How My First Name Got Me Into Yale. Maybe.

If you’re reading this because of the title: Hooray, it worked!
Anyway, click-bait aside, I’m starting this post half-convinced that first-letter-of-name discrimination is a real issue that deserves attention.
In the following investigation, I will attempt to uncover whether names that start with the letter “A” are more common at Yale than they ought to be. This isn’t as ridiculous a premise as it sounds–thanks to the “implicit egotism” effect, our names can have a surprising impact on where we end up in life. (Though these results are still highly contentious.)
I won’t give away the result here, but you can skip to the bottom of the page for my conclusion.


Two years ago, I began to notice that there are a lot of “A” names at Yale. I’d count the names in any room where I knew most of them (ignoring my own), and the average was about one in eight.
There are 26 letters, so this seems excessive. On the other hand, three of those letters are Q, X, and Z. Plus, a lot of parents might pick the first name in the baby book just to get it over with, like mine did. 
(Just kidding, Mom and Dad! I think.)

I’m a statistics nerd, so a few months ago, I decided to confirm my intuition with Yale Facebook, which allows you to sort every undergraduate student by first name. I won’t list all 26 letters here, but I’ve looked at all the letters that also stand for American report card grades. If those with “A” names get more As in school, maybe more of us get into Yale?
What I found implied that something sketchy was happening. Here are the numbers:
Aaditya Tolappa ’16 to Azzah Hyder ’16: 75 pages at 9 people per page, plus 7 more people on page 76, gives us 682 “A” names. There are 5476 people listed on Yale Facebook, so that means about 682/5476 = 12.45% of Yalies have “A” names.
Baher Iskander ’16 to B(accented “a”)rbara Santiago ’17: 195 “B” names, or 3.56%.
Caitlin Cromwell ’15 to Cyrus Shahabi ’14: 415 “C” names, or 7.58%.
D’amani Grayer ’17 to Dzelia Siljak ’16: 291 “D” names, or 5.31%.
F.C. Kahoe ’15 to Fryda Guedes ’14: 55 “F” names, or a meager 1%.
This handy collection of census data shows that, as of 2000, “A” names accounted for about 5.86% of the U.S. population, “B” names 4.18%, “C” names 6.50%, “D” names 6.66%, and “F” names 1.57%. So at Yale, “A” names seem to be wildly overrepresented, but most other letters track their population percentages rather closely.
Here’s another measurement of first initials, this time selected from 4500 employees of a software company–more homogenous, but still a lot of data. “A” names are about 6.1%, “B” names 6.5%, “C” names 7.5%, “D” names 8.2%, and “F” names 1%. Very similar, and with a more relevant age distribution: this is data from 2011, and measures people who range in age from about 21 to 65.
So is Yale discriminating? Or could there be another explanation? Today, I’ll be finishing the investigation, to see if I can absolve Yale of this terrible statistical crime.


Things that could be throwing us off:
  • The census data I found was collected from an all-U.S. population. However, only about 12% of Yale students are from outside the U.S., and they hail from all over the world. I see no good reason to expect that those names are systematically biased.
  • The data was also based on an all-ages population in the year 2000. Naming trends change over the years—maybe Yale’s just keeping up with the times? If we look at the most popular names for 1955 vs. 1975 vs. 1995… well, hold on a moment.
In 1955, there were no “A” names in the top 40 for either gender. Not Andrew, not Ashley, not Alice, not anything. But in 1975, there were eight “A” names in the top 40, and in 1995 (the Yale classes of 2017 and 2018), there were thirteen! 
We may have our smoking gun. However, I’m going to check Yale’s scores against a few other colleges to see if the trend holds. If an “A” name is the mark of an elite student (in the eyes of a typical college), schools that aren’t as selective should have fewer of them, proportionally.
To test this theory, I looked at some open Facebook groups for students at Syracuse (#123 on the Forbes “top colleges” list), Quinnipiac (#261), and Drexel (#364). All three schools accept more than 50% of their applicants, compared to 6.8% for Yale.
The results:
Syracuse University Class of 2014 = 408 “A” names out of 3769 members = 10.83%. Smaller!         
Quinnipiac University Class of 2015 = 137/1152 = 11.89%. Pretty close…
Drexel University Class of 2014 and 2016 = 204/1741 = 12.29%. Almost the same.
I also checked the Center for Talented Youth group—alumni of a selective summer program, who tend to attend selective schools. (Harvard, Princeton and Stanford didn’t have open groups I could easily check.) There are 495 “A” names in the 4236-member group, or 11.69%.
And finally, there’s the Yale class of 1991, with 24 “A” names in 279 members, or 8.63%. A small sample size, but one more result in favor of the “names these days all start with ‘A'” theory.     


The initial difference from census data seems to be a generational thing. My parents weren’t lazy—they were trendy!

Things I still wish I knew:
  • Why has the letter “A” become so dramatically popular in the last 50 years? It’s twice as common for modern-day college students as for the population as a whole, and the same doesn’t seem to be true for “B”, “C”, “D”, or “F”. Have we become obsessed with alphabetical order? Has letter grading become more prevalent in schools?
  • Does an unusual letter help you get to college? Yale has 60 “Z” names, ten times the rate of the 2000 census, though half of those seem to be “Zachary”, a name which was unranked in 1975, 39th in 1985, and 13th in 1995. 
  • Which letters are less popular nowadays, compensating for the dramatic rise of “A”?
  • Is there any naming difference in the non-college-student population of 18-22-year-olds? Maybe “C” names, drawn to alliteration, wind up in community college.

And finally: Have similar trends been happening in other countries? Is the letter “A” taking over the world? If so, that just makes me especially well-suited to be king, though I may have to battle Aaditya for the crown.


Addendum: “A” Ascending

Years later, I found this graph that validates my original conclusion:

Name Graph

Source: University of Chicago


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