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Admissions Is Not a Lottery

The idea that the college admissions process is a lottery is a common one among frustrated applicants. The popular variation is often phrased, ‘Admissions is a crapshoot,’ with the additional implication that you don’t have great odds in this particular lottery. Some, however, have taken the idea a bit more seriously. Writing in The Atlantic, Rob Goodman begins by criticizing the ever-heightening selectivity of top colleges, and then suggests a thought experiment: why shouldn’t admissions be a lottery, at least in part? Why not, as he puts it, “[e]mbrace the crapshoot”? Goodman proposes that top colleges ‘accept’ more students than they can accommodate, and then utilize a random lottery to decide which of these will actually be offered a spot in the new class.

There are obvious problems with such a system. But in the minds of its proponents, it has the virtue of exposing the random qualities of the current admissions practice. As Barry Schwartz says in a similar article in The Atlantic, “it will reveal the injustice by highlighting the role of contingency and luck.”

Is luck involved in college admissions? Undoubtedly. But not at the level of the admissions office. The idea that the decisions themselves are random doesn’t hold any water. The image of two identical applications, one thrown out and one awarded a spot, is not an inaccurate one, but it’s not as though admissions officers sit around all day flipping coins. Even, or especially, when the choice is tough, they make the decision based on something that appeals or doesn’t appeal to them. These are people making the best choices they can very quickly—not randomized computer programs.

As much as admissions decisions may seem random from the outside—a lottery with no guiding principle—to understand them that way merely perpetuates the rift between applicants and the human beings at the other end of the admissions process. To make sense of what can be a frustrating and disillusioning experience, it helps to try to understand what actually goes on. What doesn’t help is assuming a lottery that’s rigged against you, because if you do, the odds will never be in your favor.

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