Undue Diligence: Yaliens



So you didn’t get accepted to Yale. That’s fine. YLS is totally academic, and you actually want to practice law. The classes are so small it’s almost incestuous. New Haven is many things, but a city it is not. And the H-Bomb actually makes a bigger crater, right?

Whatever HLSers tell themselves about how much they don’t care about Yale, there’s no doubt that a lot of Yale rumor buzz floats around our campus. It’s kind of like Columbia and NYU Law both claiming they don’t compete with each other, and then their student guides spending the entire introductory tour telling you why they’re better than the other place. People here wonder about Yale – especially that “no grades” stuff. So I looked into what goes on down there. Here’s the scoop.

The First Year

First semester, YLS 1Ls have four required classes: Constitutional Law, Torts, Contracts, and something they call “Procedure” (without the “Civil” bit). The 1L class is divided into 12 small groups comprised of about 16 students each. The small section has one of their required courses with ONLY those 16 students. The other three classes combine several small sections to make a larger group. After first semester they are free to take whatever coursework they wish, provided that they fit in Criminal Law and Professional Responsibility sometime before graduation.

First-years have some sort of FYL analog, but it sounds much less annoying. The memo writing/lawyer-training-type lessons are tacked on to the small group class once a week. So typical Student X would have, say, Contracts, Torts, and Procedure with a large group, and then Con Law with his small group of 16 (and a couple of TAs). Memos and the like are assigned during small section and actually pertain to the material they are studying in that class. So if X is doing First Amendment stuff in Con Law, he’s writing a memo about some kind of First Amendment issue. How about that!


Now for the reason everyone wants to go to Yale: grades (or the lack thereof). YLSers don’t get letter grades. Ever. For their first semester they are marked Pass/Fail for all their classes. Thereafter the options expand to High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, or Fail, though the assumption seems to be that there are almost no Low Passes or Fails.

As would be expected, the lack of grade point averages forces a shift in competitive pressure elsewhere, to letters of recommendation. Various YLS professors have quotas on the number of recommendations they will write, but write truly stellar, lengthy letters. The quota could be as low as five per year. So students who want one of these extra super LORs maneuver to get into that professor’s class and then make every effort to impress the professor enough to become one of the chosen few. Or something like that.

I had heard that because there are no grades, attendance is compulsory at Yale. I guess I imagined some kind of sign-in sheet and the threat of a Low Pass to keep people from skipping. Well, not so much. Some professors may indicate that they require an excuse for missing a class, and you would be noticed if you didn’t show for small group, but in the end, no, class attendance is no more compulsory there than it is here.


Oh, but it’s not all cushy fun and games at Yale. They have to write a “Substantial Paper” (usually about 30 pages) and a “Substantial Analytic Work” (usually upwards of 70 pages) as part of their graduation requirements. They can start writing as of spring of 1L year and have to complete at least one paper before enrolling for the first semester of 3L year. These writings are in addition to any seminar papers, of course. In short, they have no grades but they have to write a second paper. I’m pretty sure theirs is the better deal, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Yale vs. Harvard

Apparently the Yale Admissions people represent that about ten people per year are accepted to Yale but choose Harvard instead. Around a dozen choose some other law school over Yale for personal or geographic reasons, and maybe another dozen beyond that don’t end up going to law school at all. So their yield is exceptionally high. Shocker.

I didn’t realize this, but each year a couple of students actually transfer from HLS to Yale. Picture me rolling my eyes. Unsurprisingly, considering the kind of person you would have to be to do that, one of my interviewees mentioned that a guy who transferred last year was upset when he arrived at Yale and found himself unable to cope with not having grades to obsess over any more.

I asked some Yale students for commentary on how Yaliens perceive us. A 1L described HLSers as “unhappy, driven people who socialize under the guise of friendliness but who remain ultra-competitive and cutthroat in the classroom.” She softened this description by admitting she knows that’s an extreme characterization, but her statement is representative of the responses I received.

I guess Yale students missed the memo about how Harvard Law has been Kaganized into bastion of warmfuzziness. Or they haven’t had the opportunity to observe that most of the supposed “cutthroats” are compulsively playing solitaire or IMing “in the classroom.” The problem with being a cutthroat at HLS these days is that the rest of us think you’re an asshole. But we do appreciate the scary reputation when it comes to actually practicing law. So let that misconception stand, I say. It’s cute.

The Essay Thingie

Remember the little 250-word essay part of the Yale Law application? (Oh, shut up. Yes you do.) Well, I asked the people I interviewed what they wrote their essay about to satisfy my own curiosity. One guy wrote his about voting and why you really shouldn’t worry too much about who you vote for because voting is basically meaningless. A girl wrote hers about a pair of shoes she had as a kid. Another girl wrote about her stint as a painter. And in an orientation speech, the YLS Dean mentioned one student having written about winning an onion eating contest. In conclusion, the little essay is probably as much of a crapshoot as you assumed it was when you were composing it.

When I sat down to write this column (yesterday), I had to (quickly) find some real life Yaliens to interview for the details. It turns out I don’t know any personally, and considering my rather unfortunate “hit reply instead of forward” snarky e-mail incident with the YLS admissions office when I was applying, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to contact the school’s administration directly.

Curiously, all of the Yale students I know of anecdotally are boyfriends (or exes) of my female HLS classmates. Draw whatever conclusions you may from that phenomenon. In any case, I did manage to come up with the names of some friendly Yale kids, and would like to thank them all – especially Will Baude of Crescat Sententia (www.crescatsententia.org) for helping me sort out the facts.

That said, given my truly half-assed efforts to verify anything across multiple sources, I take full responsibility for errors or misrepresentations in this column. Let’s just say I was afraid that too much fact might destroy the Yale mystique for everyone, and I think we’re all disillusioned enough as it is. Besides, some of you might want to transfer there next year.

Melinda McLellan is a 3L. And no, she did not get accepted to Yale.

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