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College Application Mistakes: Gambler’s Fallacy

Parents and students make this error all the time. But with a little understanding (and a brief psych lesson!) it can be avoided.

The thought pattern goes something like this:

“I want to apply to all eight Ivy League schools because then my chances of getting in will be better.”

Here’s the mistake: applying to more schools does give you more “at bats”, but it does not increase the probability that you will get in to any particular school.

This is a case of gambler’s fallacy, or the fallacy of the maturity of chances. It’s the belief that events are related when they are actually statistically independent. Here’s the classic example: a gambler makes a bet and pulls the lever on a slot machine. He loses. He then believes that because he lost, it is more likely that he will win in the future. That’s not true: each pull of the lever is an independent event, and the number of pulls does not affect his chances to win any single time.

College applications are the same way. Just because you’ve got a pile of rejections on your desk doesn’t mean it’s more likely that you’ll get into the next school. And, unfortunately, college admissions is a gamble: there’s no way to know if you’ll hit the jackpot.

What you can do is increase the quality of your applications. Write a great personal essay. Get glowing letters of recommendation. Nail the interview. Make sure that everything is turned in on time. That way, you’re not relying on chance, but giving it your absolute all. If you feel that your application represents your best work and your authentic self, that’s the best you can do. Pull the lever, and good luck.

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