Morty discussed the issue of how Williams can/should ensure that the students we accept want to come and will be happy here. We have a big advantage in that lots of people seek the number one liberal arts college, especially from abroad. But does someone from Shanghai really know what they are getting into? Do they understand what it means to spend 4 years in rural New England? Morty noted that the Common Application makes it easy for someone who is already applying to Harvard and Swarthmore to just add Williams to their application list. Why not? [It is free for someone who checks the financial waiver box and, since elite colleges want more poor kids, why not check it?] Morty noted that we want to somehow tell which applicants really understand Williams and want to come here for the right reasons.

A committee of trustees (led by Bob Scott ’68?) is actually looking at this issue and actively considering having Williams add a special essay section. Morty used the example [Not sure if this was actively under consideration?] of pointing out the course catalog and asking students to pick a few classes that they really wanted to take and to explain why. The expectation would be that students who really want to come to Williams would take the time to write these essays, would have the energy to look up the CVs of the professors and tell a compelling story. Even if this causes several thousand applicants not to apply [which seems plausible], Morty argued that this would be a feature rather than a bug. Why bother with students who aren’t that interested in Williams? They are unlikely to come even if we accept them. [And don’t forget adverse selection since the ones that would come from this category are the ones that couldn’t get in to any place better.] And even those that do come are less likely to be happy, contributing members of the community.

[I think that this is a great idea. In general, there are two models of Williams admissions. First is the contest. Once you set the rules (grades count for this much, SAT scores for this, X number of slots for athletes and URMs), you select the best candidates, regardless as to whether you think that they will come or be happy at Williams. You let them decide since they “won” the contest. The second model for Williams admissions is the dinner party. (Perhaps I need a better analogy? Suggestions welcome!) Although there are standards for who you most want at your party, you are especially interested in inviting people who will come and have a good time. Miserable guests make other people miserable as well. At the very best parties, all the attendees will be excited to be there.

In order to have a sense of whether this is a good idea, you would want to measure the happiness and contribution to campus life of different sorts of students, especially those who you think would have gone to the trouble of filling out an extra essay and those who wouldn’t have. One (imperfect) way of getting to that would be to compare early decision Ephs (both those accepted early and those admitted regular) with other Ephs. One assumes that the ED Ephs are more likely to understand what Williams is all about and be making an informed choice. If such students are much happier and more involved in the community than a matched sample of non-ED students, then requiring an Williams-specific essay makes some sense.]

If Morty and/or the Trustees go very far down this path, it promises to be the biggest change in undergraduate admissions in a decade. Comments anyone?

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