Last week’s Record op-ed about making Williams the best college in the world has generated (a surprising amount of?) controversy, e.g., from President Adam Falk and Director of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01, hundreds (!) of faculty/staff, Professor Matt Carter, Professor Shawn Rosenheim, the Record editorial board, Crystal McIntosh ’20, Mi Yu ’20 and Joon Hun Seong ’14. See also here and here. Let’s spend a week discussing it. Today is day 1.

The Williams admissions process is both complex and opaque but, broadly speaking, admitted students can be placed in two categories: academic and other. “Academic” admits are students who were admitted primarily for academic reasons. “Other” admits have scores/grades that would have led to rejection if it were not for some special attribute. The vast majority of “other” admits fall into three categories: athletics, race and income. In aggregate, they make up about one-half of each incoming class.

This is an accurate (brief!) summary of the current Williams admissions process. Read this and this for more details. Key sentence (from an official Williams publication):

In general, all applicants with a combined academic rating of 3 or higher are rejected at this point, unless the first and second readers have identified one or more “attributes” that warrant additional consideration.

Academic rating of 2 means (1450 – 1520) Math + Verbal SAT, with high school grades, teacher recommendations and other measures to match. The 1450 score is a convenient cut off because it is the median for the class of 2020 (pdf).


The pretty little lie that Williams would like you to believe is that a wide variety of attributes — amazing actress, wonder editor of the school paper, caring volunteer — matter to the admissions process, that these talents/accomplishments explain many of the admissions approvals for students with below 1300 SAT scores. Sure, Williams will admit if pressed, athletic ability, family income/education and race play a role as well, but they are just some of the factors that might cause Williams to admit a student with SAT scores 100 or more points below the median.

But that is the lie. Of the bottom 100+ students in each class, those with academic ratings below 4, with SAT scores below 1300, 95% fall into the key categories of athlete (meaning a “tip,” specifically named by a coach), race (meaning African-American or Hispanic) and family background (meaning low income and/or non-BA holding parents). These are the categories that absolutely drive admissions decisions, especially for the bottom 100 students, but more broadly for the bottom half of the class.

And that is OK! Williams is a private institution and it can use whatever metrics it likes. In fact, Williams does the same thing as the vast majority of elite colleges. There is no scandal here.

The problem is when Williams lies — either explicitly or by omission — in its descriptions of the process. Lying is bad, both in and of itself and because it makes it impossible for faculty, students and alumni to have an informed discussion about what the policy should be.

Plea to the Record: Educate your readers about the details of the current Williams admissions process. Ask Director of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01 questions like this:

Of the 100 or so students in the class of 2020 with math+verbal SAT score below 1300 and/or ACT below 31 and/or academic rating below 4, what percentage of them also have at least one of the following “attributes”: African-American/Hispanic, athletic tip or low family income/education?

The answer will be 95% or more. Although there are a tiny handful of applicants who are admitted with such low academic credentials — major donors? college employees? veterans? — these are a sideshow compared to the main drivers of race/athletics/income.

And, again, that is OK! Williams can admit who it wants for whatever reasons it chooses. But the Record should tell us the truth, should inform us that almost no one is admitted in the bottom 100 because they are a great artist or a promising student leader. (They might also be those things but that is not the reason they were accepted.)

Once we all understand what the admissions process is today, we can discuss what it should be tomorrow.

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