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Play the odds when applying to colleges

Thousands of high school juniors will visit prospective colleges during spring break.

One of the most important considerations in deciding which to visit is to make sure that the list is balanced in regard to acceptances. This means being ruthlessly realistic when comparing students’ statistics to those of the institution’s acceptance rate. Students should assign each college they are considering a designated slot based on the following categories.

• Highly Likely – or “Goodies” – schools. Assigned to schools for which the student’s statistics fall in the upper 10 percent of accepted students and the acceptance rate is above 40 percent. These are schools where the student is likely to get goodies – scholarship money, leadership opportunities and honors programs invitations. This is true for the 3.0 GPA student as well as the 4.0 student. Putting a student at the head of the class opens up many options.

Important note: A school below a 30 percent acceptance rate can never be a Highly Likely. Even if the student is in the top 10 percent, the odds are just not in his or her favor. So, if the student is a perfect 4.0 and scored a 2100 on the SAT, he or she is still not a Highly Likely for a school like UCLA, with a 22 percent acceptance rate.

• Likely schools. Assigned to schools for which the student’s statistics are in the upper 25-30 percent and the schools maintain an acceptance rate of 30 percent or higher, keeping the odds in the student’s favor.

• Possible schools. Schools in this category must meet one of two criteria: The student is in the middle 50 percent of their statistics, or the student is in the top 25-30 percent but the schools have less than a 40 percent acceptance rate. In other words, these are schools for which acceptance is highly unpredictable and could go either way for any given student.

• Reach schools. This category also has two ways schools can be assessed. The first is a school where the student’s statistics fall in the lower 50 percent of accepted students. The second is for schools with less than a 30 percent acceptance rate, even if the student is in the upper 10 percent. Again, statistically the odds are against the applicant.

• Lottery schools. Schools with under a 15 percent acceptance rate fall in this category. These schools regularly deny acceptance to students with perfect statistics. While there is a direct plan they employ in building their classes, it may seem arbitrary and like winning the lottery to any accepted student.

A balanced list should chart like a bell curve, including at least two highly likely, two likely and three possible schools. Additional selections can be located anywhere on the curve. Exactly how many total schools are on the list is the student’s choice, but I strongly recommend no more than 15. No one ever adds Highly Likely or Likely schools to their lists. And, adding more Reach and Lottery schools does not enhance the student’s chances of being admitted to any given school. In fact, I have found that the return on investment based on the time spent writing supplements and paying fees is negative beyond 15 applications.

Another way to assemble the list: Students should pretend that they are going to Las Vegas and playing the odds. Say you’re going to apply to 10 schools and you have 10 chips to play. You can only play each chip once, you can only place one chip on a school and (here’s the tough one) you must walk away with at least one winning chip.

Given these rules, would you bet all of your chips on tables having only a 30 percent payout? I would hope not. So book your tickets, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Hollis Bischoff earned a graduate certificate in College and Career Counseling from UCLA and is a college admissions adviser at Strategies 4 Admission LLC. For more information, call 209-0272 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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