Road Trip “Aha Moments” at Williams and Amherst


Let me share with you some “aha moments” from my April 2015 college road trip to nine schools in the Northeast. Here you go… Williams and Amherst – Aha!

 Not all liberal arts schools are the same, even when ranked #1 and #2, and even when they used to be the same school!

A bit of history – Williams College in 1815 began the discussion of moving to a more central location of the state, thinking that it was not sustainable located in Williamsburg.  After six years of debate, the conclusion was to remain in Williamsburg and Amherst College was founded in Amherst, MA taking with them about one third of Williams’ students and it’s president. 

Location definitely differentiates the schools.  Amherst’s campus, in “Pioneer Valley”, is flat and nestled with four other colleges – 30,000 students within a 10-mile radius and part of a 5-school consortium.  Williams’s campus stands alone at the foot of a “purple” mountain in the Berkshires, and is not flat.

Amherst “feels like home” and a place where students like to be.  It is on the small side of the top liberal arts colleges at just under 1800 students.  Yet given its open curriculum, study abroad, and research opportunities, it is nothing like high schools of similar size. 99% live on campus all four years (though there is plenty of off campus living available in Pioneer Valley).  There is no Greek life but clearly a lively “party scene” with or without alcohol -- “After Dark” is the without alcohol alternative. Freshman year housing is engineered for diversity.  Upperclassmen typically live in Theme Houses reflecting areas of interest – a majority of the themes are language based.  The education is a bachelors of arts – engineering is provided through a 3+2 program with Dartmouth – it is writing intensive, rigorous and there is a high level of academic support available. 

Consider Amherst if you are looking for an intimate, homey environment that is academically challenging in the liberal arts.

Williams strikes me as an Ivy, just slightly smaller. One feels a high level of engagement bordering on intensity (in a good way) and many well-considered aspects of the university are evident.  Tutorials: 2 students, 1 professor for a whole semester.  Connections between academic and personal interest make learning impactful. Tutorials are one way to achieve that.  Winter Study: A 4-1-4 term schedule means a 3-week term in January where you take 1 class, have lots of free time to “chill” between typically intense semesters. Freshman dorms: engineered to be diverse – research recognizes that the friends you make in your first week of colleges are typically your closest.  Williams College has a distinctly outdoorsy and athletic aura mingled with academic engagement -- 40% of students play NCAA D3 sports; 41% do research and 40% who do are published; over 50% study abroad; and the WOC (Williams Outing Club – for outdoor activities) is the most active on campus.

Consider Williams If you are looking to surround yourself with engaged, highly diverse, academically intense peers in a collaborative environment.

 Note an interesting coincidence:  I pick up the student paper at each school I visit. Both Amherst and Williams had opinion pieces in their papers, unrelated to each other, regarding how their colleges responded to the writer’s personal mental health challenge.  Amherst was praised, Williams was not.