There are two types of people who like gambling in casinos. 

The first type thinks that going to a casino is fun; it’s entertainment similar to going to a movie or a great way to spend vacation time. Realistically, they’re not too invested in winning and, in most cases, are happy to lose a small amount of money. 

The second type takes gambling more seriously. They embrace a magical kind of thinking that leads them to believe they have a real chance of winning the jackpot. Losing time after time does not dissuade them. They think the more often they place a bet, the better their chances of eventually winning big. 

The truth is, casinos and lotteries are designed so that gamblers have very little chance of winning. The law of large numbers guarantees that the more a gambler plays, the more it benefits the casino. 

“Playing the Cards” for Admission to an Elite College

I often think of the two types of gamblers when working with students applying to highly selective, prestigious colleges. 

Those Who Realize The Deck Is Stacked Against Them

Some are clear-eyed about the statistics they face and understand that it is almost guaranteed that they will be denied. But, like the first type of gambler, they’re willing to fill out an application, write many essays, and pay an application fee because the effort and cost of applying are worth the risk of a denial letter. 

I ask these students why they have little hesitation to spend their time, energy, and money on a process that will most assuredly end with rejection. They often say: “I always wanted to apply to XYZ school. I know I will not get in, but I will never have this chance again, so I will regret it if I do not try. If I get denied, it will be a point of pride to say that I, like many others before and after me, was rejected from one of the most famous schools in the world.” 

I admit, there is some wisdom to this reasoning that I admire, as failure is a necessary part of life. As a counselor, I am not particularly worried about this type of student.

Those Who Think They Can Hit the Jackpot

On the other hand, too many students are more like the second type of gambler. These students usually are pretty smart, so they understand the statistics that clearly indicate they have a low chance of being accepted to an elite university. But they still employ the same type of magical thinking that some gamblers do. They think they have a statistical edge that makes them the exception to the rule.

There are a few common arguments students make to convince themselves (and me) that the statistics don’t apply to them. One argument comes from an honest evaluation that they have a very high GPA and test scores in the highest percentile. 

It’s no mystery that objective criteria such as strong grades, rigorous classes, and high test scores are essential parts of an admission decision for highly selective schools. But just because you have excellent grades and test scores does not make you stand out in the pool of applicants applying to elite universities. A strong academic record is only average for competitive applications to highly selective colleges. Great grades and high test scores do not give you an edge.

Is It Possible to Calculate the Odds?

Another reason students believe they are the exception to the harsh reality of getting into a highly selective school is a lack of understanding of what admission rates published by colleges really mean. 

For example, if a highly selective university posts on their website that they admit 6% of students applying, this is actually the best-case scenario. The best that a student can hope for is a 94% chance that they will be denied. 

But most applicants face odds even steeper than this. 

When Running the Table Is Out of the Question

Many students that apply to highly selective universities aren’t truly competitive in the first place. The student’s GPA, the rigor of coursework, test scores, or other subjective parts of the application do not realistically line up with the best applicants in the pool. 

In the case that an applicant seems competitive because they have a high GPA and test scores, most students lack other “hooks” that make their applications above average. 

Most often these students have impressive extracurricular activities, but highly selective colleges expect competitive applicants to demonstrate extracurricular achievements that are more than just “impressive.” The truth is, highly selective colleges prioritize certain applicants such as athletes, children of alumni, and those who apply early action or early decision. A “regular” applicant to a highly selective school that admits only 6% of students is probably facing a 3% chance of admission, at best.

When Trying to Count the Cards

Some students think their statistical edge to getting into a highly selective school is to increase the number of selective schools they apply to. 

For example, most students understand that applying to one highly selective college that admits 10% of applicants only gives them a small probability of being admitted. There is a 90% chance of being denied. They reason: what if they apply to two universities that both accept 10% of applicants? Adding the admit rates together will double their chance of gaining admission to at least one prestigious school to at least 20%. 

But why not stop there? Apply to 10 universities that admit 10% of applicants will easily give them a 100% chance of being admitted to at least one highly selective school. 

Unfortunately, this is not how the math of probability works. The law of large numbers tells us that applying to a larger number of highly selective schools only makes more certain that you will have a chance of admission that comes close to the expected likelihood of admission, which in this example, is 90% chance they will not get into any of these colleges. 

Calling a Spade a Spade

While I try to counsel this type of student to be realistic and always apply to a list of schools with different admission criteria, sometimes I am not sure these students genuinely hear me. And sadly, when admission decisions are released, they usually find that they have not been admitted to their highly selective “dream” school. 

Only then are they shocked and emotionally crushed. And it seems that it’s only after getting this bad news they finally ask: “What happened to my edge? I’m a great student. I took more AP classes than anyone else. I devoted years to get a great SAT score. I obsessed over my essays late into the night. I sacrificed time that I could have spent with friends or family to rack up more volunteer hours or attend another school club meeting. I deserve to be admitted.”

The bottom line is, there’s no need for complicated math or being an expert in probabilities and statistics. Statistics don’t lie. Admission to highly selective colleges is tough. The vast majority of students should spend their time sincerely considering the hundreds of outstanding colleges and universities that they may be an excellent fit for admission. 

Therefore, the sixth rule of applying to colleges is that you are not the exception to what admission statistics say about getting into highly selective schools.

If you are interested in having an Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience in the field on your team or you would like to know how to approach the college application process in a practical way, please contact me.