Applying to College is Not a Game of Chance
Updated: Nov 16
If you’ve ever watched someone play roulette, the casino game with the longest odds, you will see that many improvident bettors spread their chips over several numbers, thinking it improves their chances of winning. They almost always lose, anyway. Many college applicants and parents think applying to college is like roulette – a pure gamble, against the odds, and you should apply to twenty or more colleges in the hopes of hitting a winner. But college admissions officers do not merely spin a wheel - though the process can’t be completely rational, it is fairly easy to predict where the applicant will be admitted and where the applicant will be rejected.
Don't Play the Numbers Game
Sending out fifteen letters to schools where the student has no chance of admissions is like buying fifteen tickets on a flight to Mars. Buying more tickets doesn’t increase your chances of getting to Mars. If you have done your research and have a solid idea of which schools you would be willing to commit to attending (a list that is not merely a wish list), and you have done the research to determine the average GPA and test scores of successful applicants to these schools, you should only have to apply to eight to twelve colleges - two or three safeties, four to eight target schools, and two or three reaches.
Transfer is an Option
And remember, this is not a life or death decision - you can always transfer. Often a student who has excelled in college can transfer into a dream school more easily than applying as a high school senior.
Start early, preferably in ninth or tenth grade, to visit and learn about prospective colleges. Do NOT limit your tour primarily to seeing wish list schools. Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Dartmouth is not a realistic tour, just because it includes BU. Include Northeastern, Tufts, and Brandeis on that tour.
Correlation is not Causation
Many parents will not heed this advice because they have heard that so and so who applied to twenty schools was admitted to a desired school, but that student would probably have had the same success by applying to fewer schools. It is not the number of applications that determine a student’s success, but old-fashioned considerations such as GPA, a depth of activities, and a variety of pursuits outside of the school realm altogether that demonstrate the applicant’s intense interest in their intended major and their level of expertise.
Know Your College Majors
Most colleges or universities have at least fifty majors, and many big universities have over a hundred. Yet students tend to only write as their intended majors things they know. Computer Science, because they spend so much time involved with computers, or business, because they understandably want to make a nice living, are the most popular. Applying directly to an undergraduate business program (when, in fact, Wall Street hires students from a wide variety of majors) or a computer science program vastly narrows an applicant’s probability of being admitted. Rather than applying to twenty schools with the same doomed comp sci or undergraduate Business School strategy, learn about other majors where there is much less competition.
It’s Not How It Was 30 Years Ago - or 5 Years Ago. The biggest mistake the parents and loved ones of the applicant make is to assume they know something - anything - about what is an “easy” or “hard” school to get into. Was UCLA your safety thirty years ago? You couldn’t even get accepted now. Did you take a dim view of Northeastern because it wasn’t that hard to get into? Well, they accept less than ten percent of applicants now. More Americans are applying to college than ever before, and the United States is a lot bigger than it was even ten years ago. Students are more interested, generally speaking, in the prestige factor than they used to be. And students from all over the world are trying to get into U.S. colleges and universities. College admissions is much more selective than it used to be, and while a reach school in 1993 might have been an Ivy, today for a great percentage of prospective applicants it’s just a waste of time, money, and stress.
Being Realistic Doesn’t Need to be Disappointing
Find out what the realistic reach, target, and safety schools of your applicant are, and apply wisely. Don’t drive your applicant crazy by ignoring the law of diminishing returns - the more schools the applicant must research and write supplemental essays for, the more poorly the applicant is going to write all of her application essays.
If you want a list of schools tailored to your applicant by knowledgeable admissions professionals, contact Bentham Admissions.