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For dateless on campus, idea clicks

WILLIAMSTOWN -- In all his time on this elite campus, Williams College senior Drew Newman had never had a girlfriend. He and most everyone he knew complained constantly that no one here actually dates. So Newman, an earnest 22-year-old concentrating in leadership studies, went trolling for ideas on how to spice up the social scene. He stumbled on a website designed to match up compatible students, created as a lark by two undergraduates in Connecticut.

Thus was born EphMatch.com, a new dating website designed to help Williams students leap the barriers that keep them apart. It was an instant hit: Within a week of its introduction last month, four-fifths of the campus had signed up.

"Hopefully it can bring a little love to Williams," said Newman.

Anyone surprised that classmates at a tiny rural college would have trouble meeting one another, Newman says, doesn't understand the college dating scene.

At Williams, the refrain is that everyone is either "married" -- inseparable from their significant other -- or prone to "hook up" with people in casual, usually drunken, encounters. Or they have no love life at all.

"It's so unusual to go on dates that people make a big deal out of it, and there's a lot of pressure," said Newman, who hails from Tampa, tucks in his sweater, and uses the word "ma'am." "So students are uncomfortable asking each other out."

Joining EphMatch -- the name, pronouced "eefmatch," comes from college founder Ephraim Williams -- requires filling out a personality questionnaire, then choosing the answers you'd most like in someone else. The site embraces both straight and gay dating, and covers topics from hygiene and music preference to attitudes toward public displays of affection.

After a student fills out the form, the site returns a list of top matches, with compatibility expressed as a percentage. A well-matched couple might be 70 to 90 percent compatible. Students can also fill out a profile and post pictures to present a more interesting face to the campus.

The system, powered by a sophisticated computer algorithm, has begun to attract attention from other schools. Its creators, two students at Wesleyan University, are in licensing talks with student groups at other schools ranging from Boston College to the University of Southern California.

But Newman and the campus entertainment group he heads, which is paying $1,000 to licensethe website for a semester, still have a problem: Nobody at Williams seems to be actually dating.

There are a few rumors around campus about people who have started dating because of EphMatch, but most students say they just signed up for fun, and wouldn't actually use it to, say, meet someone.

In one of the few EphMatch dates known to have taken place, Gurcag Poyraz, a freshman from Turkey, contacted his top match, sophomore Elizabeth Sewell. When he asked her to a wine and cheese party, she almost said no. "But I figure if I complain all the time about how hard it is to meet people here, then I better take the chance when it comes," said Sewell, a rugby player.

They talked amiably for about an hour at the party, though their future is uncertain. Sewell said she's not necessarily opposed to a relationship but, "I tend to date -- and I use the word loosely -- my good guy friends. I always stay friends with them afterwards."

Why the resistance to dating at Williams? Partly it's generational: For more than two decades, students have gone through college mainly hanging out in groups. And it may be even harder to get up the courage to ask someone out at a place like Williams, where there are only 2,000 students and few restaurants and bars in a tiny town, making everyone feel that they are under a microscope.

Some even blame a culture of heavy drinking, which is a cause of concern to administrators here and at many campuses nationwide. "You don't hang out with other people sober much," except for close friends, said Liz Lee, a blond freshman with heart-shaped silver earrings. "I don't think I've ever been on a date."

EphMatch's cousin at Wesleyan, WesMatch, is virtually the same. The site has been extremely popular since it debuted two years ago, said creators Dan Stillman and Matt Eaton. Yet old-fashioned dating hasn't exactly caught on at Wesleyan either.

Still, the matching appears remarkably reliable, they said. Many students' top matches turned out to be their own boyfriend or girlfriend -- or an old flame.

As fate would have it, Newman, who brought EphMatch to Williams, no longer needs its help. He started a relationship about a month ago, before the site debuted. The bad news: According to EphMatch, he and his girlfriend are only 62.7 percent compatible.

"We laughed about it and realized that at the end of the day, it's just a computer," he said. "We think we're more compatible than that."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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