When SESP first-year Leslie Robins opened her email from the Northwestern Marriage Pact, she was surprised to discover that her “match” was in the 100th percentile of matches. She hadn’t expected much filling out the Marriage Pact questionnaire, yet her match not only shared her values but also had a quote from one of her favorite TV shows in his Instagram bio.
“We haven’t really talked about anything deep, but I think we have a lot of interests in common, like similar music taste and taste in TV shows,” Robins said. “That was interesting because it wasn’t covered in the questions at all.”
[Editor’s note: Many statisticians will say that the 100th percentile does not exist. If you are in the 100th percentile, that means 100% of the population is below you, which is paradoxical because you are included in that population. Tsui said a match in the 100th percentile means that the person was matched with their best possible partner out of all their potential matches.]
The Northwestern Marriage Pact, an algorithm-based matchmaking questionnaire that claims to match students with their most compatible marriage “backup plan,” sent out matches to 2,976 participating Northwestern students last Wednesday. Annie Tsui, a McCormick and Communication second-year who organized the Marriage Pact, was surprised by the publicity the pact gained.
“The whole process definitely went better than expected,” Tsui said. “School, especially at home, is typically not something that a lot of people are excited for, so it was fun to be able to provide something that spiced up people’s lives a little bit.”
The Marriage Pact first began at Stanford University but has expanded to other colleges including Yale, Columbia and Tufts. When a Stanford student reached out to Tsui about bringing it to Northwestern, she was excited to get involved. In September, Tsui, along with Communication and McCormick third-year Parker Ryan, Northwestern alumna Emma Hruby and a three-person launch team from Stanford began planning for the Marriage Pact’s Nov. 13 launch.
“The algorithm for the most part remained untouched since it’s an algorithm that’s been proven over and over again,” Tsui said. “As far as the questionnaire goes, we took out some questions that we thought weren’t super appropriate for Northwestern and added in some questions that we thought that would fit Northwestern’s culture better.”
The questionnaire began with an “about you” section that asked for a variety of demographic information, including age, major, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and political and religious affiliations. Then, there were 50 additional questions about personality and values. Some of the more Northwestern-centric questions referenced the primal scream (as an indicator of how loud you are in public) and a red light on Sheridan Road (to gauge adherence to rules). Tsui noted that throughout the entire process, no one was able to access participants’ responses, thereby protecting students’ privacy.
“There was a good mix of questions you would have expected and then the random, fun ones like the red light at Sheridan Road or ‘how kinky are you,’” said Weinberg first-year Vir Patel. “I feel like they were pretty comprehensive.”
Weinberg first-year Eve Gold described the questionnaire as an upgraded, less-repetitive version of a Buzzfeed quiz.
“I was just taking it for fun, but I actually really liked the questions, particularly the emphasis on politics, since someone’s political ideology is really important to me if I’m going to be dating them,” Gold said.
A main challenge that the Marriage Pact organizers faced was an imbalance between heterosexual women and heterosexual or bisexual men. This led to around 300 heterosexual women being placed on a “waiting list,” meaning they would be matched platonically with one another if more heterosexual or bisexual men did not sign up.
To combat the deficit, Tsui further advertised the pact via social media. She also sent a “close the gap” email to all students who had taken the pact asking them to get their heterosexual or bisexual male friends to take it.
The day before the questionnaire closed, all participants received “hot takes” showing some of their most unique survey responses and what percentage of their peers shared their opinion.
“I think we saw a pretty big spike toward the end when we released the hot takes,” Tsui said. “All of a sudden, everyone was taking [the Marriage Pact]. The same thing happened with our ‘close the gap’ emails … Each time we sent an email, we saw a huge uptick in participation.”
Although this increased participation helped lower the number of heterosexual women initially on the waiting list, it also created a new deficit as more heterosexual women entered the pact. When the questionnaire closed Tuesday night, 166 heterosexual women out of the 2,976 total participants remained on the waiting list and were matched with each another.
On Wednesday night, the Marriage Pact sent out an email informing students of their match’s initials as an “appetizer before the main course,” according to Tsui. Within a minute of the email being sent, more than 1000 people opened it.
A few hours after sending out match initials, the Marriage Pact released results. According to Tsui, most students received matches above the 90th percentile, meaning they were better than 90% of all possible matches.
“I reached out to my match, and it turns out we have a mutual friend and have already exchanged a few words before,” said Medill first-year Nick Francis, whose compatibility with his match was in the 99.99th percentile. “We have a lot of the same interests or views, so I think there’s some rhyme and reason to the percentage accuracy.”
However, 52 students—just under 2% of the total matches—received scores below the 70th percentile.
“Some that I’ve heard of are a 2% compatibility match or even a 0.84% compatibility match,” Tsui said. “Unfortunately for the optimization algorithm to work, a few people might not get a great match, but that also means that most people will get an amazing match.”
Gold received a 46% compatibility percentile with her match, which she described as slightly disheartening.
“I don’t think either of us were particularly motivated to talk after that low number, but we’re now friends on Instagram,” Gold said. “I haven’t had a conversation with him beyond ‘hello,’ so I couldn’t really say if it’s an accurate number, but if the number were higher, I’m sure we both would’ve made more of an effort to get in contact.”
Patel also felt that his match was not very compatible despite it being almost in the 98th percentile. Still, given the social challenges of online school, he enjoyed the connection that the Marriage Pact facilitated. Francis agreed.
“It was just nice to feel like I have this new connection with not just the person I matched with but with the campus community as a whole, especially when it’s uncertain when I’ll actually be physically part of the community,” Francis said.
After this year’s success, Tsui plans to run the Marriage Pact again next year.
“We are hoping that this becomes a school tradition and that this will be carried on long after [we] are gone,” Tsui said. “We want people to have a round two if they didn’t feel like their match was that great this time.”
Next year, Tsui hopes to implement a few changes, including more marketing, especially on Twitter and Reddit, and asking bisexual and pansexual students with a preference for male-identifying students to match with female-identifying students to combat the gender deficit. She also wants to make the Marriage Pact more inclusive to those on the asexual or aromantic spectrum.
Ultimately, Robins feels the Marriage Pact has been a helpful way to get involved with the Northwestern community while learning remotely, regardless of if the matches lead to a relationship.
“It’s a weird but good way to connect with people while we’re all quarantined or isolated in different parts of the country and the world,” Robins said. “If you end up getting together with the person, it’s a great story of how you met, but if not, it’s just a good way to make friends with somebody who has a lot of the same values you do.”