Off the charts

Three years ago, I received my first piece of advice about how to survive at Williams from a family friend who was familiar with my future alma mater: “Most people won’t know what Williams is, but the people who’ll really matter for your future, they will.”

As an Early Decision applicant, I fielded that dreaded question – “Williams? Never heard of it. Where is that?” – for months. I finally have the answer down pat, sticking to your basic: “It’s a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts.” Sometimes, it’s hard to weather that complete lack of familiarity when I talk about the place that I’ve called home for the last three years.

Now, I know you know what I’m talking about. In the Facebook groups for incoming Ephs, I’ve seen the posts bemoaning yet another William & Mary mix-up, the jubilant anecdotes of (finally) meeting another Eph and the gleeful sharing of this year’s such-and-such collegiate rankings, with Williams (yet again) on top. When the Forbes list came out this summer, dropping Williams to No. 9, Ephs of all stripes were quick to question the validity of the system behind the rankings, a cry rarely sounded when we were always No. 1.

Many of us seem to share this compulsion to prove Williams’ worth, to grab the concrete proof of rankings and accolades to convince the people beyond the purple bubble that what happens here is valuable, that our time here matters. I get it.

But I’m here to ask you to stop. Let go of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Put down the Forbes list, and step away from the Princeton Review.

For most of us, getting to Williams was hard. We have been chasing success long before we even arrived for First Days, years before we learned about “effortless perfection.” And for many of us, being at Williams is still hard. We continue to stay up late, wake up early and fight for our place in this community and for our future beyond its walls. We extol the College’s virtues, backing up our claims with that No. 1 ranking, and sometimes, it feels like the lady doth protest just a little bit too much.

For those of us who come from families and communities that have never heard of Williams, the rankings are important. They validate the sacrifices we have made. They justify the losses incurred when we leave our hometowns for the unknown. In fact, for those of us from high schools that were not focused on preparing students for places like Williams, the rankings are all the more valuable. Those No. 1s explain a decision that often seems inexplicable to those we leave behind.

That advice I received years ago, about Williams’ quiet prestige, might make sense, but it isn’t totally true. Sometimes, the people who really do matter – our families, our friends, our old teachers, our neighbors – just won’t understand Williams. The rankings, the lists, the No. 1s are as much a consolation prize as an explanation, and for that reason, they’re important to many of us.

But we have to let them go.

It’ll be hard, the first time you bite your tongue instead of responding to the question, “What’s good at your school?” with, “Everything, since we’re the No. 1 liberal arts college in the country…” (I’ve actually heard that one before.) You’ll bristle when the kid from back home who went to an Ivy League university is loftily praised. It will sting when Williams is mistaken for a community college, yet again.

That’s okay.

We will learn so much during our four years here. There will be struggles and successes. We will make mistakes, and we will have our victories. Friends will be made, and we’ll keep many of them for years to come. We will be better for having been here. Williams will challenge us. At times, we will feel out of sync with the Williams ideal. Some days, we will feel that we have failed and that we don’t deserve our place here. But we will also know moments of great joy, as we connect with these people and this place.

What we get out of our experiences here cannot, and should not, be summed up by a list. We cannot rank our Williams experience. And when we do, when we rely on numbers to signify value, we fail ourselves.

After Williams, you will be interviewed for a job and your resume will be met with a complete lack of recognition. You will move to a new city, and your new friends will have no way of understanding where you have come from. Your family and your neighbors and your friends from back home, they still won’t totally understand why you left, why you went to Williams. But you cannot spend the rest of your life invoking a ranking to explain the value of your experience here.

The person you will become during your time here will justify your decision to go to a school that, it sometimes seems, is only known by those who’ve attended it. If you treat Williams like a golden ticket, like a stepping stone onto greater and bigger (and wealthier) things, you will be disappointed each and every time someone fails to recognize your value because they can’t locate your alma mater on a map. Some years Williams won’t be No. 1. But if you focus on the bigger picture, if you frame Williams’ value in terms of the experiences you had and the people you met and the life you led, the value of this degree can’t depreciate.

You are worth more than the ranking, and there is more to Williams than the number one.

Kate Flanagan ’14 is a history and comparative literature double major from New Bern, N.C. She lives in Wood.

  • Alexandra Ting

    Kate,
    Such a great article that rings true in every respect. Studying abroad with all Cornell students this semester is tough in many of the ways you described, but I think humility and personal pride create a long-term satisfaction that isn’t reached when I brag about us being number one, haha. Great jobbb!

  • Guy Creese ’75

    I work in high tech. After you get your first job, no one cares about your GPA or what college you went to. They do care that you’re smart, well-read, can write well, collaborate well, and don’t hog the credit. So you’re right — the #1 ranking is nice, but the fact that Williams graduates smart and thoughtful people is the more important thing.

  • DK

    I agree that it is important for us to learn to live without the rankings, and to try and ignore or even eliminate that pang of jealousy that many of us feel when people swoon over someone else’s big name university. Now that we’re here, we recognize that the last things that make Williams great are its ranking on some lists. However, I think that the reason many of us cling to them isn’t just that they validate our choices to others, but because when we were first making what seemed like the life changing choice of school, the rankings were the way that we explained our choice to ourselves. I don’t mean that we chose Williams over Amherst or Wesleyan or Harvard because they were below us on Forbes, but instead that we were looking at this specific pool of schools because of the quality of the education they were reported to give their students. So asking someone at Williams to give up mentioning or thinking about the rankings isn’t just asking them to forgo the praise or understanding of various people, but also to give up one of the main reasons that they even looked at Williams in the first place. It also means that they must stop thinking about the reason that many future highschoolers will care about Williams, and how many future employers will view our resumes. This article is great in that it points out with which parts of Williams we should concern ourselves the most, but I also think that it understates why rankings might be so hard to let go of.