Yale Tour: Cathedral of Knowledge
Updated: Jan 22
Yale University seems like a pretty good school.
Okay, sure. It is in fact, every bit as awe-inspiring as a college has a right to be on a raw, January day in New Haven, Connecticut. This was abundantly clear on each of our four main stops during a short campus tour.
First up was the courtyard of one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges where, even from the outside looking in, the majesty of the place was as self-evident as the wisdom of its design.
Similar to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia vision of an “academical village,” the Yale idea is to combine students and teachers with life itself. The housing concept also recalls Hogwarts, although at Yale students are assigned to colleges at random, without the benefit of a sorting hat. The idea is to create a mix of residents with little in common beyond their really big brains.
What might otherwise be a dormitory for students is something else again at Yale, most visibly owing to a sizable mansion tucked into a corner. A dean, responsible for ensuring that each and every student resident is academically on track, lives there. We’re told that 6-12 professors and their families, up to and including children and pets, also make their homes about the village, giving the place a “homey” feel. Just 10-15 percent of students live off campus, but even they remain affiliated with an assigned college throughout their Yale career.
Each college has its own dining hall, laundry, gym, library and café. While we didn’t get a look inside, rumor has it that each college basement features something fun, like a pottery studio, black-box theater, wood shop, book bindery, or some such. We did witness a clear, plastic, geodesic igloo, with living-room furniture inside, inexplicably set up on the quad. Our tour guide was a font of information, but even he could not explain this.
From there, we journeyed to Yale’s legendary Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, with its windows made of marble sliced into massive 1-¼ inch panes. From the outside, it looks like a solid cube of swirling stone.
Inside, even on a cloudy day, it was possible to discern the genius of the design, as the slender sheets of stone admitted just the barest hint of light, protecting the rare tomes inside. These include two of 21 known copies of the 1,280-page Gutenberg Bible, a single sheaf of which is valued at $4 million. That’s a lot of Green Stamps (the library was gifted by the Beinecke family, of S&H fame. Ask your parents ... or grandparents).
One of Abraham Lincoln’s pens also is on display. The real attraction, though, is the stacks of some 180,000 frightfully fragile-looking books, shielded behind an interior tower of glass, the environs of which is kept under exacting climate control. Below grade reside another million books or so. Yale students, faculty and other scholars are welcome to register and review materials on premise, in the library’s reading room.
While the Beinecke experience spoke volumes about Yale’s stake in the timeless value of published works, it was not the final word. Our next stop was perhaps the university’s most iconic edifice: The Sterling Library. As we stood outside its soaring gothic contours, our tour guide decided it was time for a quiz.
“If this building were not library, what would you think it was?” he asked. It was a small group, and nobody answered, so we decided to venture an obvious response: “A church.”
Next question: “If you had to guess, how old would you say this building is?” Again, no reply. “C’mon, wild guess. Some people think it’s 2,000 years old.” Still nothing, so we took the bait -- guessing 300 -- thinking that the New Haven campus dates back to the early 1700s.
That Sterling was completed less than 100 years ago, in 1931, does not detract from its grandeur or the feeling it creates. The building’s nave, with its ornate vaulted ceilings and hundreds of panes of secular stained glass, radiates a religious experience. Sterling currently houses some 2.5 million volumes on 16 levels and telegraphs Yale’s claim as a “Cathedral of Knowledge.”
By the way, Yale’s original name was the Collegiate School, and its first home was in Killingworth, now known as Clinton, Connecticut, operating out of the home of Abraham Pierson, a minister. It relocated to Saybrook for a time before landing in New Haven. So, the founder was not Elihu Yale, but a group of 10 ministers, and its destiny was secured by one Jeremiah Dummer(!), a Harvard alum. Dummer recruited Mr. Yale to the cause in 1716, persuading him to donate 400 books, cloth goods worth 562 pounds, and a portrait of King George I. In return, Mr. Yale was awarded naming rights, 18th-century style.
Last stop on our tour was “Old Campus,” so-named because it is where the oldest building on campus, Connecticut Hall, sits. It is a dormitory and the last surviving “Old Brick Row” structure from the school’s Colonial era. The original campus was almost completely replaced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with Victorian-style dorms. Most incoming first-years live there before decamping to one of the residential colleges sophomore year. Old Campus is also where commencement happens.
Most notable is the sidewalk design on Old Campus, which cuts across the quad at odd, and ostensibly nonsensical angles. This apparent madness actually is a method intended to ensure that students are essentially forced to take unlikely routes, increasing the odds of chance encounters with strangers. These pathways suggest a worthy metaphor for Yale’s approach to the academic experience itself, which is fashioned to invite exploration and encourage discovery.
Just before our tour, we spent a little over an hour with Lauren, a Yale admissions officer, a recent Yale grad herself, who described the academics, resources and student life in general. Worth noting is that in addition to the aforementioned academic dean, each student is assigned a faculty as well as a peer advisor. While the dean ensures that academic requirements are met, the faculty advisor establishes a one-to-one relationship to guide more specific decisions, while the peer -- a senior -- helps ease any transitional issues like homesickness freshman year.
Graduation requires a total of 36 classes, which, similar to the University of Chicago, is divided into thirds: one part determined by major; another part core requirements; and the balance free electives. Yale takes special pride in its 10-day “shopping period” at the start of each semester, during which students can sample a range of offerings before making final decisions. The process has been known to result in life-altering course corrections.
Class size is another point of emphasis: While Yale offers its roughly 6,000 undergraduate students some 2,000 courses across 85 departments, just one percent of its classes have 100 or more students. The vast majority -- 75% -- keep classes to 20 or fewer and one-third take fewer than 10 students. Lauren, a literature major, said she had one course where she was the only student, because Yale won’t cancel a class unless absolutely no one signs up. She also said all classes are taught by professors.
Yale is generous in terms of financial aid. While it may be next to impossible to be admitted to the school (only about 6% of applicants are accepted), it is not nearly so difficult to pay for the honor. All in, including every expense, a year at Yale runs about $72K. However, Yale is need-blind, need-based, and meets full need. That means it does not consider a student’s ability to pay when evaluating applications, and makes sure that a lack of financial resources is not an issue for those it accepts.
Most students receive some kind of financial aid, and incredibly, the average annual aid package is $55K. Households with incomes below $75K pay nothing, and even those with more than $250K in income receive some aid. Loans are not bundled into financial-aid packages. International students are treated no differently than domestic in terms of aid.
Yale is not a test-optional school, but no longer requires subject tests, and Lauren says admissions sets no boundaries in terms of scores. She said she considers the transcript to be “a goldmine of information” and looks for “genuine interest” when reviewing extracurricular activities. Her advice regarding teacher recommendations is to go with someone who knows you best and can speak to your intellectual curiosity and growth, work ethic and class contributions, regardless of whether you got an A.
In terms of the essay, she looks less for drama and more for consistency with the rest of the application. Whether it’s board scores, grades, teacher recommendations or the essay, she advises that “context matters.”
If you didn’t know she was reading applications for Yale, you would be forgiven for thinking that getting in isn’t all that complicated. Decisions are not hers alone, however; they require a committee vote. Lauren admitted to sometimes thinking back about certain memorable applicants who didn’t get in, and wondering how they were doing.
One last bit of advice: When you visit, it helps to have a pocketful of quarters handy. It’s street parking only, and while the meters allegedly take credit cards, only cold, hard cash (10 minutes per quarter) seemed to work for us. If the streets are full, a metered parking lot lurks nearby.
Even if you think you have little or no chance of getting into Yale (which is reality for just about anyone), it is well worth the investment, if for no other reason than that it’s helpful to see how a storied institution sees itself, compared to how you see it, and yourself.