Lottery logic

Years ago, a Collegewise parent asked that Stanford be added to his daughter’s already-finalized college list. She had a mixture of A’s and B’s on her transcript, slightly above average test scores, and respectable activities—credentials that would easily get her admitted to hundreds of potential colleges. But there was no chance that Stanford was going to be one of them. When I pushed back gently to point this out, his reply was:

“Well, somebody has to get in.”

He understood how unlikely the chances of admission were.  But his premise was that she couldn’t be admitted if she didn’t apply. It was the, “You can’t win if you don’t play” approach—lottery logic—applied to college admissions.

There are some cases where a student does need a gentle push to take a shot at a dream school. In fact, we have counselors working at Collegewise who attended prestigious colleges and point out that someone—usually a teacher or counselor—believed in them enough to push them to apply. And whatever the circumstances, I don’t have any issue with a student reaching for a school she genuinely believes is right for her.

But like this father, too many families apply lottery logic indiscriminately during the college admissions process. They add two or three or ten reach colleges based only on the prestige rather than their student’s well-articulated desire to attend. They expend time and energy looking for angles and strategies to improve the chances of admission to those schools. They pin their admissions hopes on the schools least likely to admit their student and (usually unintentionally) send a message that a lottery win is the only acceptable outcome.

Buying an occasional ticket for the state lottery is a fun game of chance. But a person who continuously spends money, time, energy, and emotion looking for a way to win millions isn’t changing the unassailable math in play. And they ruin the fun of playing at all. Lottery logic in college admissions works much the same way.

Yes, somebody has to get in. Is there evidence to support that it might be you (not proof of a sure thing, which nobody gets, just evidence)? Does your counselor agree that you’ve earned your right to play? And most importantly, do you genuinely want to attend a school with lottery-like odds, beyond the banal reason that “it’s a great school”?

If so, take your best shot. But if not, you might consider playing a different game, one that doesn’t involve lottery logic.