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U-Md. scholar studies college application hype

The College of William and Mary announced Tuesday it has received 12,500 applications for a freshman class no larger than 1,500 students. A sobering statistic.

Or is it?

Samir Khuller, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, examines college-application hype in a paper titled "How many places to apply to and how many to accept?" He co-wrote it with Jessica Chang, a graduate student at the University of Washington.


Understanding their findings requires a grasp of simple statistics, or a large cup of coffee.

"In short," Khuller said, "we were trying to show that the 'demand' can be slightly misleading."

They document a vicious cycle in college admissions:

"If people apply to more and more places, a lot of applications get generated, making it look like it's near impossible to get admission," he said, in a series of e-mails explaining the paper. "As a result, people apply to more and more places."

Let's say there were only 10,000 college applicants in the nation, and 10 colleges, each with openings for 500 freshmen.
If each applicant applied to all 10 schools, then each would report it had received 10,000 applications for the 500 slots.

"You get the impression that admission is nearly impossible," Khuller said.

The truth, though, is that half of those 10,000 students will get one of the 5,000 seats. Each kid has, on average, a 50 percent chance of getting a seat somewhere.

Now, what if each of those 10,000 kids applied to only one school? The probability of admission would be the same as if each student applied to 5 schools, or to all 10. Half would get in.

So, why bother applying to so many schools?

Because sending out more applications creates a statistical advantage. The advantage goes to those who apply "to more places than everyone else does," Khuller said.

If the average student applies to 5 schools, then the kid who applies to 10 gets an edge.

The paper also guides colleges in how to manage the deluge of applications, in deciding how many offers of admission they should make to fill their class. This part involves some slightly more advanced math, best not repeated here.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  February 2, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Access , Research  | Tags: College admissions, College of William and Mary, academic research  
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Next: Applications up at Loyola, Goucher

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