In my brief four years as a faculty member at Williams, I have been struck by the number of students whom, during one-on-one conversations with me, have confided their beliefs that somehow they “snuck into” Williams. “I only got into Williams because I’m an athlete,” some have said. “I only got into Williams because I’m an underrepresented minority.” “I only got into Williams because I’m from an underrepresented part of the country.” Indeed, “I only got in because _____” is more common than individual students think, and I even know of some faculty who feel the same way about their own job offers. Of course, from my vantage point, each of these students has not only deserved to be at Williams, but has contributed much to my courses, my lab and just about every corner of campus. Nevertheless, these feelings persist and can lead to pessimistic views that “my best work will never be as good as the students who actually deserve to be here.” I am so sad when I hear these feelings, especially because they remove a sense of optimism about assignments, exams and meaningful projects in and out of the classroom.
Therefore, the opinion piece by David Kane ’88, “What Does It Mean to be the Best?” (Sept. 20, 2017), does great disservice to our community by suggesting that some students actually don’t deserve to be here and that they gained admission for illegitimate reasons. Even forgetting the absurd argument that SAT scores should be the main determinant of college admissions, or that the ultimate goal of Williams is “to be the best,” Kane’s article has great potential to reinforce self-doubts and anxieties among some of our students that they snuck through the admissions process. In truth, we know that our colleagues in the admission and financial aid offices collectively work hard to admit exceptional students who each bring unique and lasting contributions to our community. We want students who will excel beyond Williams and have an impact on the world after they graduate, not students whose sole purpose for attending Williams is increasing indices on the U.S. News and World Report rankings. All students should know that they deserve to be here, that they are exceptional in ways that standardized test scores can’t measure and that they make Williams an outstanding college because of their presence, not despite it.
I can actually understand why some students feel like they snuck through a selective admissions process because I occasionally experience these same feelings myself. These thoughts are common, especially at high-achieving institutions like Williams. The key is to recognize the universality of these feelings, to realize they are unproductive and to ultimately ignore them. We should do the same with Kane’s unthoughtful article.