College admissions is a lottery

At ultra-competitive colleges, admissions is a lottery, writes Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.

I have a friend who’s worked for two college admissions departments. One was a traditional liberal arts college in the Northeast, and the other a highly competitive college in the greater DC area. At the former, she says it was a mostly sane process where they more or less knew the high schools of students, had time to read the student’s personal statements, and truly thought about whether the student would be a good fit for this particular institution. Here in DC, at the competitive school, it was totally different. Mainly because of the sheer size of the applicant pool, they had to rely much more heavily on the all-important numbers — high school GPA and SAT score — rather than thinking holistically about the student. The admissions office, even after setting a relatively high standard, had thousands of applicants to choose from, and very little time to do so. During admissions season, each officer was given 500 applications per week. At 40 hours a week, not counting breaks and meetings, the admissions officer had 10 minutes to make a decision about an applicant. Ten minutes (unless, as my friend points out, they’re athletes or legacies).

Instead of torturing students to come up with extracurriculars and essays, admit it’s random, throw the grades and scores in a hopper and run it like the med school matching system, Aldeman suggests.

April is the cruelest month for high school seniors, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. He has tips for coping with the college crunch.

About Joanne


  1. Fred Hargadon started saying that in 2000 or thereabouts:

    Echoing Fred Hargadon’s (Princeton University Dean of Admissions) comment four year ago, “we could have filled three separate classes from this year’s pool of applicants, with no discernible difference among them.” His follow-up statement also applies to the admissions picture at private high schools in 2002. “A student’s acceptance is, to a significant extent, a matter of luck.”

  2. This is why retaining a pricey admissions consultant has pretty much become standard practice in many areas these days. When there are so many applicants with similar numbers, a student really needs to find a “hook” to make his/her application stand out. It’s unfair to kids whose families cannot afford the services of a consultant- one more way the middle-class is getting screwed over in this country.

  3. Lottery is the right way to achieve “diversity”. Well, at least it’s legal. Are you listening, UCLA and Berkeley? Those schools are well-known for trying to skirt the requirements of Prop 209.

  4. 10 minutes after the records have already been screened is actually enough time to make a go-no go decision.

    The initial screening of GPA and SAT will give you an excellent indicator of whether or not the applicant will stay in school for four years. (It will NOT, however, give an indicator of how well the applicant will do, or whether the applicant will be a net benefit to society. These qualities are not testable so far.)

    So the 10 minutes is then used to look for something which, in combination with all the other acceptancees, will provide a net benefit to the student body. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

    But take it from one who’s looked through hundreds of employment applications–10 minutes is enough time.