunked interviews because the interviewer feared that clients wouldn’t be able to keep up with my rapid-fire speaking style"

    And how exactly is this Yale's fault?

  • Hieronymus

    "I’ve flunked interviews because the interviewer feared that clients wouldn’t be able to keep up with my rapid-fire speaking style"

    One wonders whether it was the content, rather than the rapidity.

    That said, I am sure Ms. Lind will do just fine…

  • Yale alum

    I think Ms. Lind can find what she is looking for at a vocational school. The beauty of Yale is that it teaches you how to think and find your own solutions, instead of teaching you exactly how to do something. The creativity and independence the curriculum creates is of incredible value to most employers - but probably the ones in which Ms. Lind is flunking the interview. Yale's most successful are those who embrace independent learning and apparently Ms. Lind is looking to be a follower, not a leader.

  • Anonymous

    Look, the truth is that a lot of us who didn't come to college looking for the next set of hoops to jump through wind up feeling like Dara: as though the rest of the class has passed us by en route to i-banking firms and law schools. Ultimately, many of us will graduate from Yale feeling like we don't have anything on our resume to recommend us for any position besides having gone to Yale.

    It's a silly feeling, one rooted in endless comparisons to peers on a campus that is ludicrously exceptional, and tremendously far removed from the real world. It's also a feeling that's certainly heightened around the time friends are landing prestigious internships that they'll likely turn into jobs in the fall of their senior year, and so it's understandable that Dara would feel this way now.

    This is not a testament to the fact that Yale lacks opportunities to develop skills (though, certainly, no one's going to hold your hand); it's just a reminder that Yale can be an incredibly unhealthy environment. Especially for those of us who feel like we suffer in comparisons with our friends.

    That said, it's not like there aren't opportunities to take advantage of here, and no matter how many doors your GPA or extracurricular portfolio may close for you, there are plenty left to wedge open. The dogpile crew above is right: the word "Yale" will make a big difference pretty much anywhere you look, and there are plenty of ways to demonstrate aptitude.

    P.S. UCS does offer interview training sessions. If you think you need them, take advantage of them.

  • Old Blue '73

    As I look at these comments, some read too harsh toward Dara, including mine. I have a son who is a junior at an "elite" college, and he too is beginning to contemplate the end of his college career. Just a year out of picking a major and he's thinking what the heck am I supposed to do with a double major in poli sci and history anyway?

    He and Dara will do fine, they just need to stop thinking of their liberal arts degree as specific job skill training and to start thinking and investigating what kind of jobs are possible that they might want to start with. UCS should be able to help them with that process.

  • Hieronymus

    #10: good synopsis, and sincere.

    I say again: graduating a top school? Wondering what to do with yourself until you figure out your own, personal "Meaning of Life?"

    I highly recommend some time in service to others. My preference is for the military's officer corps (reasonable pay, top skills, never-to-be repeated experience); however, the Peace Corps isn't so bad either.

  • Anonymous

    I'm sure it's considered poor form to reply to comments on one's own column, but I feel that there are a few things I should explain.

    I never thought Yale would be a vocational school, and I don't think it ought to be. But Yale implicitly and explicitly promises its students that the liberal arts education will give them an advantage in the real world, and that Yale will offer institutional support to make that happen. And it doesn't deliver on that promise as fully as it ought.

    Yes, #11, UCS should be helping students figure out what jobs might be best for them. But it doesn't. I didn't spend too much time recounting horror stories (from people whose competence is less dubious than my own) in the column because UCS's reputation is known very well throughout campus. It has an extremely well-developed recruitment program for consulting firms and investment banks, but it doesn't have the connections or the familiarity with other fields to be useful to students who think they might be interested in them.

    I wish it were true, as #10 said, that "the word 'Yale' will make a big difference pretty much anywhere you look." But it's not true. I've been rejected from internships because I'm a Yale student, and I've certainly been rejected because I wasn't getting a degree in something Yale simply didn't offer, with the Yale name doing nothing to recommend me. I wrote this column to try to break down the assumption that a Yale diploma is a golden ticket. It is in some fields, but it's a liability in others, and if we don't understand that going in we'll find ourselves pushed into careers that will be easier for us without getting the chance to decide if that's what we want.

  • SY_86

    There is some truth to the fact that lots of Yale students get out without some of the basic skills that people at other traditional liberal arts schools have already mastered. Many of the Yale students I've interviewed lately think a lot of themselves; told over and over how special and exceptional they are, they confuse having been a really great high school student with having great potential to excel in the job for which they're applying. Although many of the students I've met recently have been very smart, their poor social skills and their unrealistic expectations about an entry-level position (especially when they have fewer practical skills -- like basic computer literacy -- than many of their peers) is always surprising to me. I'm all for a liberal arts education, but as an employer, I'm really looking for students who are more prepared and more resourceful than the average Yale student.

  • je09

    this is a good column that states something that has been clear - and taboo - for some time.

  • Alum

    Dara: a Yale diploma may not be a 'golden ticket' but a Yale education can be. A liberal arts education has never been more valuable than now and it will only become more so. And by the way, one of America's strengths is that there isn't just one path to success. People will be impressed by your Yale degree but more interested with what you've done with your Yale education.

  • current yalie

    I agree with everything that #10 said. Well put.

    As for UCS: I agree that they sometimes focus exclusively on banking/consulting, but in their defense, students seem to focus exclusively on these fields, too, shutting out other options. Recently, UCS scheduled a trip into New York to explore the fashion industry (corporate side), but they had to cancel it due to lack of interest. Random House spoke at UCS, too.

  • alcibiades

    yale has always produced mostly career academics. it's part of the brand. the old maxim holds true: "those who can't do, teach," except not necessarily in a bad way. yale produces people who analyze and deconstruct and contemplate, atttributes of a good professor and thinker, and puts these people into both academia and fields where academic traits are less common. yalies often rise to the top not because we're craftier or more innovative, but because we think better.

  • Alum '03

    This is an old cliché, for good reason: do what you love, and you will succeed. Use extracurriculars to find out what you're best at, make some mistakes, and learn from everything. Try new things. Produce something during your time at Yale that you can pull out in a job interview -- something that shows how truly talented you are at __________. Figure out how it relates to the job you're applying for.

    Don't focus on how you stack up to your Yale peers. Know your own best self, and then be able to show others. Your interviewers do not want a socially divergent genius, they want an adaptable, effective, productive communicator.

    I had the same concerns, but it was all because I measured myself by the very highest achievers around me. Things have turned out just fine. But it does take hard work -- there is no free lunch.

  • ac

    I used to think like Dara. But then I realized that it was only a product of me comparing myself to my friends who accepted jobs at consulting firms or i-banking firms and I had no idea what I wanted to do yet. Everyone finds jobs, Dara. You will not leave Yale and be unemployed for very long, unless you simply don't try.

    My advice? If you don't want to do I-banking/consulting, do the peace corps, get a fellowship, or go to grad school…Yale's degree opens doors in any of those things. Wait, those options pretty much cover any career path anyone would want to pursue: corporate, professional, or non-profit.

  • CC06

    The fact of the matter is, you're never going to end up on welfare, Dara. Your vision of success is likely distorted by your surroundings. You won't be living paycheck to paycheck, and that's at least something my Yale education gave me.

    Also, always feel free to check out the teacher prep program. Graduate with a degree and certification to teach! Liberal arts meets professional training.

  • Anonymous

    "I’ve flunked interviews because the interviewer feared that clients wouldn’t be able to keep up with my rapid-fire speaking style."