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Embracing Chance: Adding a Lottery Component to College Admissions

Author profile picture Griffin Harris
Recipient profile picture Biddy Martin
19 April
Dear Biddy Martin,
My younger sister, a senior in high school, just wrapped up her college admissions journey. About a week ago, she put her deposit down and committed to a school. She’s happy with the end-result – but she, like so many other high school students, found the process incredibly draining. I don’t remember the application process very fondly either. After writing dozens of essays, attending several interviews, crafting multiple art supplement portfolios, and pouring over the details of my Common App ad nauseam, I sent in my materials and waited … a few months later, I was met with a cavalcade of rejection letters. Today, more students are being met with more rejection letters than ever before. Application numbers to elite colleges and universities are soaring while acceptance rates dwindle into the mid-to-low single digits. And plenty of the rejection letters that students receive acknowledge the exceptional quality of these schools’ applicant pools. They’ll even openly admit that rejectees are perfectly qualified to attend their institution – it’s just that schools don’t have the space. Yet despite the consoling language they offer - despite assurances that rejectees are indeed “XYZ-school-material” - there’s of course an implication in each rejection letter that the recipient was somehow lacking. Because someone else got in and they didn’t. Some other applicant possessed a quality, talent, or accomplishment that put them above the rejectee in the acceptance hierarchy. And that, in turn, implies that admissions staff are using some system, one that likely incorporates both quantitative (test scores, GPAs, etc.) and qualitative (character traits, demonstrated passion and initiative, demographic, cultural, and economic background, etc.) factors, to select students. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. My issue here is that I don’t believe admission committees are properly acknowledging the role that chance and luck play in their decisions. When a school sends a prospective student a rejection letter, they are, in effect, telling that student that there was a subjective selection process (however fair or unfair) by which that student was eliminated. But there’s no mention of how truly random factors may come into place. Was a reviewer in a particularly positive or negative headspace while looking over a student’s application? Did they just read three essays in a row on very similar topics, perhaps leading them to unconsciously consider the third essayist’s piece to be less original than the others? Did they decide not to accept the exceptional oboe player this year because they’d already accepted two last year and would rather go with an outstanding flutist this time around? Did one student’s application strike a chord with them because they shared similar interests or passions? I have the utmost confidence that admissions staff try their best to be aware of and avoid cognitive biases, but they are still human beings. They can still be affected by tiny partialities and errors here and there. And sometimes it takes just the smallest push to tip the scales in one direction. So what if, instead of letting chance infiltrate decision-makers’ judgment and affect the overall process through hidden and untraceable channels, we embraced chance – an objectively fairer form of chance – head-on? A partial lottery would do just that. A partial lottery would be one in which eligible applicant pools would still be selected by admissions committees, and it would allow for the incorporation of weighting systems so that schools could still achieve desired racial, cultural, economic, geographic, etc. diversity. Schools could even continue to give direct acceptance offers to “must-have” students. The rest of the student applicants, though - those who, by colleges’ own admission, are all truly qualified to attend – would have their ultimate decision handed down by luck. And yet, if the difference between the present system and a partial lottery system is that the former is affected by luck and chance without acknowledging it, while the other embraces the element of chance on its face, what’s the upshot? Won’t the same number of students receive disheartening rejection letters every year? Yes, they will – but the overall system will be more honest. Admissions committees will admit that, while their expertise and exceptional judgment can help them winnow down massive prospective applicant pools, they are not immune to luck, chance, unconscious biases, and their own emotions and moods. Rejected students will know that they were indeed qualified to attend the institutions from which they were rejected, but they’ll also be certain that their rejection was truly a matter of chance. And finally, students accepted via the lottery system can also be confident that they’re qualified, but their confidence will also be tempered by some humility; they’ll know they did everything they could to clinch their spot, and yet their acceptance was still, at least partially, due to a roll of the dice. That’s how the real world works, after all. People are successful in whatever fields they pursue – science, literature, law, finance, entrepreneurship, you name it – through a combination of skill and luck. And oftentimes, that latter factor is either totally overlooked or vastly underappreciated. Would it be preferable to be truly, brutally honest about luck’s role in all of our lives? Along with the spate of rejection letters I received from colleges nine years ago, I received a couple of waitlist letters too. One was from Amherst College, my top choice school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted off that waitlist, and I am incredibly thankful for the education I received from Amherst. But I am also aware of how important a role luck – the luck of my upbringing, my schooling, and whatever factors pushed my application past the finish line - played in my acceptance. In 2022, Amherst made the laudable decision to stop factoring legacy status into their admissions decisions. Would they be willing to go a step further and embrace the role that luck has in not just college admissions but in our lives as a whole?

Griffin Harris

Author profile picture Griffin Harris

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