There are several hundreds high school seniors¹ who have been admitted to both Williams and Harvard (and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and . . .). Fewer than 10% of them will choose Williams over these more famous schools. Some of them are making the right choice. They will be better off at Harvard, for various reasons. But at least half of them are making the wrong choice.² They (you?) would be better off at Williams. Why?
1) Your professors would know your name. The typical Harvard undergraduate is known by name to only a few faculty members. Many students graduate unknown to any faculty. The typical professor at Harvard is primarily concerned with making important contributions to her field. The typical professor at Williams is primarily concerned with educating the undergraduates in her classes. Consider this recent post by Harvard professor Greg Mankiw, who teaches EC 10, the equivalent of ECON 110/120, to over 750 students each year.
Being an ec 10 section leader is one of the best teaching jobs at Harvard. You can revisit the principles of economics, mentor some of the world’s best undergraduates, and hone your speaking skills. In your section, you might even have the next Andrei Shleifer or Ben Bernanke (two well-known ec 10 alums). And believe it or not, we even pay you for this!
If you are a graduate student at Harvard or another Boston-area university and have a strong background in economics, I hope you will consider becoming a section leader in ec 10 next year. Applications are encouraged from PhD students, law students, and master’s students in business and public policy.
Take a year of Economics at Harvard, and not a single professor will know your name. Instead, you will be taught and graded by (poorly paid) graduate students, many with no more than a BA, often not even in economics! But, don’t worry, you will be doing a good deed by providing these students with a chance to “hone” their “speaking skills.”
2) You will get feedback on your work from faculty at Williams, not from inexperienced graduate students. More than 90% of the written comments (as well as the grades) on undergraduate papers at Harvard are produced by people other than tenured (or tenure track) faculty. The same is true in science labs and math classes. EC 10 is a particularly egregious example, but the vast majority of classes taken by undergraduates are similar in structure. Harvard professors are too busy to read and comment on undergraduate prose.
3) You would have the chance to do many things at Williams. At Harvard it is extremely difficult to do more than one thing in a serious fashion. If you play a sport or write for the paper or sing in an a cappella group at Harvard, it is difficult to do much of anything else. At Williams, it is common — even expected — that students will have a variety of non-academic interests that they pursue passionately. At Harvard, the goal is a well-rounded class, with each student being top notch in something. At Williams, the ideal is a class full of well-rounded people.
4) You would have a single room for three years at Williams. The housing situation at Harvard is horrible, at least if you care about privacy. Almost all sophomores and the majority of juniors do not have a single room for the entire year. Only at Harvard will you learn the joys of a “walk-through single” — a room which is theoretically a single but which another student must walk through to get to her room.
5) You would have the opportunity to be a Junior Advisor at Williams and to serve on the JA Selection Committee and to serve on the Honor Committee. No undergraduate student serves in these roles at Harvard because Harvard does not allow undergraduates to run their own affairs. Harvard does not trust its students. Williams does.
6) The President of Williams, Adam Falk, cares about her education specifically, not just about the education of Williams undergraduates in general. The President of Harvard, Drew Faust, has bigger fish to fry. Don’t believe me? Just e-mail both of them. Tell them about your situation and concerns. See who responds and see what they say.
Of course, there are costs to turning down Harvard. Your friends and family won’t be nearly as impressed. Your Aunt Tillie will always think that you actually go to “Williams and Mary.” You’ll be far away from a city for four years. But, all in all, a majority of the students who choose Harvard over Williams would have been better off if they had chosen otherwise.
¹The first post in this series was 11 years ago, inspired by a newspaper story about 18 year-old Julia Sendor, who was admitted to both Harvard and Williams. Julia ended up choosing Williams (at least partly “because of the snowy mountains and maple syrup”), becoming a member of the class of 2008, winning a Udall Foundation Scholarship in Environmental Studies. Best part of that post is the congratulations from her proud JA.