Is there luck involved in admissions?


Yes, there is. But you can’t predict it.

Admissions is, when you have been doing it as long as we have (175+ years in admissions offices alone), mostly predictable. The two most common questions I get by far—and by common I mean, understandably, every single day of the year from some direction—are first, “Will I be admitted to x, y, z school?” and then, “When will it happen?” To the former, if I know the person, or at least have seen their entire application and numbers, I can answer correctly almost every time. Maybe about 95% of the time. To the latter, I am horrible at that so no need to keep asking!

First, why the 95% accuracy? Because if the applicant is an upbeat, calm person, has a strong application and numbers around a school’s medians, and you know the applicant pool of the particular cycle, it’s really easy over time. The kind of application I like is 95% of the time the kind of application someone with admissions experience likes. I can say this because I have trained to some extent most of the 25+ admissions consultants we have hired, and we almost always like the same things. This actually used to amaze me, and it still amazes every new hire—“I’m surprised the exact same kind of Personal Statement I liked at Harvard you liked at Vanderbilt, Spivey.” And that extends to the application. Admissions officers tend to like a certain kind of differentiated application because most sound just like one similar one after the other. Read 50 of those in a row, and then get one that truly stands out, and there is your admissions bump. These are very predictable to us.

But, what about that 5% I don’t get right? There is unexplainable (to us at least) variance because admissions can never be entirely reduced to controllable variables. I have a chapter in the book I am writing (release date: one year from now to eternity, give or take) titled “The Fallacy of Reductionism” for this very reason. I’ll start with the happy side of luck. Read Personal Statement #5 here. I remember my phone call with this client vividly, right after she submitted all of her applications. I remember telling her she was about to get a lot of waitlists, and I remember personally thinking she would be waitlisted by almost every school she applied to. Why? Because she split the numbers and applied to a bunch of very selective schools that have every ability to waitlist any splitter/reverse splitter they want. Yet decision after decision came in, and each was an admit. My predictions were wrong — she was admitted early on at almost every school. As much as I would like to immodestly claim the bump came from her polished application, I also think there was some luck involved to go through the cycle with results that astonishing.

Unfortunately, luck cuts both ways. That is to say, we see unlucky applicants every year too. It’s our biggest concern as a firm and why we have a very careful intake process that turns away people with unrealistic expectations or just really aggressive (like the guy who called and verbally attacked one of my consultants and then when I called him he asked to speak to my boss immediately) or negative attitudes. We are trying to control some of those variables. But what we can’t control is the rigor of the cycle (are application and quality up?), or the balance of any school’s pool. Or, and this is for certain real, the mood and experience of the person reading the admission file on any given day. Put “trail running” as an interest on your resume, and if you are even close to our medians I’d likely admit you. Put “sweet potato fries” and I’d likely deny you (admittedly that would be a horrible interest, but I really do hate those).

So, in summary, there is variance based on the file reader’s individual experience which an applicant won’t know, and there is variance based on the applicant pool any given day, which none of us will ever know. And there is even variance based on the mood of an individual on any given day. If there is one bit of optimism from this post, I would say it is the following: when luck can tip toward bad or good—and when you control for as many factors as possible, including professionalism of applicant, pool strength, etc.—it more often tips towards “lucky” than “unlucky.” Why? Admissions officers tend to be upbeat, happy people. In this sense, the fortunes are more apt to be in your favor.

We wish you all the luck in the admissions cycle, all 5% or so of it.

– Mike Spivey