Which college should you choose – UC Berkeley or Williams?

The University of California, especially Berkeley, used to be the dream school of many families (and still is for some). However, in recent years, many students have told me that they don’t want to go to UC where “I will just be a number.” Others who are studying there say the same thing. “They treat me like a number. I want to go to a place where professors know my name.”

These concerns seem to be legitimate, but if you take a close look at the profiles of the Berkeley faculty, for example, you may wonder how come these concerns did not keep top faculty from going to the system. Let’s take a look at some faculty accomplishments provided by UC Berkeley:

  • 8 Nobel Laureates
  • 135 National Academy of Science members
  • 84 National Academy of Engineering members
  • 74 Fulbright scholars
  • 225 American Academy of Arts and Science Fellows

Why are these faculty attracted to Berkeley?

Well, at large universities like Berkeley, departments are more willing to open up to new fields, adding to their intellectual diversity. At small colleges like Williams, departments are often terribly resistant to move into new fields, for fear of weakening what they see as their primary areas of strength. For example, the Sociology Department at Williams has only 4 regular faculty, while the Sociology Department at UC Berkeley has 31 regular faculty, 11 affiliated faculty, and 8 visiting faculty, plus an army of graduate students who may actually teach and have office hours.

This sheer number of faculty at UC Berkeley creates a rich intellectual atmosphere surrounded by colleagues who can round out what they know. It also promotes faculty collaboration to break down the boundaries between sub-disciplines. As a result of the fabulous research opportunities and the rich intellectual atmosphere addressing broad and complex issues, UC Berkeley is enormously attractive to the world’s top faculty.

Vermont Teddy Bear Factory is about 3 hours drive to Williams CollegeEven among its private peer institutions, Berkeley stands out on its own-high academic distinction ranging from engineering, mathematics, physical and biological sciences, social sciences, to arts & humanities. This mix of “depth and breadth” makes Berkeley a truly dynamic and stimulating place for research. If you ask a tenure-track faculty about his reasons for choosing Berkeley, he will tell you that he chose Berkeley because of the high caliber of its faculty and graduate students.

The small number of faculty at liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, often stands in the way of attracting top faculty who view research as a way of living. Most faculty feel that they can learn from the diversity of their peers, and cannot work as solo researchers in solving complex problems that require collaboration.

So, should you go to UC Berkeley or Williams?

  • Berkeley is a large university that has its pros and cons–broader social networking, larger course offerings, more majors, more multiple-choice tests graded by computers, more TA-taught classes, more curved grades, and less student/faculty interaction. Hence, self-governance is paramount, as it has manifested itself in the active role that students play in shaping campus life.
  • Williams is much smaller than Berkeley with a pure undergraduate focus that emphasizes teaching and learning. As a small liberal arts college, it is a challenge to attract the best and brightest students for the sciences. Students interested in science majors are often drawn to research universities where the action is–the equipment, the lab, the well-funded professors, the mega-complexes with interdisciplinary teams conducting cutting-edge research.

Bottom line: if you want the hustle and bustle of a large university with big name professors (some of whom you will never meet), go to Berkeley. If you want a relaxed and interactive academic environment, go to Williams. If you like marching band, Berkeley. If you like mountain climbing, Williams. Student activism–Berkeley. Tutorial-Williams. Urban–Berkeley. Rural–Williams. Golden bears-Berkeley. Purple cow-Williams.

Like many things in life, there really isn’t one perfect college.

Wan Chen, Admissions advisor

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