Appendix C: Yale 250s

Published November 2009

Everyone who applies to Yale Law School must write, in addition to a personal statement, what is affectionately known as the Yale 250. This is a completely open-ended short essay (250 words, obviously) on any topic of the applicant’s choice. It sounds easy. It can become terrifying. If you decide to apply to Yale, have fun with it, but do treat this sucker to your best writing treatment. With this requirement, the committee wants to see that you are an excellent writer. Try to get some sort of powerful imagery or clever literary device in your Yale 250. Don’t be too experimental or abstract unless you actually have won a writing award. Simple clarity with some sort of profound thrust is the best target to aim for here. Witty humor is also great, if you can pull it off. Below is a collection of six very good examples of Yale 250s, in no particular order of success. The first essay includes some comments about why it succeeds, but the other short essays are presented on their own, to be enjoyed, or savored, or laughed at, or learned from.

1. Porgy and Bess

I leaned forward. The old woman beside me seemed entranced. We were at the Los Angeles Opera for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and had just heard "Summertime."

Porgy and Bess is a distinctly American opera—the story of an African-American working-class couple, set to American music idioms synthesized with European orchestral techniques. Its memorable arias and duets have escaped the confines of the opera house and entered the realm of popular music as irresistible tunes—often in hybrid form—that endear themselves to a public indifferent to classical music.

I expected the virtually all-black cast because of Gershwin's daring stipulation to hire only black principals. But given the paucity of non-white operagoers, I did not envision an audience that would mirror America's diversity. I surveyed the sea of black, brown, yellow, and white faces—many likely attending their first opera—and felt hopeful and proud.

The de facto segregation plaguing America softened that evening. Unlike many movies and plays depicting the African-American experience, Porgy and Bess drew a multiethnic crowd. America's finest black opera singers attained critical visibility in a domain that rarely receives them. Perhaps the soprano singing "I Loves You, Porgy" inspired the young black woman mouthing its words to someday perform them. Perhaps the haunting beauty of "Summertime" reminded the white woman beside me of the first time she heard the music—and first saw her place in our kaleidoscope of colors. I know that I, for the first time, felt I belonged at the opera.

Commentary 1: Porgy and Bess

This Yale 250 beautifully puts the reader in the shoes of an African American attending Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. The sensory details are lush, and one could almost hear the singing: “Your daddy’s rich, and your mamma’s good looking, so hush little baby, don’t you cry.” This is a narrative about finding oneself in artistic representations of—sometimes painful—history, and sharing that experience with others. We learn that the author has always loved the opera art form, but now she finds another side of her kaleidoscopic self there—she shares the opera not only as an orchestral and vocal music lover, but also as a black woman. This essay releases a profound, encapsulated moment of awakening about art, life, compassion, and openness for others to share.

2. Violin Maker

He sat close on my right but seemed unaware of my presence. Etudes, sonatas, and suites ran together, each piece unimportant when compared to the sound of him playing. And this wooden box—for months my solitary obsession—was finished.

It was my first cello—the first instrument I made but could not play.

Building cellos is hard. Violins can be difficult, but are never so brutish and physical as the excavation of a cello. Carving a violin is fastidious and constricting. The stature of a cello, however, makes even the most delicate task feel expansive. Simple size yields a human presence: the work, which feels like collaboration, must be done on the cello’s terms.

But the change I felt confronting this cello as a violinist overwhelmed differences in construction.

The violins I had built and played for years were a collective project of inquiry—an introspective journey toward an elusive sonic ideal. Continual adaptation made them an expression of my playing, which had become so rooted in these fiddles that the once distinct acts of making and playing were inseparable.

This cellist discovered sounds in my work I could not predict or explore. By ending my conceit of complete understanding and vertical integration, he helped me appreciate my cello as a singular work rather than dismiss it, as I would a violin, as an inadequate manifestation of an ideal. He reminded me that all my instruments are tools for musicians; it is what they make with them that matters.

3. Bighead

I have an abnormally large head. It has been that way since birth – just ask my mother. In home videos, I can be seen futilely trying to balance my head on my neck, only to have it tip forward or backward. When I was nine, it got stuck under the bed while I was trying to retrieve a Lego. My parents told me I would eventually grow into it, but I am still waiting.

Though balance is no longer an issue, other problems have arisen. Whenever I do something that requires entry into a small space, I have to mentally check its size against the dimensions of my head. Putting on shirts stretches their collars, while removing them requires body contortions that would put a “sixteen”-year-old Olympic gymnast to shame. I steer clear of sunglasses - put a pair on a watermelon and you will see why. The same goes for hats. “One size fits all” excludes “gigantic.” In high school, I was forced to either remove padding from my football helmet or get one custom made. And, as if to drive the point home, I was given nicknames such as “Mr. Potato Head,” “Bobblehead,” and the beautifully blunt “Bighead.”

But alas, my head is a part of who I am. It helps to make me unique and stand head and shoulders - mostly head - above the crowd. While I have learned to embrace it, I know that it may be impossible for others to do the same.

4. The Buildings of Stories

Cross disciplinary methods of research are vital to promoting intellectual curiosity and

developing new and creative techniques for addressing familiar problems. Interdisciplinary studies contributed to my double major in English and architectural theory. While completing my undergraduate degrees, I sought connections between the two fields, examining the sense of place and fictional architecture created by authors such as Margaret Atwood and William Faulkner, who used interactions with architecture to reveal characters’ understandings of the world. By bringing broad human themes down to the basic level of the spaces characters inhabit, these authors grounded their epic messages in the everyday and presented stories that were both grandly heroic and fundamentally relevant. Throughout my research, I applied architectural theory to literature and combined my knowledge of architectural symbolism with fictional

descriptions of place, thus adding another layer of meaning to the worlds created by authors. This merging of an interdisciplinary approach with traditional theoretical devices helped me move beyond typical literary analysis.

The value of interdisciplinary studies also extends to the law, which requires sharp perception, insightful analysis, and inspired synthesis: trademarks of admirable academic pursuits. Legal scholars illuminate areas such as medicine, gender issues, and the arts by examining those disciplines through the lens of the law. Because legal reasoning informs many of society’s most pressing concerns, legal scholars include the brightest and most discerning intellectuals in our society. By combining my interdisciplinary background with an education from Yale Law School, I hope that I might join those esteemed scholars.

5. Multiple Heritages

“This is Flan. It’s a pastry from Peru. My family eats it all the time,” I told my fourth grade elementary school class.

At age nine, I treated my ethnic heritages—I’m the son of a Hispanic mother and an Arab father—as objects on a shelf, to be taken down or put back when needed.

“I’m proud to be a descendant of the Incas, and to also call the cradle of civilization—the Middle East—home,” I told my friend’s Indian father, who, in view of my dark skin color and thick, black hair, was convinced I was also Indian.

At age sixteen, my background, it seemed to me, would only sit well with others if treated as thought-provoking intellectual fodder – so I spent my time talking about history, religion, and politics.

“I grew up watching Spanish soap operas with my grandmother, but also attending Muslim Sunday School. I feel blessed to come from such a rare background,” I explained to a houseguest over dinner.

At age twenty-three, my non-conformist passions run wild, and I seek to differentiate myself in whatever way possible. The embrace of my background is a means to that end, rather than an end in itself.

“My parents were more similar than they were different. They also shared values—hard work, honesty, humility, and compassion,” I told my grandchildren while looking at photos of my parents.

At age sixty-five, I view my parents as, above all, human beings. Fundamentally, we’re all just people. No?

6. Volunteer Work

The sticky sweet splatter of saliva hit my face and I smiled – in part because my mouth and eyes were spared, but mostly because spitting was huge for Eddie. We were making progress.

Feeling the buckle of my shoe digging into his writhing calf, I shifted my weight. I freed a hand, pinning his head to the floor, discouraging his unsavory method of communication. The carpet absorbed his remaining projectiles, adding to the distinctive smell of group home - stifled and stale, boredom blended with frustration, sweat, and despair, all marinated in Pine Sol.

Eventually his anger softened. My grip loosened as his rage drained. Finally headed off to bed, he smiled slightly. In that moment I saw the original Eddie – not yet a victim turned predator.

Previously I knew only Eddie’s fun and feisty image. Unable to identify the mint extract beneath the chocolate in his cupcake, he accused me of poisoning him. Outraged by my suggestion to “do over” a disputed basketball play, Eddie convinced me that indecision was the only wrong call.

Later I saw Eddie, future felon. Squirming across from a mother who feared him and the little sister he violated, Eddie was terrified by what he had done. Shamed and ashamed, he was so alone.

In an environment where hugs were no longer appropriate and bedtime stories were not feasible, physical restraints, however uncomfortable, were the only way to be touched at all. Only after leaving [Group Home] did I realize I had been touched too.


» Continue to Appendix D: Ending on a Good Note
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