When I was a junior, I learned all about gambling in Honors Pre-Calculus with Mr. Barkdoll. We discussed the expected value of various casino games and the lottery. I learned, pretty quickly, that I should never ever buy a lottery ticket, even if the jackpot got as high as the Powerball did last night: $1.5 billion. Those two bucks would be better spent on a cup of coffee. What I didn’t learn, however, was the way admissions data and statistics should be used to develop my college list.

I’m embarrassed to say that in my senior year, I assumed that if a school had a 10 percent admit rate, I could apply to ten similarly selective schools and get into one of them. Those of you with even a passing familiarity with statistics know that it doesn’t work this way; I didn’t. And I didn’t get into most of the schools to which I had applied.

College admissions is not a lottery

When college admissions offices select their class, they do it with as much information as they can gather about their applicants. This isn’t a matter of throwing ping pong balls into a machine and spitting out combinations for the “winning students.” It’s a matter of carefully selecting students who fit the profile of a successful student at that particular institution. Some students might have a 50 percent chance of getting into a college with just a 10 percent admit rate; other students might have less than a one percent chance. Still others might have a zero percent chance; less chance even than winning the Powerball. This is because applications are not lottery tickets—you control the content you present to admissions offices, and you’re being measured against other students who also control the content of their applications.

How does this help me?

The first thing I want every high school student to do is to stop looking at the admit rate to determine either the quality of an institution or the likelihood of being admitted. Admit rate is simple division: number of students accepted over number of students who applied. Nothing about that number tells us about applicant quality, institutional quality, or likelihood of admission. Instead, look at numbers that predict admissions success, like the middle 50 percent for GPA or test scores among admitted students. This information can be found on a school’s freshman class profile, or on data websites like the College Board’s Big Future. Use your school’s Naviance scatter plots to see if you’re in the ballpark for a particular college or university. And talk to counselors who have experience reading and evaluating applications! They can help you assess the quality of your app that isn’t quantifiable.

Perhaps most importantly, be realistic about your chances. Playing the lottery is a game with clear(ly poor) odds, but people are aware of those odds going in. Nobody is disappointed when they lose the lottery; at least, nobody thinks it’s unfair when they’ve lost. Be just as honest with yourself as you build your college list this year, or await admissions decisions this spring. Adjust your list according to good data or advice, and understand your chances when you submit your applications. While you can play the Powerball again and again, you only apply to college once. Do it the smart way.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.