What are your chances of getting into your top college?

I’ve been fascinated for a few years now by the popular exercise on College Confidential when a person says “Chance Me?” They give their test scores, GPA, classes they’ve taken, and extra-curricular activities, and then ask the other users to estimate their chances of getting into a particular school or list of schools.

For example, a post from a few days ago, titled “Chances for UMD and NYU Stern,” reads:

Asian Junior at pretty competitive high school

UW Gpa: 3.71 W Gpa: 4.48

SAT: 1480 -790 math and 690 R/W (first time taking it so I’m going to take again)

Did not take any subject tests so far but I am planning on taking math 2 and physics

Ap so far: English 11, World history, government and politics, computer science, calculus AB, physics c mechanics, psychology

Ap senior year: micro/macro econ, calculus BC, statistics, English 12, Differential equations


Math team for 4 years

Co-leader of computer science club and I am also the senior statistician officer of the club

Chess club for 3 years

JV wrestling

Engineering club board member

I am also an assistant teacher at a local Korean school and have put in countless hours in teaching students and leading the classroom

Awards with assistant teacher: 2017 and 2018 got a gold presidents award for leadership in community service; 2018 received the gold excellence in junior leadership award

I also help out the homeless and the pier in Baltimore city every first Sunday do the month by buying them food and necessities

I am in the process of starting my own business right now having to do deal with graphic designing logos for clients

I also have interned and done research dealing with applied mathematics

I also have a good job experience where I manage a few people

I’m tempted to explain that it doesn’t work that way. Nobody can quantify your “chances” of getting accepted to any particular university, least of all strangers on the internet who are mostly high school students like yourself. But I assume almost all the people asking for their chances understand that. Playing the “chance me” game isn’t rational, and it isn’t meant to be an accurate gauge of the probability of an acceptance. Instead, I believe most people do it to get validation, or to calm their fears, or to have an outsider bring them to more realistic expectations for themselves. It’s emotional, not rational. It’s a way to deal with your anxiety over college admissions.

When you’re a little kid on a road trip with your family, you ask “how long until we get there?” not because the answer makes any difference, but because you want to express that you’re tired of being in the car. When you’re older, you ask “what are my chances?” not because the answer makes any difference, but because you want to express that you’re anxious about your future.

If you’re asking for chances for this reason, that’s fine. Just be honest with yourself about what you’re doing. And never start to believe that the answers you get are valid.

However, if you would like to work through some rational ways of figuring your odds, here are a few ideas:

Assume that the school’s overall acceptance rate applies to you. You’re thinking about applying to Princeton and want to know your odds of getting in? Every year about severn percent of the people who apply to Princeton get accepted, so there you go. Seven percent. Not knowing any other information about any other applicant, there’s no way to assume higher or lower odds.

Assume your odds are 50/50. You either get accepted or you don’t. Nobody gets 80% accepted to a college.

Assume you’ll get accepted to all the schools you applied to—but get no financial aid. In this scenario, where would you actually end up going? If you have several schools on your list that you can afford with no financial aid, then think about which is your top choice. It’s very likely you’ll end up there. If you only have one school on your list you could afford without financial aid, then that’s the place you’ll most likely end up. If there’s nothing on your list that you can afford without financial aid, then it’s time to make a back-up plan. Remember that not filling out a FAFSA is pretty much the same as not getting any financial aid, and remember that filling out a FAFSA—unless you’re wealthy—almost guarantees some financial aid someplace…but not necessarily enough for you to afford your top-choice school.

Assume your chances of going to a good-fit school are extremely high if you’ll plan carefully. This is the most realistic, useful, and productive way to think about your odds. If you’ll follow the Five Foundations to Applying with Sanity, you’re going to be fine. Really.

Last week one of my coaching clients asked me about her chances of getting an acceptance at Northwestern, where she’s applied and waiting to hear back. Here’s how I responded:

It's so difficult to try to estimate chances. In the end, you either get accepted or denied; there is no 80% acceptance. And as Hilary Clinton can tell you, even having 95% odds doesn't mean it will always work out that way.

There are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Northwestern gets a lot more applications than they can accept. Around 1 in 10 will get accepted. So the safe assumption is that you won't be accepted. Emotionally speaking, Northwestern is a school where you just don't want to get your hopes up too high. Like I said about Brown a while ago, there's absolutely no reason to assume you won't be accepted, but there's no reason for anyone to assume they will.

2. You are a very strong candidate for Northwestern. You're smart; you worked your butt off in high school and made good grades; your ACT scores are awesome, and better than what half the current Northwestern students got; you pushed yourself and excelled in extra-curriculars that are connected to your passions and talents; you wrote a good response to the "why Northwestern?" prompt; you interviewed--and had a good interview--at a school that considers demonstrated interest. If you don't get accepted, you can feel confident that the reason has to do with the number of applications that they received and their particular needs for this year. It wouldn't reflect poorly on you at all.

3. You're going to do great at a good school for you. It may be Northwestern, it may be at [one of the schools who have already accepted you]. But you're definitely going to college, and you're definitely going to a great college with a great reputation that's a good fit for you. That may not be much consolation if and when you're receiving bad news, but you're going to be great by next September.

How would I translate that into a number? I'm going to just say assume it's 90%, but plan for 9%.

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Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth