It's hard to say anything definitive about Yale's academics that the general public doesn't already know, because the academics here are pretty much whatever you want them to be. There are large lecture classes where the professor will never learn your name, and there are small seminars whose debates get carried into the dining halls with the students. You can develop close relationships with professors if you seek them out - most of them are ready to spend time on you if they know that's what your looking for. There are Yalies destined to manage hedge funds, whose goal in life is to make money, and there are Yalies who could happily drift in academia forever, experiencing joy in the act of learning. Yale's distribution requirements can be a hassle for students who came to college hoping never to take another math class in their lives, but "quantitative reasoning" is a broad enough category that even these people will find something within it to interest them. The classes themselves are varied and interesting, mostly taught by professors. The freshmen level math classes (up through multi-variable calculus) are often taught by grad students (some with incomprehensible foreign accents) and are graded on a curve (which can hurt you!), making that department the least pleasant experience for many students. I took a program this (my freshman) year called Directed Studies, which studies part of the "western canon" through literature, history of political thought, and philosophy. We have two seminars and a lecture in each of those topics per week. Those seminars are particularly wonderful for students who want to engage in lively intellectual discussions, and the program is a good opportunity for students to meet others with similar academic passions. There is a lot (really a lot) of reading, and everyone writes two papers every three weeks, so the work can be pretty intense. For me, DS was the perfect introduction to philosophy (I am planning on majoring in Physics and Philosophy, a combo option here), which is a strong and eccentric department at Yale. DS is a great way to learn how to think, but it's impossible to digest everything, and it's often disappointing for students when they realize this.
Technically, the entire purpose of going to college is for the academics. That being said, the academics at Yale are what you make of it. Science majors are typically more difficult than humanities, but that's the usually trend in any school. However, there are just as many students who struggle in the sciences/spend hours in lab who can bust out an English essay in under an hour...they just choose classes that cater to their own abilities. Yale is quite good at upholding their "liberal arts education" approach to academics. Before declaring his/her major at the end of sophomore year, each undergraduate is required to take a variety of courses in different subjects. Thus, the difficulty of each class depends on the student's personal strengths and experiences. I've had a class with 14 students, and another with 200 students. However, in both classes, the professor knew my name. Office hours and class participation are stressed, and it's definitely an asset. If you choose to never speak with your professor, chances are he/she will never know you - but then you miss out on valuable classroom experiences that could influence your future studies and current course material understanding. The goal here is to learn for the sake of learning. There are many students who do not know what their future jobs will be, but trust that their dedication in their activities at Yale will open doors. Many students who do not necessarily consider jobs go to Teach for America after graduation, or apply for graduate school.
I certainly have intellectual conversations outside class, although somewhat rarely with my classmates. I bring what I'm studying to my friends, and they to me- of course, what we're studying at any given time may or may not have anything to do with our classes. I'm sure my professors would know my name if my attendance weren't so bad. The attendance policy here... well, there isn't one (except in foreign language classes); no one's going to bitch at you if you never show up. I often prefer to skip lecture and just do all the readings (by the way, no one does /all/ the readings): this method is incredibly ineffective. Professors care much, much more about what they're telling you than about the readings they assign. Most people DO go to class because they've realized it's easier to get good grades that way. I think the education here is geared towards learning for its own sake; the students take it upon themselves to be career driven. It's certainly not a hostile environment for academics like myself, however, and the incredibly sparse required distribution credits mean there's no excuse for me to take a class I don't like.
Classes vary widely, in terms of quality, teaching style, size, etc. Apart from one or two classes that I found boring and poorly taught, the vast majority of the 20+ courses I've taken at Yale have been great. I'm an Anthropology major, and my favorite courses have been European Literature; Culture, Power, Oil; and Journalism. Apart from our majors, Yale students need to fulfill distribution requirements, which entail two classes each in foreign language, quantitative reasoning, writing, social sciences, humanities and arts, and science. Each course at Yale falls into at least one of those categories, so you always have choices about what to take to fulfill your requirements. So to fulfill my science requirement, for example, I took biological anthropology and an astrophysics course. Overall, while it's possible (at least outside the hard sciences) to get by taking only "gut" courses, most students try to challenge themselves and genuinely enjoy classes. After all, that's why we're here.
The academics here are amazing. High school was the most boring place in the world to me, we learned about jus the least interesting things in the slowest, most rote way possible. I worked really, really hard to get good grades so I could go somewhere like Yale, but I never cared about learning for its own sake. Now I’m here and I really don’t care what I’m going to do with any of this. I’m sure I’ll have to start figuring that out soon enough but for now I’m just taking classes that sound interesting and so far that’s been working out amazingly. My professors give fascinating lectures and lead really interesting conversations. Most of them know my name/have formed some kind of relationship with me. And there are definitely some kids here who are only learning to get ahead in life, and some who aren’t even bothering to do that, but most people here are here because they love learning, and that just completely rocks.
Lectures were great. Yale students have lots of intellectual conversations, in and outside of class. Some professors are accessable. It's hard to get a well-paying job after most majors unless it's in computer science.. Most other majors lead to a life of academia or social services. If you're having a tough time, there are TAs you can meet with and even math and writing tutors in each dorm. Students aren't very competitive, but they are all smart, so you'd better do your best. We're mostly competing with ourselves, unless you plan on going to another school afterwards such as law school or med school. The requirements are fine. You get a wide variety of subjects and topics. I enjoyed all the literature, psychology, English, history and so forth although I never did that well in them. I'm not into science, but I didn't have to take any since I was already taking lots of math and computer science classes.
Classes are very very hit or miss. I've taken two classes that have been mind-blowingly good: small seminars with David Bromwich and Charles Hill, two veritable legends, where there was great intellectual stimulation every day. And I've even had some great lectures: David Scott Kastan's Shakespeare class springs to mind as a class that really brought the lecture format to life. But many other classes are very uninspired; I've had horrible experiences with math and language, which are commonly cited as poor spots. And there are onorous requirements... I think Yale has great classes if you are committed to the humanities (English, Literature, Art History, Architecture, Fine Arts, German Studies, History, all incredible) and are aggressive about getting into the seminars you want, but there are a lot of people who walk away with very little from their classes.
I think that the class sizes here are pretty good. I was surprised, though, because I expected them to be smaller than my classes in high school, but they aren't. I think that there is a wide range, as there would be at any school, of how often students study. I know some people that don't do any work, while others never go out. The nice thing about Yale is that I have not run into anyone who is really competitive. Everyone shares notes and helps each other out whenever possible. I think that Yale's academic requirements are becoming a little too strict. I definitely think that a Yale education is more about learning for the sake of learning. However, the skills that you pick up along the way are extremely useful for any type of work you will encounter after graduation.
People always ask me if Yale is harder or easier than high school. Answer: it's different. At Yale, we take 4-5 classes on average per semester, which is much less than in high school. We're in class for less time than in high school. But the expectations are different. There is rarely attendance in class - you either go or you don't; the responsibility is yours. While Yale is challenging, I think that every students feels the ability to succeed. There are incredible resources to help each student succeed--from deans to peer advisers to faculty advisers, it's very unlikely you'll fall through the cracks here. Everyone here wants everyone else to succeed, and that provides a great academic environment.
Know my name? Yup. Favourite class? ENGL 114, with Alfred Guy. Least favourite: Chinese L1/Introduction to Cog Sci. Students study all the time, are you kidding? Students don't shut up in class. Intellectual conversations? The common Yalie code-switches from brilliant to mindless to brilliant again in the blink of an eye. Competitive? Like their lives depended on it. Although it depends. I try to avoid those types. Unique class? History of Sexuality. My major: UNDECIDED. Professors? Sometimes. Distributional requirements are like parents. You hate them, but actually they make you into a man/woman. Education? I-BANKING or GRAD SCHOOL, take your pic.