College Cousins: Amherst College and Williams College

You’ve no doubt heard the old sayings, which assert that “good things come in small packages” and “less is more.” In this feature, we take a look at two schools that are indeed smaller in size but that take a back seat to no one in terms of the opportunities and quality of education they offer. Amherst and Williams are unquestionably two of the finest schools in the U.S., and the top spots in rankings for liberal arts schools that they routinely garner are proof of that claim.

Amherst College, founded in 1821, has a long history of excellence. Today it features an open curriculum, which means that there are no core curriculum or distribution requirements, but 850 courses from which students can choose and explore. It may be located in small town USA (Amherst, Massachusetts), but its global mindset permeates those courses and routinely inspires 40% of its students to incorporate study abroad into their undergraduate curriculum.

In order to further spread its academic reach, Amherst is a member of the Five College Consortium, whose additional members are Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and UMass-Amherst. The consortium members have an open enrollment arrangement between them, which enables students of all five to take classes at any of the member institutions.

Williams College, located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, predates Amherst by some 28 years, having been founded in 1793 – when George Washington was serving his first term as president.

In addition to meeting requirements for Williams majors, students must meet the college’s distribution requirements. Williams is committed to a student body that is both intellectually and physically fit, as evidenced by the physical fitness requirement that requires students to pass a swim test and earn phys ed credits.

The academic structure at Williams includes two semesters plus a three-week Winter Study that offers an array of courses designed to provide a change of academic pace and opportunities to explore new areas of interest. A pass/fail system for Winter Study encourages exploration without an accompanying fear of harming a hard-earned GPA.

A key hallmark of the Williams academic program, however, are its tutorial offerings, a perfect opportunity for students who truly want to be up close and personal with their professors. Sixty to seventy of these “classes” are offered each year, all limited to only two students each. Tutorial students meet weekly with their professor to review and discuss the independent work they have developed for that particular week. It’s an amazing opportunity for students to dig deep, challenge themselves, and get personal and in-depth feedback on their work.

Clearly, both of these schools are top notch academically, but don’t get the idea that their students are stick-in-the-mud sideliners. Far from it. They may not fill huge stadiums for weekend televised events, but they are just as proud of their athletic accomplishments as any university – and justifiably so.

Williams was the first college or university to be ranked first in the nation in both academics and athletics. It’s an honor the school has earned eight times since 2003. Meanwhile, Amherst students have won thirteen Division III team championships in the last ten years, and individual Amherst athletes (both men and women) have been honored as national champions 78 times.

Amherst and Williams have long been rivals. In fact, their rivalry goes back to 1859 and to the first ever intercollegiate baseball game. As you might expect, things were a little different in this pre-Civil War era. Playing by what were known as Massachusetts rules, the batter stood, not at the point of the diamond, but in the middle of one side of a square. A six-inch round ball was used. There was no convention regarding a nine-inning contest, so this one lasted for 23 innings, and resulted in a final score of 73 – 32 in favor of Amherst. That game may be a footnote to collegiate history, but it nevertheless cemented a rivalry that exists to this day.

These two schools, though small in size, have big reputations and attract applicants from every state and countries from around the world, and their student bodies are just as diverse as any of our large institutions. In addition, both schools admit students without taking into consideration their ability to pay, and both offer financial aid packages as needed to admitted students.

Both can also boast of presidential alumni. Calvin Coolidge is an Amherst alum, and James Garfield graduated from Williams. Pretty impressive, but we have to give the nod for favored status to Williams, which can also claim our own PrepMatters president, Ned Johnson, as an illustrious alum.

In truth, we’re glad to highlight two such notable colleges, similar in many ways and separated only by 65 miles and a 159-year rivalry. They are colleges for high achievers and worth a close look by the academic superstars among our ranks.