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Choose Williams Over Harvard

In celebration of previews, reasons why you should choose Williams.

There are several hundred 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. They (you?) would be better off at Williams. Why?

1) Your professors would know your name. The average 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 post by Harvard professor Greg Mankiw, who teaches EC 10a/10b, the equivalent of Williams 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 Crimson or sing in an a capella group at Harvard, you won’t be able to do too 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. Most 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, Tiku Majumder, cares about your 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.

Choose wisely.

¹The first post in this series was 14 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.

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#1 Comment By Aidan On April 23, 2018 @ 10:08 am

Where is the harm in receiving economics instruction from (arguably) the best economics grad students in the world? While you may not spend a lot of time with N. Gregory Mankiw, you may end up spending a lot of time with Ben Bernanke, who is also a pretty smart dude and a good economist.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 23, 2018 @ 10:12 am

1) If you think that the typical Econ grad student at Harvard is like Ben Bernanke . . .

2) A large number (a majority?) of Ec 10 instructors are not even Econ grad students!

#3 Comment By frank uible On April 23, 2018 @ 10:32 am

Raise your hand if you believe that any Harvard alum or student wastes time occupying himself with what people from insignificantly little ol’ Williams might do or think.

#4 Comment By JCD 📌 On April 23, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

I recently handled a somewhat similar question on Quora from an anonymous Williams student asking whether or not it would be a good idea to transfer to Stanford. I encouraged them to give Stanford a try. Here’s the link to the full article.

Hot Potato: Should I Try to Transfer from Williams College to Stanford?

#5 Comment By abl On April 23, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

JCD — when was the last time you were on the Williams campus?

#6 Comment By frank uible On April 23, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

If someone likes doing something (e.g. playing football) but is mediocre at it, stay at Williams, and you will probably have an opportunity to do it. At Stanford he will probably be foreclosed from doing it for an obvious reason. Of course this process requires objective self examination.

#7 Comment By abl On April 23, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

Where is the harm in receiving economics instruction from (arguably) the best economics grad students in the world? While you may not spend a lot of time with N. Gregory Mankiw, you may end up spending a lot of time with Ben Bernanke, who is also a pretty smart dude and a good economist.

1. I don’t think that all econ TAs are Harvard econ grad students.

2. The average Williams econ prof is a better economist than the average Harvard econ grad student.

3. The average Williams econ prof is a better and more committed teacher than the average Harvard econ TA.

4) You would have a single room for three years at Williams.

Most people I knew at Williams who wanted a single all four years at Williams were able to get them–a significant percentage of frosh rooms were singles (half? one third?) and, as a result, most people who requested them got them. Has that changed?

#8 Comment By Dick Swart On April 23, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

Why is there this emphasis on competition between schools with obvious Features-Advantages-Benefits differences. Yes, fellow followers of Erato or whoever guards the doors of advertising and promotion … FAB sheets.

Were I to be asked for a start to developing a sustainable position among the desired market niche of schools, I would be very carefully reviewing the development of FAB sheets with the inputs of current students first, prospective students second, faculty third, alums third, and admin fourth.

I would struggle to find with by-in from the stake-holders, a strong, unique, and differentiating position. I would use that positioning in all communications.

To pit Williams against Harvard by argumentation seems silly to me. By-the-by, both this writer and the blog owner have close relatives on campus at Cambridge now!

#9 Comment By PTC On April 24, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

Something tells me, Harvard does not have this complex…

Insert pic of Lord Farquaad “here”…