One of the very first things we learn about Molly, Beanie Feldstein’s character in Booksmart, is that she loves Yale. She’s starting her last day of high school with a morning meditation — “Stand atop the mountain of your success and look down at everyone who’s ever doubted you” — and there, in the top left corner of the shot, hangs a blue Yale University pennant. A few minutes later, she’s reminding her school’s principal that she needs to go over budget numbers with her class-president successor so that everything runs smoothly next year when she’s “up in New Haven.” Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis, in a little Jackson Maine cosplay) interrupts her: “Yale,” he sighs. “You can just say Yale.”
Come fall, in the Booksmart-verse, Molly is going to Yale. So is her Booksmart frenemy, the hot mean girl AAA. Noah Centineo dreamed and dated his way into a Yale interview in The Perfect Date, after Saoirse Ronan aspired to attend the school two years prior in Lady Bird — or, at least, “schools like Yale, but not Yale, because I probably couldn’t get in.” In the Gossip Girl books, Blair Waldorf loved Yale so much she convinced her mom and stepdad to name her little sister after the university; on Gossip Girl, the television show, Blair names her dog after the school’s mascot. Yale — applying to it, going there, leaving it, and running the student newspaper — was also a prominent setting in Gilmore Girls. Years after Rory would have graduated, one of The Society’s horny teens wants to attend. It’s the college where Tom Buchanan went, where Jennifer Beals’s L Word character went, and where the wittiest Aaron Sorkin characters go. And it’s one of the colleges that rejected Selina Meyer’s presidential library, despite the fact that Selina went to law school there.
Here is what I, someone who did not go to Yale, know: Yale is in Connecticut. Yale is a good school — according to U.S. News & World Report, it is part of a four-way tie for the nation’s third best national university. Yale’s color is “Yale Blue.” Harvard has Love Story, Legally Blonde, and The Social Network. Columbia has Will & Grace and Kimmy Schmidt and the characters of Gossip Girl who didn’t go to NYU. My dad went to Brown, as did Carrie Bradshaw, the Microsoft Office Assistant Clippy, and not one but two Dermot Mulroney characters in romantic comedies. Andy Bernard went to Cornell. I’m sure someone, at some point in time, wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania. A Cinderella Story was very effective Princeton propaganda. But, it seems to me, Yale is the most overrepresented institution of higher education in pop culture. Why is that?
First I asked Yale: Why does every teen in every movie want to go to Yale? Has Yale noticed this? Would Yale have really declined Selina Meyer’s presidential library? Why didn’t Yale admit Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson? Yale, unfortunately, only got back to me on one of these questions: “The Yale name is highly recognizable and many Yale graduates go on to careers in the dramatic arts or pursue writing,” Yale said, via a spokesperson. “There are often Tony winners, for example, who attended Yale. I would suspect that many in the film industry know someone who went to Yale. You may recall that Rory in Gilmore Girls attended Yale. Yale provided information about the college for that show.”
Yale also said, “Hunter, I wonder what the creators of the films would say.” Taking Yale’s advice, I asked a few writers of movies and TV shows that feature an aspiring Yale student about this phenomenon, but none of those writers got back to me.
I briefly considered taking a train to New Haven to visit Yale, to walk through the quad and talk my way into a party, maybe even see a student production, but I had a lot of plans this week and, also, I just didn’t feel like it. Instead I did the next best thing: I asked people who went to Yale — friends, colleagues, and people on the internet — what’s so great about Yale, and why they think the school is so overrepresented in pop culture.
The general consensus, among the small sample size of respondents, was that Yale is not Harvard, is very famous, and has a reputation for being more artsy-fartsy.
“I feel like, for the people writing these movies, Yale has the reputation for being a little bit more liberal arts–focused than Harvard or Stanford or something, so it’s a way to make your character seem more approachable?” suggested my colleague Jackson McHenry, who went to Yale, and also sits across from me.
One person, who requested anonymity because they are currently applying to graduate programs, agreed that Yale is probably on the minds of screenwriters because its school of drama is so storied. “The creatives involved in these shows and films probably position it in their heads as this ‘dream college’ far more than Harvard (squarish, stuffy) or Princeton (to this day I don’t know a single person who actually went there; I just imagine CEOs, mathematicians maybe, and psychopaths),” this person told me.
Yale graduate Lauren suggested that it’s because Yale is, culturally, difficult to define: “If a character wants to go to Harvard you imagine someone who wants to be president, and if a character wants to go to Princeton you imagine, like, F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she said. “We don’t have a clearly defined idea in culture of what a Yale grad looks like (both George W. Bush and John Kerry went to Yale), so it gives some flexibility.”
But Yale graduate Shannon suggested that the general perception of Yale is a little more specific: “Even before I was applying for colleges, I think I might’ve read a character applying to Harvard as just aiming for the No. 1 school,” she told me. “Whereas if their first choice were Yale, it suggests a little more depth.” This observation came up more than once. “Harvard in TV and movies is too obvious,” the writer and Yale graduate Jordan Coley said. “It’s like giving a character a yellow Ferrari to signify wealth instead of a black BMW.” Ditto Yale graduate Zack Elkind, who said the school “has the name recognition without being as overtly assholey as saying Harvard … like your character wanting to go to Harvard makes you a Social Network character instead of having ‘personality’ at Yale.”
When I asked Yale graduate Connor what’s so freakin’ great about Yale, he didn’t mention Harvard once: “Yale spoils the living shit out of all of its students,” and also “the dining-hall food is nicer than anything my parents could have made while I was growing up,” and there is a “basically a private police force to keep all the non-socialites off campus.”
But Yale graduate David could not help but mention Harvard. He said that Yale was “that chick,” and broke down his hypothesis for me thusly: “Of the top colleges/Ivies, Yale pulls weight ‘cause it’s wild elite (or elitist), inaccessible to large swaths of America, but without some of the baggage, tropes, or stereotypes of the other similarly propped-up schools of its ‘caliber,’” he said. “It’s elite without the fuckheadedness or gravitas of Harvard; not wild preppy like Penn or Princeton; isn’t remote like Cornell or Dartmouth; is in a city but doesn’t represent such a large leap as it would be [to move to] NYC (Columbia); has more clout than Brown. It’s also not a STEM-nerds paradise (MIT, Caltech). Georgetown, USC, UChi, or Hopkins doesn’t have the range, nor does Duke or ND (and they’re wild divisive anyways).”
Finally, someone from Harvard messaged me to tell me that they didn’t go to Yale but went to Harvard, which, to me, seems like an extremely Harvard thing to do.
It was at this point that I decided to stop asking other people what makes Yale “so special,” because frankly I don’t care. Instead, I decided to come up with the answer myself by doing a very minimal amount of research. I wondered, Was there a Mr. Yale? Apparently there was. Elihu Yale was a major donor, and the college was renamed after him. Okay. Is Yale higher-education shorthand because it has an improbably tiny name? Columbia uses eight letters. Princeton and Dartmouth have nine. Harvard and Cornell have seven. Brown has five. University of Pennsylvania has too many to count. Yale, by contrast, is breezy: only four! Voilà: It’s a character-count issue.
With that, I have mostly resigned myself to the fact that I will not solve the mystery of Yale. But I will always have the words of my other colleague, Molly Fischer, who does not sit across from me. When I asked if Yale was worth all the pop-culture hype, she replied, “No college is worth the pop-culture hype.”