As promised, I’m launching a new series called Forthcoming, featuring candid conversations about college, finding jobs/internships after college, and everything in between.
To kick off the series, I interviewed Shayley Martin, a rising junior who studies linguistics with me at Yale. She grew up in Floyd, Virginia. Some of her notable pre-Yale accomplishments include being a Scripps National Spelling Bee Semi Finalist and the winner of the Johns Hopkins Creative Minds Contest Fiction Contest in 2015.
Shayley is one of the smartest people I know and one of my closest friends. These days, she works on linguistics research projects including the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, a project that documents variation in North American English. She also teaches ESL.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you up to before college? What extracurriculars did you write on your college applications?
I did quizbowl like MACC (Mountain Academic Competition Conference)–that was supposed to be an extracurricular, but it was not a big thing at our school. So I did not spend a whole lot of time on that. I also did Scholastic Bowl, and I volunteered at several places.
I studied a lot of languages for what the teachers at my high school were used to. Kids at my school just didn’t do that very often, so my teacher was just like, what are you doing??
SP: It sounds like you self-studied a lot without formal structures (like clubs) to give you a designated space to write about it. How did that work make it into your applications?
I studied Spanish by myself for a while, so I was able to skip a couple of years of that. I think I also skipped a couple years of French that way. Chinese I studied by myself, so I was able to just take Chinese online. I kind of already knew the stuff. I was just doing it to get credit for what I’d already learned. Basically I just took/skipped classes so I would get credit.
So what things do you think actually did help for college?
Oh, I have no earthly idea what they actually liked all these things. I feel like the National Spelling Bee was probably part of it because that’s the only like, big thing I ever participated in.
Perhaps the Johns Hopkins Creative Minds Contest Fiction Contest.
My sister submitted this question: what advice do you have for a person who’s introverted and worried about making friends in college?
Well, I don’t know if I’m the person to ask because I’m not one of those people that knows everybody.
SP: That’s why she wanted to ask you. Cuz she is also that type of person. Like it doesn’t help her to ask me because she won’t do the things that I did. And my advice to her would not be really helpful, so I guess the other part of the question is where did you make your friends? Or like, what activities were more conducive to making friends? Like, if I were to answer the question, I would be like, Oh, well, it’s kind of hard to make friends and classes. And so it’s easier to make friends in Bible study, or like it’s easier to make friends in clubs in which you have to work with people to do something.
Well, those things are true. I realized that I would actually have to put effort into making friends. Back home, I lived in the same place my whole life. The people around me were always there, and I took for granted that I knew people.
But then in college, I was like, oh, sometimes I will be tired and not want to spend time with people, but I should spend time around people because otherwise, I won’t get to know them. Like you’ll be burned out from homework and stuff, but you still will probably need to extend yourself a little bit socially, unfortunately.
You have to volunteer information about yourself, which I found weird. Again, in Floyd, everybody just knows things about everybody. Or if you want to know something you just ask, but then like, college people would just walk up to each other and start talking about themselves just unsolicited and you’re expected to do the same thing.
Did you feel a big gap between your experience in public school and classes at Yale?
My high school was probably a little different than other people’s high schools. They did the best they could, but the farthest you could go was the first part of calculus unless you were willing to self study for the last semester of high school without any help.There wasn’t really AP English or anything like that (unless you want to take it online by yourself). There’s not a lot a ways to get really good at essay writing or get high up in math with that kind of thing.
High school and college classes are just very different. Because for high school, I hardly had to read anything ever. I was kind of afraid to ask what I was really supposed to do because I didn’t have to do any serious research papers in high school, so I would just spend way too much time on even little assignments early in college because I didn’t know what the expectations were. I should have just asked the professor how much time I should have been spending on it. Like, how deep into this do you expect me to get?
Also if the teacher wants you to know something [in high school], the teacher would just tell you, but in college, that’s not how it works. You have to scavenge for information and can’t always believe what people tell you about whether you’re allowed to do something or not.
For example, right now, I’m trying to sign up for a course that turns out to be a graduate course. So I emailed the professor, and he was like, “Nope, sorry.” But then I emailed the registrar, and they were like, “Give him this information and check back.”
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have known to email the registrar. If the prof had been like, “You can’t take this class,” I would have been like, “okay, I can’t take this class.” In high school, if a teacher said you couldn’t do something, you couldn’t do it. But in college, often, that’s just not the case. You just have to know who to email or what to do to advocate for yourself.
SP: What would you suggest to somebody if they don’t know when they should/shouldn’t email or who they should email? How do you go about finding that information?
I still don’t really know this, but I usually just ask an older person or somebody my age who’s generally more willing to email and better at getting answers out of professors.
You’re really involved with YGDP, how did you get into that?
Before I started college, I found it because I was looking up some kind of grammatical construction. That’s just what popped up. I emailed them to see if I could come to one of the meetings, and they were like real eager about it. They really like getting students involved in research.
SP: I know you do research/write stuff for them. You even do interviews in your home community for sentence judgments and things like that. How do you go from attending one meeting to actually writing and getting really involved with research?
Well, I didn’t ask to join research or any of the particular papers that they were writing? I just went this one day to a meeting. Professor Jim Wood was talking about this one construction, he was researching. And he was like, “but people can’t say stuff like blah blah blah.”
And I was like, “then why have I heard people saying that ever since I was little?” So then he had me collect some data back home so that he could look at those sentences too.
Do you have any recommendations for what to look for when choosing classes?
You find it in the pre-registration list, and you got to make sure it’s not capped. If it is capped, you’ve got to email the professor and sound excited about the class–add some exclamation points, I guess.
SP: When you’re sitting in a class during shopping period, what signs tell you that a class will be good or bad?
If I already don’t know what’s going on, it’s gonna be bad. Just kidding. I don’t usually shop a class and think ‘Oh, this is bad, there’s no way anybody can enjoy this.’ I just think other people seem to have a knowledge base that I do not. Or I realize that I thought I wanted to learn about this in detail but even the amount of detail the professor has given in the first hour that I’m hearing about it ever in my life is too much detail for me.
SP: Going back to that knowledge base thing, I wonder if part of that is the preparation gap between students with different high school backgrounds. Would you recommend against taking classes when you feel like other people have prior knowledge and you don’t?
That’s kind of tricky, some classes say you do not need prior knowledge. But I walked in there and everybody has prior knowledge. That’s a little sketch. But you should probably take it. In general, don’t be scared off because sometimes people are really good at bs-ing. I didn’t realize that when I first got to school. So they might not actually have a knowledge base.
What do you wish you knew before starting college?
I wish somebody would told me to adjust my sleep schedule beforehand.
Because in high school, I went to bed at like 10:30 and got up at 6:00. I just would do that through the summer too. Then I got to college, and people would go to bed at five in the morning. That’s just how people’s lives worked. People would be texting you early in the morning expecting you to respond. And things would happen late in the night, and people would expect you to know what happened. And I would be like, No, I was asleep. I sleep from ten to six. I don’t sleep from ten to six anymore.
Any advice for high school students applying for college?
Okay, well, we probably covered this, but I don’t really know why they let me in. But like, I did not really spend my whole high school career with a jillion different extracurriculars. I just did a few things that I was actually interested in. So I guess that can work.
“Rules aren’t really rules”
As Shayley said, there are policies that seem like rules that really aren’t. While there isn’t a foolproof way to figure out what those things are, reach out to people who are older than you and even professors to ask. As is the case with many things in life, communication is key!
If something seems off, speak up!
It’s easy to think that you don’t have anything to contribute especially if everyone is older/more experienced than you. But your context has gives you a unique perspective with which you analyze problems. Shayley spoke up in the YGDP meeting, and she started collaborating with our Director of Undergraduate studies on a research paper.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that, but do trust yourself! You don’t start as a blank slate in college. Your prior experience still counts even if it’s different than what you’re doing now.
You don’t need to do everything in high school!
While not everyone has the talent/capacity to study multiple languages in high school, a big takeaway is that you don’t have to spend your time leading/participating in a bunch of clubs you don’t care about in order to get into college. If there’s something you’re really passionate about, do that thing to the fullest.
Shayley’s interview is the first of what I hope will be many interviews with people reflecting on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!