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Love Notes

Are you an applicant to Williams? Have you received a love note yet?

Early-decision admissions policies may be falling out of favor at some top universities, but many schools are quietly using an array of other tools to win over the best students early.

In increasing numbers, colleges are wooing their top choices with notes of praise and hints of acceptance letters and scholarship money to come. The idea is to win their affections by getting them some good news before the competition does. This courtship, which can take place up to several months before formal acceptance letters hit students’ mailboxes, comes in various forms: everything from “likely” letters — which tell students that they’re likely to get admitted — to “love” letters, or handwritten notes from admissions offices complimenting a student’s essay or some other aspect of the application.

How does this process work at Williams?

A committee meets every week for several weeks in January and February to “really look for the superstars,” says Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions. The result: About 200 students every year receive an admittance letter two months before the rest of the pack.

More detail here.

By late February, the readers identify 200 or more students who stand out so clearly that they receive letters offering admission a few weeks ahead of the rest of the regular admittees. These “early writes,” as Williams calls them, are typically highly coveted by other colleges. By admitting them a bit earlier, arranging for department chairs or coaches to phone or write urging them to accept, and, in a small number of cases, offering to fly them in for campus visits, Williams hopes to get a leg up in the wooing process. (The College tends not to “early write” students from high schools where many candidates have applied to Williams, however, so as not to send parents and school counselors into a tizzy by accepting one student weeks ahead of others.)

In the age of College Confidential (or even EphBlog), I think that a tizzy is unavoidable. Does the Admissions Office also use its alumni interviewers as part of this wooing process? It ought to. Some of us can make a pretty strong case for why an applicant ought to choose Williams over, say, Harvard.

Even better would be a randomized experiment in which the Admissions Office choose 50 highly desirable applicants and allowed alumni to reach out to 25 (selected at random) but not the other 25. Would alumni involvement in recruitment help Williams in its constant battle to do better in its competition with Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford? It is an empirical question.

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#1 Comment By Noah Smith-Drelich ’07 On February 15, 2006 @ 7:13 am

I think your test applicant idea is great. I also think that Admissions should apply this to the EW pool in general, for a couple years straight taking ~50 would-be EWs and admitting them regular and comparing. I’m not entirely sold on the notion that sending acceptance letters earlier increases applicants’ likeliness of matriculation.

#2 Comment By Anonymous On February 15, 2006 @ 7:26 am

How does one become an Alumni Interviewer?

#3 Comment By Diana On February 15, 2006 @ 7:41 am

Amherst, by the way, also sends such letters early. I did not get an early acceptance from Williams, but I did get one from Amherst. I agree with Noah that it’s not a sure thing to increase an applicant’s likeliness of going; to me, it made Amherst sound sort of desperate.

The article mentions that Williams doesn’t send such letters to applicants in schools where it might send everyone into a tizzy. But my school was definitely a school with the propensity to go into a tizzy over college, and I doubt that Amherst sent such letters to every single person who applied. I am glad Williams is sensitive about this.

#4 Comment By David On February 15, 2006 @ 7:46 am

You can become an alumni interviewer simply by volunteering with the admissions office. Just drop them an e-mail. You might start with Terri Melville.

I have been one for a couple of years and “interviewed” 5 students this year. I put interview in quotes because these are not in any meaningful way evaluative. The College, probably with good reason, does not really care what I think. I do not receive any meaningful data on the applicants (i.e., high school grades or test scores) and am only expected to write a paragraph or so about the interview. I suspect the Admissions Office might pay a bit of attention if an experienced interviewer made an extreme claim about an applicant, but outside of that, your opinion won’t matter.

I still think it is fun since I am always eager to talk about Williams and I think, perhaps delusionally, that I can provide pretty good information about how/why Williams is different from other places. I also enjoy understanding more about how the process looks from the point of view of the applicants.

If the College doesn’t use the results, then why bother? I suspect that the College is smart enough to recognize that it is worth a small effort on its part to make alumni feel a part of the process. It also probably makes applicants feel (correctly!) that Williams is a special place to have such committed alumni. Everyone wins.

#5 Comment By Diana On February 15, 2006 @ 8:26 am

The admissions office doesn’t care what you think, David, because they officially don’t care what any of their interviewers think, alumni or professional or otherwise. Williams gives non-evaluative interviews. Even if your interview is in the admissions office, it doesn’t count towards your application.

Is this true? If you turned out to have homicidal tendencies or didn’t say a word the whole time or bad-mouthed Williams repeatedly, would it affect your chances of admission? Williams claims not. I am not so sure.

As David says, though, it does let applicants learn about Williams much more than they would if there was no interview option instead of merely a non-evaluative interview. It certainly makes Williams unique, so it’s probably a good idea.

#6 Comment By Chotch On February 15, 2006 @ 9:14 am

I think the early write program in its current form does make some difference. For me, I still did not know that much about Williams when I applied. When I received a very personal letter informing me of my acceptance, I began to look more into the school. I also believe I received an email from a senior who was in the major I had indicated on my application. Once I had found out more about the school I had decided that no matter who accepted me come March, I would be attending Williams. Had I found out the decision about Williams along with all of the others I doubt that I would be at Williams today because I would never have bothered to discover all of the great aspects of the college.

As to alumni contacting students, I think that would be a fine option for some people. I am sure some students would like to speak directly to someone about what separates Williams from Harvard. The best way to explain something like the entry is through a discussion of one’s experiences in it, though even this does not often convey the importance of the entry adequately.

#7 Comment By Jared ’96 On February 15, 2006 @ 12:51 pm

Back in 1993 I received an early write from Williams (mid-February, I think) and while it didn’t cause me to choose Williams over Harvard (Harvard’s rejection letter did a fine job of that!), it certainly helped me choose Williams over Amherst.

As for the alumni interviews, Williams set me up with one with an alum in the Oklahoma City area after I’d been accepted. Obviously, his opinion of me had no bearing on my admission, but it did help ease my anxiety over going 2000 miles away to live in a small town in Massachusetts. When Williams wants to recruit students outside its usual class makeup (and I would include public school graduates from Oklahoma in that category), alumni “interviews” can help seal the deal.

As for Amherst, they had a current student call me after my April acceptance. It was a nice thing to do and reasonably informative, but by that time I was already sold on Williams.

#8 Comment By The Big E On February 15, 2006 @ 7:27 pm

Stuff like Early Write can be crucial when students are on the edge, I would think. I was admitted to both Williams and Amherst, received finaid offers within $50 of each other, but was admitted to Williams a month earlier (Williams had a slight edge going in, but certainty of admissions made a crucial difference).

On the other hand, my safety school (a highly respected but not quite as elite LAC) admitted me first, despite the fact I sent them my appweeks after the other schools. Had that school not suffered other major disadvantages ($10,000 less finaid) their enthusiasm might have been a factor.

I wonder if Williams pre-selects its early writes in order of expected preference for Williams, though. If someone is gung-ho on an Ivy but applies to Williams as insurance, getting in early, it seems, would make little difference.

Somewhat random question- does anyone know if an admissions offer from a college is binding? If so, ‘likely’ letters sound a bit suspect- an attempt to dodge commitment. Little, it appears, would be more miserable than a ‘likely’ letter followed by waitlisting.

#9 Comment By hwc On February 16, 2006 @ 2:03 pm

I think that “likely” letters emerged as a way to dodge a gentleman’s agreement among the top schools (probably the COFHE schools) not to jump the gun with early acceptances. The “likely” letter became a way of signaling strong interest without violating the agreement. These days, schools don’t worry about the gentleman’s agreement and just send early write acceptances.

#10 Comment By Current Ephgirl On February 16, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

I never understood why I was an “early-write,” since I was rejected or wait-listed by Amherst and all the Ivies I applied to. Hardly a “superstar…highly coveted by other colleges.” It was an easy choice between Williams and Swarthmore. I’m not a legacy and had zero prior connections to Williams. Maybe the “early writes” are simply those that the committee views as very “good fits” for the school?

#11 Comment By hwc On February 17, 2006 @ 1:10 am

The easiest way to understand “early writes” is that they fill “slots” the college is trying to fill. It could be anything: athletic, URM, female science researchers, engineering majors, theater majors, full-fare customers, and so on and so forth. The hard to fill slots vary from school to school which is why the same applicant might be waitlisted one place and not another.

If you follow a college closely, you can identify what “slots” light their fire. For example, Williams has to work to enroll theater types. They also try to identify science researchers and hard-core academic future-PhD types to offset the nearly 30% of each class made up athletic department recruits. And, of course, they have become very aggressive in URM and lower socio-economic recruiting. Good stats and filling one of these slots could result in an early-write.