Astrophysicsmom, Congratulations to your daughter on two outstanding acceptances. I don't know much about astrophysics at Williams since my son is a decidedly humanities type although one of his close friends is in the department. He's a brilliant and fascinating kid with a wide range of interests.
I would think that aside from the size of the department and prestige of the program, the major difference would be in environment, both physical and human. MIT is urban with a large student population, several graduate and professional programs and lots of city amenities. Williams is rural with a village mentality, an undergraduate focus and profoundly beautiful natural surroundings. A case could be made for either but they are really on opposite ends of the spectrum.
MIT obviously leans toward science and technology as its raison d'etre. At Williams the academic diversity would be greater. I was amused by looking at the list of astrophysics majors of the past few years. You see lots double majors with math, of course, but also with anthropology, geology, art history, religion. I don't think you'd get this kind of intellectual balance at MIT.
In short, two wonderful choices, but with very different appeal.
MIT is, of course, far better known for research than Williams. But if you want to do meaningful research as an undergraduate, the odds may actually be better at Williams. At MIT, graduate students get all the important research opportunities. At Williams, the professors actively recruit undergraduates as co-investigators and co-authors, simply because there are no grad students.
If you want to pursue a career in astrophysics, you will have to go to graduate school. So you can have it both ways. Get your bachelor's degree from a school that emphasizes undergraduate instruction (like Williams), then get a PhD from a school that emphasizes graduate research (like MIT).
I think the world of both MIT and Williams. While I was being recruited by Williams, I was approached by an MIT coach, which made it even more interesting, and I thought long and hard about it.
I'm both a sciences/math and humanities person. Williams won out for many of the reasons people have mentioned above and also because I found myself moving more towards the humanities. I thought I could go either way (and make some creative interdisciplinary mixes) more easily at Williams. Also, I enjoyed being around the quirky MIT kids but I felt a lot more comfortable around the generally (but not always -- I hate making these generalizations because there are a lot of exceptions) more well-rounded Williams students. Maybe I'll be looking at MIT for graduate school -- thinking that made the choice easier for me.
This is one of those really personal, individual choices. The two schools are so different but both offer such terrific educations. I strongly suggest overnight visits if at all possible.
astrophysicsmom - Your D's list sounds very similar to my own D's was last year (and we're in NC, too). MIT and Williams were on my D's final list, and there were things she loved about both.
As for specific strength in astrophysics, it's not the area my D investigated (she was more of a pure math person), but when I was at Williams waaaay back in the '70s, I had a boyfriend who studied astrophysics, and I know he did research with Jay Pasachoff during the summer after our sophomore year. My friend and at least one of his friends that I know of both went on to related graduate programs. I suspect that coming out of the Williams program there will be lots of possibilities in the top graduate programs. If that's one of your D's concerns, you might try poking around on the physics department website to see if it indicates what the majors do after they graduate.
As for chosing between the schools generally, some of the questions my D asked herself were: What is the likelihood that I will major in what I think I'm interested in now? Do I want to be surrounded by mostly math and science people, or do I want to have a balance among the rest of the student body of humanities, arts and math/science types? You'll find all types at MIT, but you'll find a smaller concentration of humanities and arts majors there. Does your D want to be in a city or in a rural setting? How important is the ease of getting home? Does she prefer the Williams housing system or the MIT one? Those were the biggest differences my D found between those schools.
I concur in the suggestion to do an overnight at both schools. Sometimes things that seem similar on paper (or websites) appear very different once you're on campus.
As you may have gathered from some of my other posts, my D ended up not choosing either MIT or Williams, but she definitely could have thrived and been very happy at either, and she hated to let them both go.
Thanks. We'll be going up to Williams in April and that should make a big difference one way or another. All D has talked about is wanting to be in Boston (or near D.C.), but now the other admits are coming in, it opens up entirely different possibilities.....lots of possibilities. The good thing is that all her options are great, so ??????
My best friend in high school decided on Swarthmore over MIT, majored in physics, and went to MIT for graduate school. He had wonderful experiences at both places, and was very glad that he had the best of both worlds. I do think it comes down to the individual student. If someone wants a very personal education with close interaction with profs and other students, friends who are poets, writers, and artists, and the community of a small college, and the opportunity to live in beautiful pastoral environment, then Williams would be the obvious choice. On the other hand, someone may prefer being in Cambridge/Boston with 200,000 other undergrads and the activities geared towards them in a fun, cosmopolitan city, interacting with perhaps a wider range of students (undergrads and grads), and being exposed to the myriad lectures/talks at a great university, then MIT would be the choice. I attended Amherst (please don't booh!) but took a year off after my sophomore year to work in a research lab at Harvard and took several science classes at MIT. Each place had unique attractions that may make someone strongly prefer one over the other.
I'm a student currently attending one of HYP (won't specify which). While I'm enjoying my wonderful experience here, I in retrospect wish that I could've gone to liberal arts school. I thought seeking help from profs at research univ would be easy, but it really isn't. It's very easy to get intimidated by talking to big name professors, while at a college like Williams, there would inevitably be more interaction.
it's up to you. but do remember that name value is also important
hello123, name recognition of MIT is much higher than Williams among the general population in U.S., and definitely internationally. Students attending even the top LACs choose the quality of education over name recognition. However, among academic circles and major firms hiring in the U.S, both are highly esteemed. Astrophysicsmom presumably is asking about the quality of undergraduate education. I would say that doing well at either place should enable a student to get into the same top astrophysics graduate school programs. Seems to me enjoying the exceptional benefits of a Williams education and obtaining research training at an internationally-recognized university later could be the preferred pathway for certain students interested in pursuing a career in science.
Do not assume that humanities at MIT are poor either. Their music department, for example, is headed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, who teaches freshman, and many Harvard students high-tail it over to MIT for his classes. And of course the linguistics department has a long and storied reputation far beyond anything offered to undergraduates at any LAC.
But I do know (or know of) perhaps a half-dozen Williams grads in top positions at astronomical observatories across the country. (I don't know about the astro-physics career trajectories.)
It might be worth asking the astronomy and physics department chair for the names/contact information of alums that Mini knows about who have successful careers in astrophysics. Perhaps you or your son/daughter could contact them directly and hear about the pluses and minuses of LACs/Williams in their career path. Most of our opinions are either hypothetical, second hand, or based on other fields of science.
Best of luck.