We’re spending a few days covering Windows on Williams, the college’s biggest little program that no one seems to know a thing about. If you, dear reader, are one of those people, best to consult our two other articles on it first before proceeding below. Today is day one, and we begin with the college’s own scanty description of the program:

WOW [Windows on Williams] gives high school seniors the opportunity to spend three all-expenses-paid days at Williams. WOW is a selective program open to high school students in the U.S. and Puerto Rico; preference is given to high-achieving students who couldn’t otherwise afford to visit Williams.

WOW participants stay in dorms with current students, attend classes, meet with professors, and learn about our admission process and our extraordinary financial aid program.

Where to start? General context first:

1) Williams is not unique, or particularly virtuous, in offering to fly students to campus. All of our peer schools — Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona (even Bowdoin) — have similar programs. Why? Easy: because it’s one of the few ways elite liberal arts schools can counter punch when they, inevitably, scrap with larger universities for students. We can’t out-spend, out-market, or out-brand a financially massive institution like, say, Harvard. What we can do is target a few excellent students, bring them to campus, and make the case that a choice between Williams and Harvard is an easy decision.

1.1) Further, we can expect most of our fly-in students will know that. Personally, I went to three fly-ins. Talking to people, I got the sense that was pretty average. About half of the people I talked to attended less than that (usually two, rarely just one) and the other half attended more. (One girl I met planned to go to twelve fly-ins; she had applied to more.)

2) Williams is, however, not not virtuous. Williams, as it should, makes its application public and welcomes all sorts of folk to apply. Some schools either put their application on a part of their website that isn’t public facing, or, even better, require that you be “invited” to apply. The amount of sleaze required, to limit access to a program designed to provide access to the poor and disadvantaged, is staggering, yet, unsurprisingly, not uncommon among the admissions staff of fancy-pants schools.

3) But, Williams does run a good fly-inThere’s a few things that spell a good, or at least prestigious, fly-in: funded travel for all admits, relatively small size, selectivity and two-night length. Windows on Williams hits pretty much all of those benchmarks: everyone gets their travel paid for, each session of WOW is around 100 students, only 16% of WOW applicants get in, and, most importantly, the program is a luxuriant three days — two whole overnights.

Tufts, on the other hand, crams 250 students into one fly-in, that accepts roughly 50% of applicants, and only lasts two days (one overnight). That sort of program, at least to students who’ve attended better ones, are treated as minimally desirable (e.g, if you had a better fly-in to go to, you’d bump the Tufts one off your schedule.) Or, if you didn’t have anything to do that weekend, you might attend as a sort of blow-off trip because it was easy to get in and the application was short.

It’s important that our fly-in students have a good time here, but, because recruiting students is a zero-sum game, it is arguably more important that they have a better time here than they have anywhere else. Is that something the administration keeps in mind? I would expect so, but I’m really just guessing. Perhaps admissions officers are less savage than I imagine them to be.

Guesses, educated or otherwise, on that topic are more than welcome in the comments.


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