What does it mean to be the best?: An alum considers the relative importance of admission criteria

The mission of Williams is to be the best in the world.

“Best” means two things: First, we want the most academically talented students. Second, we want those students to thrive at the College more than they would at an alternative institution. If one ignores the second criterion and focuses on student quality, we are not the best college in the world today.

The average SAT section score for the Class of 2020 is about 720. At Macalester and Wesleyan, it is 690. At Yale and Princeton, it is about 750. Macalester and Wesleyan are fine schools. Yet every Eph considers Williams, correctly, to be a cut above – not because our dining hall food is tastier, our professors are more learned or our facilities are more sumptuous, but because our students are smarter.

Yet that same reasoning applies to Yale/Princeton relative to us. A 30-point difference in the score on a single SAT might not seem like much. Can anyone really say that an applicant that scored 750 is meaningfully “smarter” than one who scored 720? But, to the extent that we think that the quality of the College’s student body is better than that of Macalester/Wesleyan, we need to admit that it is worse than that of Yale/Princeton. As long as that is true, we will never be the best college in the world.

Note that this judgment does not depend on using only the (potentially flawed) metric of SAT scores. Williams is worse than Yale/Princeton and better than Macalester/Wesleyan on any reasonable measure of academic performance, whether that be the ACT, SAT II Subject Tests, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, high school grades, teacher recommendations and so on. Elite schools rank applicants using, more or less, the same criteria. SAT scores are a handy, and public, summary statistic which demonstrates the relative quality of our student body.

The Williams admissions process is both complex and opaque but, broadly speaking, admitted students can be placed in two categories: academic and other. “Academic” admits are students who were admitted primarily for academic reasons. “Other” admits have scores/grades that would have led to rejection if it were not for some special attribute. The vast majority of “other” admits fall into three categories: athletics, race and income. In aggregate, they make up about one-half of each incoming class. In order to create a Williams with students as smart as those at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford (HYPS), we need to replace about 100 of these “other” admits with “academic” admits.

First, we need to loosen the admissions goal for international students, which is currently at 8 percent. Besides the problematic morality of a policy that is indistinguishable from the Jewish quotas implemented by elite colleges a century ago, treating an (English-fluent) applicant born in Shanghai differently from one born in St. Louis makes little sense. The best college in the world will have the best students, regardless of the color of their passports.

Second, we need to significantly decrease the admissions preferences given to athletes. The College has been decreasing these preferences for 15 years. Despite much grumbling from coaches and predictions of mediocrity from fans, the Director’s Cup trophies continue to roll in. It turns out that Williams coaches are excellent recruiters even when admissions standards are raised. Let’s raise them some more.

Third, we should decrease the preferences given to under-represented minorities (URM) and to students from low income families. Of course, there are scores of such students with top-notch academic credentials. They would still be admitted and, eagerly, enrolled. But, given a choice between a URM or poor student with a 620 SAT average and a non-URM (perhaps an Asian-American?) or non-poor student (perhaps the middle class child of public high school teachers?) with a 770 average, we should prefer the academically more talented applicant.

Fourth, we need to recruit more seriously. The number of Tyng Scholarships should be increased and their use should be focused on the most desirable applicants, almost all of whom will be African-American. Rather than offering them for incoming first-years, we should use the Summer Science Program and Summer Humanities and Social Sciences Program to target highquality poor and URM high school juniors, potential applicants that we currently lose to HYPS. Senior faculty at the College should devote as much effort to attracting excellent students as our coaches do to recruiting excellent student-athletes.

A Williams whose student quality matched Yale’s would be halfway to meeting its mission of being the best college in the world. Such a Williams, at least in the short-term, would have about as many URM students as Middlebury, as many Pell Grant recipients as Colby and athletic team winning records similar to Hamilton’s. That seems a reasonable trade-off.

David Kane ’88 lives in Newton, Mass.

Comments (18)

  1. David:


    I would like to raise a few points. My first points are a defense of current practices at Williams in response to your article. My latter points are a critique of Williams.

    The goal of any Admissions team at a highly ranked college is to create a microcosm of the larger world within the confines of a college town, while satisfying as many constituents as possible: alumni, faculty, trustees, donors, etc. The Admissions process is inherently one of stress-filled optimization.

    Furthermore, Williams has long stated that its mission is to provide the best undergraduate learning and teaching experience. Notice that the mission is not to plop the finest book and test smart students in the world into the Purple Valley. Williams has long understood learning to involve both intellectual and extracurricular endeavor, and the best way to foster this continuum of learning is by admitting students from a wide range of backgrounds (some of whom do not perform exceptionally well on conventional tests).

    By simply admitting the finest book and test smart students of the world, Williams would be fundamentally changing its philosophy of education and learning, and even its mission of providing the best undergraduate learning and teaching experience.

    You mention that the College should loosen the Admission goal for international students. Development professionals in the prep school and private college world have long known and recognized that international students, by and large, do not donate to the school after they graduate. Many of the finest prep schools cap the number of international students for precisely that reason.

    The cultural practice of life-long loyalty and generosity to an alma mater is largely a Western tradition. If Williams were to dramatically increase the number of International students on campus, the long-term consequence, according to decades of data, would be a concomitant decline in alumni donation participation.

    I would say that one thing that hurts the academic quality of Williams and its ability to recruit the most academically gifted students in the world is the absence of an engineering curriculum on campus. Very few students who have their hearts set on MIT are the least bit enticed by Williams.

    You speak of wanting Williams to increase the number of talented international students on campus. All across Asia and the Middle East, the engineering degree is the most sought after undergraduate degree by the top students.

    Trinity College in Hartford has a long established engineering program on campus which is ABET accredited. Williams would be very wise to establish its own engineering program, and open the program when the new Math and Science facility opens.

    It is academic malfeasance for any college, even liberal arts, to lack an on-campus and comprehensive engineering program in the years ahead in our technologically driven and dependent society.

    Why do so many Williams students flock to consulting and finance, which, by and large, are highly un-creative, even boring and mindless fields, thus becoming corporate drones? They lack the hard technical skills provided by a solid engineering program which would enable them to become true and creative thought leaders in Silicon Valley and in the high-tech manufacturing world.

    Thus, many Williams students resign themselves to the largely mindless (Excel spreadsheets vs. CAD design and innovation) and inhuman world of high finance.

    Williams would do well to reflect on the educational philosophy of L.L. Nunn, the Founder of Deep Springs College. In my opinion, the Deep Springs academic program is the finest in the world, as testified by its truly incredible and deep course offerings for such a small college. L.L. Nunn sought to develop students who were hard-working, resilient, creative, practically oriented thought leaders, capable of giving back and serving society, not using society to serve themselves. L.L. Dunn disdained money-making for the sake of money-making.

    Too many Williams students, due to the lack of hard technical skills they need in a modern technological era, are forced to into organizations fundamentally using society to serve themselves (investment banks, private equity firms, etc), rather than harnessing their own creativity (buttressed and honed by hard technical skills) to create new organizations which fundamentally uplift society to new heights (think of Elon Musk and SpaceX/Tesla).

    I would say the Williams curriculum is extremely behind the times and so impractical as to be academic malfeasance, and thus produces far to many smiling and mindless Gordon Gekkos than it does Elon Musks. Elon Musk learned technical skills on his own, but most cannot.

    Just look how many Williams students rush around on campus racing from one finance and consulting interview to the next. Is this success? No, it is the path of least resistance, the broad way, so to speak, as Williams, by and large, does not equip students with hard technical skills, and thus afford them the tools to forge their own paths.

    Just look at the Williams trustees. Zero come from engineering backgrounds.

    It is truly sad that most Williams students aspire to become the next hedge fund titan rather than Elon Musk.

    Life is too short to aim low, but most Williams students are forced to aim low due to a fundamental lack of technical education.

  2. This is absurd. Academics is one piece of Williams admissions, and creating a diverse community is far more important than having a few extra points added to the average SAT score.

    Also, alumni should focus on how to use their education to help others, not how to increase the selectivity of the college. College is over, everyone knows you went to a good school, and now you have to prove yourself with your post graduate accomplishments. Move on.

  3. From one alumn to another:

    This is ignorant.

  4. I’m an alum and proud that Williams is more diverse than it was when I was on campus. One of the best and most useful things Williams taught me was how to think about complex issues and see past narrow metrics like standardized test scores. The author of this piece clearly missed that lesson.

  5. This is so myopic and cramped in defining “best” (or “smartest”) … intellectually flaccid.

    What an absurd piece of tripe.

    1. http://williamsrecord.com/2014/05/07/class-of-2018-yields-45-7-percent/


      It is also fundamentally flawed. He needs to stop pretending Williams is in competition with places like Harvard. The numbers prove Williams is not.

      One of the primary required factors for this hypothesis to work is that people with highest scores who are admitted will attend. That assumption is not valid. Williams has a much lower yield than more competitive schools. Much lower.

      The higher the scores, the more likely it is that students will choose another school over Williams.

      In order for this argument to make sense, a large % of highest scoring applicants would have to choose to go to Williams.

      It does not matter how many perfect scores you admit, if they don’t choose Williams.

      The numbers clearly indicate:

      Williams 40-45% admit yield (constantly over time, with admit 17% of applicants)

      Harvard 80-85% admit yield (constantly over time, with admit 6% of applicants)

      People often (over half of your applicants who are admitted) use Williams as a safety. David’s hypothesis does not work because of this fact. For his argument to be valid one would have to have yield numbers that point to a pattern of highest scoring students attending…

      You admit those “hundreds of AR1s rejected” the most significant number change would be your yield… not your scores. Your yield would be lower…

      1. I think you’re overgeneralizing a bit. Individual decisions aren’t necessarily explicable by numbers.

        For example, I didn’t want to go to college in a city, so I’d have chosen Williams over Harvard (but I didn’t apply to Harvard because I had no interest).

        It is harder to convince people to head to a small school in the boonies but I’m not sure there’s as little overlap as you make out (and of course, Harvard’s much larger). Cheers.

        1. Mr Neutron- Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that this “scores centric” or “AR centric” hypothesis that the author makes is valid. “The best” at this level of academic and extracurricular excellence is largely subjective, and also a function of where an individual candidate has a better feel for an academic space.

          But if we do accept the assertion made here by Mr. Kane in this article- that AR ratings are what mostly matter for excellence- then you would have to also assume that you are competing with places that drastically beat your numbers- places like Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech, University of Chicago, Yale, Princeton, etc.. In such. realm, the realm of “all that matters is AR, you clearly are not able to compete with the top six or seven schools. Those schools have a much larger draw, and also, every “exception” that is bemoaned in this article (Tips, Legacy, background admissions) etc has a much lower impact on the bigger (and more competitive to get into) powerhouses like Harvard.

          You would never be able to compete in such a space unless you almost completely disregarded anything other than scores and grades- which would lead to a drastic imbalance in the population in terms of specific background, especially national background and race.

          It’s a bogus hypothesis on a number of levels, but most of all because Williams never has been able to compete with Harvard in terms of AR acceptance numbers- and if you tried, you would create something- but it would not be diverse and it would not be athletic. It would not be Williams.

          People choose Williams because it is Williams. Pretending that a drastic change in the philosophy and culture of an institution will automatically make it more competitive, and hence more attractive to “better” students in the future, is a dangerously false assumption.

          Williams would not be Williams if what this author suggests was done.

  6. This entire argument would have more merit if its basis weren’t how the SAT scores of Williams students stack against other *elite* schools.

    Ask instead if Williams’ admissions quota for low-income, underrepresented, and international students match the institution’s ability and desire to welcome, support, and meet their needs. I’m a recent alum, and I watched a lot of friends from a variety of backgrounds struggle and be deeply sad for much of our time at Williams, and for all of the benefits we all accrued through our education, I’m still not sure. Obviously strife is part of growing up, and we can’t blame everything on the institution, but the particular brand of stress and suffering felt by those who don’t quite fit the bill at Williams seems related to intrinsic properties of the college and its culture. Perhaps the reason is that that Williams was until very recently an elite, white men’s college, and has been doubling down for 50 years on diversifying its student body without doing meaningful institutional development to match? Maybe because it is geographically isolated and surrounded by contrastingly poor and struggling communities, emphasizing, for those of us from similar places, the social distance created by Williams between us and our origins? Maybe because as students we are treated like investment products in service of the school’s Cthulhuan endowment, even as many of us and our families are still struggling with the various costs of going to school? I’m not sure. Obviously, I am speaking from my own experience; I don’t claim to speak for everyone, and certainly know students from much less well-represented, much more adverse backgrounds than mine who had no such qualms about Williams, as well as many whose struggles at school were far less generalized, in some cases damn specific. Such is the nature of individuality. Still, something isn’t right at that school right now, and it isn’t that our test scores are lower: I think it is the disparity between Wiliams’ quotas, which seem to exist more to maintain attractive statistics and an image of inclusivity, and the lived reality of going to school there as someone who is not a historically typical Williams student.

    The question isn’t whether the students at Williams deserve to be there. Even if your acceptance counts favorably for one of the school’s admissions initiatives, if you applied and got in, you are obviously unique, driven, and deserving of the opportunity to see what knowledge, relationships, and benefits an education there can bring you. Because the education, for all of its issues, is excellent. The question is whether something can be done to correctly identify and correct the imbalances I have postulated here.

    Maybe there is something to be said about eschewing “excellence” in favor of giving the already excellent international, poor, first gen, and minoritized students at Williams space to just be people, rather than quota-satisfying representatives of attractively non-American non-white non-rich non-learned etc identities, or four-year customers in eternal debt to the reputation of our institution.

    Thanks to the author for bringing up some interesting ideas; perhaps the idea of de-emphasizing quotas has some merits, and I’ll have to think longer on what it would mean to shrink athletic admissions before jumping to agree. I won’t dismiss this entire piece offhand as rubbish, and still need to process some of the ideas presented here. But, a hard “no thanks” to the underlying, and frankly reactionary, premise that test scores are an adequate metric to measure a student’s worth, or that maintaining selectivity and institutional rankings can actually make a school a better place to learn. It’s way more complicated than that.

  7. That sound you hear is the collective facepalm of an entire alumni community. Because nothing says “Top Liberal Arts College in the Nation” like a blinkered, pedantic, wrongheaded proposal to fix an admissions process that no one believes is broken. Editors: You know that you’re under no obligation to print this stuff, right?

  8. This is absurd. Williams has never been chasing “#1” in a quantitative way. Williams has been chasing a high quality education, relationships between students and professors, and a student body that leaves Williams more prepared for the world than when it entered. A diverse student body – with kids from Shanghai, lower-income communities, athletes, etc- does just that. Pres Falk has been saying this, Morty said this, etc. If some random magazine choose to call Williams #1, we guess that’s fine. We won’t be judged by the rankings of decades ago, we’ll be judged by the impact Williams alums have in the world – just look at the recent bicentennial medals as proof that we’re doing something right.

    + what everyone else said below.

    1. Williams most certainly has been chasing #1. The US News ranking matter to the school- a lot.

      Williams has a bit of a “small man” complex. This article points that out.

      It is only hard to read because it rings true.

      Now on to the next construction site where we get to see the Williams Edifice complex on full display!

      Will you Ephs ever stop building things to prove how great you are?


  9. We have nine Supreme Court justices- they went to Yale or Harvard Law School. All of them!

    Stop trying to compete with Harvard, Yale and Princeton, University of Chicago… etc.etc.. It is not the same field of play- it is like trying to compete with Ohio State in athletics- IN EVERY SPORT. You do not have the people or the resources to compete on a stage where schools also offer the best grad programs in the world. Think about it.

    Williams is the best small liberal arts college in the world… or at least one of the best. That is what it is. It’s not big enough to compete with a place like Harvard- that has a Law School, a Medical School, and it’s Harvard… it’s not going to happen! Dartmouth cannot compete with HYP either. It is too small!

    But it can do smaller things better.

    Although Kane will never admit it- Dartmouth is the ivy that Williams is competing against. Small, focused, rural… etc.

    Dartmouth is harder to get into than Williams. Kane competing against HYP jumps a bunch of tiers. The fact is that Dartmouth is better than Williams if you use Kane’s metrics. Dartmouth also has Tuck, and a really good medical school- Dartmouth has a hospital.

    Williams could get a hospital and teach medicine, but it will not.

    This is not the same league. Of course the people that bleed purple do not like to admit that. But it’s true. When was the last time you picked up a common textbook for any subject written by a Williams professor? Never!

    The Ivy League is not the same league.

  10. This misunderstands the purpose of education in our country. it is about the common good, not a machine to sort students into boxes based on a single, very flawed test.

  11. What a terribly short sited, uninformed, and frankly unhelpful opinion. As someone who has worked in education during and after my time at Williams, it is clear to me that David does not have an understanding or appropriate training to be making judgements about what makes rich, powerful learning communities. What experience and research tells us is that diversity is a key driver of such multifaceted learning communities. The fact is that David benefited from that richness despite his close mindedness and inability to acknowledge what he gained from having others whose strength they brought to the community lay only in part in academics. Because let’s be real here, even those who are admitted in the “other” category are academically capable individuals, but they also bring Williams other gifts and talents. Creativity, athleticism, grit, perspective, humor, passion, purpose. As someone who frankly fit both the academic and the other category, I don’t know which one got me into Williams, nor do I care. But I do know that I had friends and classmates who were stronger academically who I learned from, and who learned from me. And ones who’s atheletic talent and ability to juggle two high endeavor pursuits simultaneously I learned from. And ones who’s struggles in a world foreign to my own whom I learned from. I sincerely hope Williams never takes Davids advice, for the good of all involved.
    Emily Speck ’00

  12. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” F. Scott Fitzgerald. Shared by a girl who would not have gotten into Williams, based on your criteria.

  13. Williams should try hard to get on par with most non-HYPS ivies/elites. It currently isn’t by most metrics. That would be a good start. Being on par with HYPS is too lofty of an aspiration at this point.

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