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2014 May 3

College lottery

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:58
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On one mailing list I subscribe to, a parent remarked

For über-selective schools, I have come to believe in “lottery” because I think the chance of any given (non-recruited) student having his/her application selected from the enormous pile of  similarly “qualified” applicants—due to where s/he lives, or a specific extracurricular interest, or something about his/her demographics, or a passage of an essay or recommendation that tickled an ad com’s fancy, or whatever—is akin to having a lottery ticket chosen.

I believe that from the students’ perspective, admission at highly selective schools is best modeled as a lottery. Although each individual admissions officer is trying to put together an “optimal” class, they have different ideas of what is good (far too often looking for students like themselves, for example). Which admissions officer first reviews a student’s file may make a huge​ difference, but is not under control of the student (or even of the institution).  Having a student who is a perfect fit for a highly selective institution is no guarantee of their getting in—in fact, being a perfect fit may change their odds of getting in insignificantly.

All the things we do to maximize our kids’ chances (grades/no grades, detailed transcripts/one-page transcripts, accredited courses/customized instruction, extensive testing/minimal testing, Mommy grades/external grades/no grades, normal curriculum/esoteric subjects, SAT prep/no prep, college visits, letters of recommendation, college courses in high school, …) are probably just magical thinking, giving us the illusion of having some influence over a process that is really completely out of our control.

Of course, there are a lot of exceptions to normal admissions: there are scandals every year about the extremely low academic performance of student athletes in high-money sports, and a lot of private schools give big boosts to children of donors and smaller boosts to children of alumni.  Stanford claims that the children of alumni have about a 3-fold greater chance of admission, but how much of this is due to their being “legacies”, how much to exceptions for big donors who happen to be alumni, and how much due to the children of Stanford grads having higher academic performance than the average applicant to Stanford is kept secret.  (I do find it telling that alumni trying  to get their children into Stanford are directed to talk with administrator in charge of getting donations not to the admissions office.)

Luckily, there are many decent-fit institutions, and college selection is more a matter of finding a good enough fit and making it work than of looking for a perfect match.  That idea applies to both students and colleges.

Students have to decide how many lottery tickets to buy (the main cost is the time to write the essays). By looking at the admissions probability for each college they apply to, they  can buy enough tickets to have a reasonably high probability of at least one acceptance.  The standard advice to apply to “safety” schools is primarily to raise the expected number of acceptances, which is just the sum of the probability of acceptance over all schools applied to. Students need to determine which colleges are a decent fit (academically, socially, and financially) and apply to enough of them to get into one or more.  As the admissions odds continue to get worse even at large state schools, each year students need to apply to more schools, which creates a feedback cycle of lowering admissions odds and increasing the number of applications needed.  The testing agencies, who charge ridiculously large fees for each test report and financial aid report, get rich, but everyone else loses from this cycle.

The colleges could save themselves a lot of money by eliminating most admissions officers and using a real lottery (probably with weighted probabilities to shape the class they want). This would probably result in better balanced incoming classes, as the biases of the admissions officers would be substantially reduced.  A lot of state schools are already effectively lottery entry, though there are some questions about whether the weighting schemes they use are really in the best long-term interests of the state or the school, and they still hire more admissions officers than are really needed to manage the lottery.

One hard part for students and parents is trying to estimate the probability of acceptance in order to figure out how many applications are needed. The raw figures from the Common Data Set for each school can be misleading—gender is the only predictive factor from which probabilities can be derived. Students and parents have no access to how the probability of admissions changes with score level or other characteristics, just the overall level for males and for females. There are some numbers reported about the admitted cohort in terms of class rank and standardized test scores, but without similar statistics about the applicant pool, these statistics don’t provide much predictive power.  Being at the 25%ile or the 75th%ile for the admitted class does not tell a student what the probability of acceptance is for students at that level—even being well above the 75%ile does not raise one’s probability much above the baseline at the highly selective schools.  In fact, some schools may have a higher probability of acceptance for lower scores (admissions officers unconsciously want students like themselves, and the brightest students rarely go on to become admissions officers).

The only school I’ve seen that provides more detailed statistics on score ranges is MIT, and even then they only report on those admitted, not those applying.  One can gather that applicants with low math scores have little chance of acceptance, but assigning probabilities is hard—what fraction of the pool had each of these score levels?

MIT 2013 admissions statistics

SAT Critical Reading SAT Math SAT Writing
700-800 67.1% 93.8% 69.9%
600-699 27.3% 6.1% 26.5%
500-599 5.4% 0.1% 3.6%
400-499 0.2% 0.0% 0.0%
300-399 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
200-299 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
100% 100% 100%

Of course, the jobs of admissions officers rely on their pretending that the admission process is not a lottery, and that they possess some magical skill at selecting just the right students to admit. So the colleges will not release data that assigns probabilities or allows others to do so. And all the admissions web sites and blogs will say things like

But, as we say here over and over and over again, the numbers are probably the least important part of an application to MIT.

Not that numbers don’t matter. If your grades and scores suggest that you are not prepared to do the work at MIT, you will not be admitted, because we don’t want to admit people just to have them fail out.

But once students have demonstrated academic preparedness—as the majority of MIT applicants can and do—then the additional returns accrued by marginal increases in academic performance diminish markedly. When comparing two applicants who have scored in the latter band, we’re not sitting there saying “well this person has a 750, and this person has a 780”, we’re saying “both of these applicants are academically qualified for MIT, so which one would contribute more to the community here?”


Since, from a student perspective, admissions to college is a lottery, it would probably benefit almost everyone to implement it more directly as a lottery.

2014 April 26


Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:33
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Some readers of my blog and e-mail posts have been asking where my son will be going to college.

He filed his “Statement of Intent to Register” (SIR in UC jargon) and paid the deposit for University of California, Santa Barbara.

This post is a partial explanation of why he chose UCSB. I’m somewhat constrained, as I’ve been asked not to detail precisely where he did and did not get accepted. Suffice it to say that the number of acceptances was not different enough from the expected number to reject the null hypothesis that acceptances are random based on the probabilities inferred from the Common Data Set.  (Of course, with a sample size of one, that is not a very strong statement.)

As a family, we’re all pretty happy with UCSB as a choice, despite its reputation as a party school, the conservative community, and the difficulty of reaching it by air from northern California. What sold him on UCSB was the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which seems to be the best honors program in the UC system.

His major will be computer science, but it will be computer science in CCS, rather than computer science in engineering. What this means is that he basically crafts his own degree together with a faculty adviser. In his first quarter, he’ll take a special CCS freshman seminar with the other 10 or so CCS computer science freshmen, during which the instructor will try to assess the current level of expertise of each student and fill any holes they have in their prior learning, to place them in the right CS courses in future quarters.  The class is tiny (usually around 10 students) so the instructor doesn’t have to do one-size-fits-all teaching or advising. Because my son has already had UC-level applied discrete math (through concurrent enrollment at UCSC), he’ll be able to take upper-division courses like formal languages and automata theory right away. In fact, I suspect that he’ll end up skipping almost all the lower-division courses in CS.  He may end up opting to take some of them for review, or so that he’ll have an easy course on his schedule so that he has more time for research or acting, but he won’t be forced into huge lecture classes that have nothing new for him in them.

I looked over the lower-division (first two years) of CS at UCSB and it looks like my son has covered almost all of it already. He’s had several different programming languages (Scratch, C, Scheme, Python, Java, with bits of C++, JavaScript, Logo, assembly language), though he is most proficient now with object-oriented code in Python. One course (CMPSC 56) may have a little new material on exception handling and threading, and he might choose to take something like that to formalize his knowledge—when one learns a subject by reading reference manuals to do particular programming tasks there are sometimes unexpected holes in what you learn.  He’s done a fair amount with threading in Python, but not a lot with exception handling. CMPSC 64, on computer architecture and digital logic also has some new material for him.  The computer architecture will seem fairly simple to him after how deeply he’s been diving into the KL25 ARM Cortex M0+ architecture for programming both PteroDAQ and the light gloves, but some of the combinational and sequential hardware design will new.

One strong plus is that he’ll be able to join a research team his first year—CCS makes a concerted effort to get their students into research groups (in fact, one faculty member he met with when visiting UCSB has already tried to recruit him to a project). The UCSB computer science department is pretty good (their website claims top 10 for grad programs, but even allowing for hype they are probably in the top 20), and the department is fairly large with 32 tenure-track faculty, so there are a lot of different research projects he could join.  Computer engineering is lumped with EE in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, so there are more faculty and more research projects he could join there.

Another plus of the CCS program is a relaxing of the often bureaucratic nit-picking of general-education requirements. The CCS general-ed requirements are

  1. two courses in fields related to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with a CCS advisor;
  2. eight courses broadly distributed in fields unrelated to the student’s major, as determined in consultation with the advisor. These may be selected from courses offered by the College of Creative Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Engineering.

One of these courses must fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement: a course that concentrates on the intellectual, social and cultural experience, and history of one of the following groups: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian-Americans. This course may be selected from a list of courses that fulfill the Ethnicity Requirement offered through the College of Letters and Science, or it may be a College of Creative Studies course that is classified as such.

Students also have to satisfy UC-wide requirements:

The reduction in bureaucratic bean counting means that he can probably satisfy all his general-ed requirements with fun courses in theater, linguistics, physics, math, and so forth.  The only rather arbitrary course is the Ethnicity Requirement, and he can satisfy that with any of several courses, including some theater ones.

One minor problem (shared by almost every college he applied to) is that he gets little relevant credit for his Advanced Placement exams. He’ll probably get 18 credits toward graduation (out of the 180 needed to graduate), but not all the units count towards his major requirements. He gets full credit for the calculus BC, but physics gives only useless non-STEM physics credit for the Physics C exams, the AP CS exam credit is pretty useless, and I’m not sure about chemistry (the page says “Natural Science 1B”, but there does not seem to be such a course—if they mean “CHEM 1B”, then it is useful credit towards his science requirements, assuming he does well enough on the exam in 2 weeks).  Because he is interested in taking some modern physics (quantum mechanics), he’ll probably end up either retaking calculus-based physics or talking his way into the more advanced courses and bypassing the huge lecture courses.

He should also get transfer credit for the community college Spanish courses and the UCSC math courses he has, which could mean another 16–18 credits.  These extra credits will not significantly speed his graduation, but they may give him the flexibility to avoid taking a heavy load some quarter, or to take an internship or study-abroad opportunity without falling behind. One normal benefit to having more credits is getting registration priority, but he already gets that as a CCS student, so that is less of a benefit for him than for others.

One little bonus for us as parents—UCSB is substantially cheaper than the private schools he also applied to, and we have saved enough in his 529 plan that we won’t need to take out any loans and he won’t have to work a meaningless job—he can spend his spare time doing research projects at the University or working on engineering projects for the startup company he and his friends are forming.

2014 January 14

College applications finished

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:21
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My son finished the last of his college application essays today—a letter of intent for the College of Creative Studies at UCSB.  UCSB is more of a safety school for him than a first-choice one, but they have a decent CS department, and the College of Creative Studies is a better honors program than the other UC campuses have.  It looks like that program provides enough flexibility in the general ed requirements that he would have relatively few courses to take that he did not choose for himself—certainly less than the rather specific laundry lists of UCSD colleges or UCB.

I had to bicycle down to the post office to mail paper copies of the application forms to the College of Creative Studies, because my son was running late for his afternoon appointment, and the forms really needed to be postmarked today.  It seemed a bit weird and old-fashioned to be sticking stamps on a big envelope and mailing it from the post office for a college application.  Of course, the College of Creative Studies is small enough that they can’t really afford to set up their own on-line application system, and UC is not about to modify their system to accommodate a small college on one campus.

Now that he has finally finished his essays, I’m hoping to get him to spend some time on two subjects he’s been neglecting: group theory and updating the data logger to work with the Freescale processors (along with lots of other upgrades requested on the bitbucket site).  I’ll have to tell the lab staff soon which processors the students will be buying for the spring quarter Applied Circuits course.  If the data logger is not working with the KL25Z boards, then we’ll have to continue using the Arduinos.  The Arduinos worked well enough last year, but we could run much higher sampling rates and higher resolution on the KL25Z boards.  I’m also wondering whether I should get a KL26Z board, which has 14-bit resolution for 3-axis acceleration measurements and 16-bit resolution for 3-axis magnetic measurements (the KL25Z board has only 12-bit resolution for 3-axis acceleration and no magnetometer).  Both boards have 48MHz ARM Cortex M0+ processors with 28kB of flash and 16kB of RAM, and use similar OpenSDA interfaces for downloading programs. The KL25Z is supported by free software from, but the KL26Z does not seem to be (yet—they do support the KL46Z).

2014 January 1

CMU submission done

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:34
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My son finished the Carnegie Mellon computer science application today (and I do mean today—it was just after midnight when we got the payment information entered).  This is the last of his major college applications—he decided not to try to do the Caltech and Olin application essays.  If he doesn’t get into Harvey Mudd, Stanford, Brown, MIT, CMU, or UCB, then he’ll go to one of his safety schools (UCSD or UCSB).  I think that his expected number of acceptances in his top six choices is two, so he’ll probably have some choosing to do once the acceptances come in.

In the meantime, he still has one more essay to write—the letter of intent for the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, due by 2014 Jan 13:

Write a letter to the attention of the faculty in the CCS major to which you are applying, stating your academic interests, your reasons for wanting to study at CCS, and your background in your intended major.

He’ll also need letters of recommendation and transcripts (which UC admissions does not normally require, but which everyone else expects, so they are relatively easy to provide).

It will be very good to be done with the essay writing season—we can get back to him doing intellectually stimulating things, like group theory or updating the data logger software to work with the KL25Z board.

2013 December 31

MIT submission (almost) done

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:38
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My son finished the MIT application today—I’ll have to send out the transcript, the school profile, and the counselor’s report tomorrow. Recommendation letters and school reports can’t be provided online (except through Naviance, which home schools have no access to), but only via fax or hard copy mail.  I’ll probably have to go to the Post Office tomorrow, as I don’t think we have enough stamps in the house to mail the transcript.

I’m a little surprised that an tech school like MIT would be willing to have such a clunky piece of old technology as the main view that 18,000 prospective students see of MIT each year.  It isn’t as buggy as the Common App, but it has a distinct early 1990s feel to it. The MIT application is obviously an old piece of legacy code (unless it is deliberately retro)—it doesn’t understand unicode characters (like smart quotes or em-dashes), can’t handle italic, and the PDF preview is rendered in the ugliest monospace font that is available (probably Courier).

Update 2013 Dec 31: School documents taken to Post Office this morning, so MIT application now done.

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