I hope my admissions colleagues will embrace the word “nerds” to describe us as positively as I do in writing these pieces.
I was inspired to see the connection between professional poker and college admissions when data nerd Nate Silver (link to FiveThirtyEight) discussed the generational transformation poker has gone through. I’ll list from memory what he said – hopefully, you’ll see the connections to admissions as clearly as I did.
1 – A generation ago, poker tournaments were dominated by people who decided when to hold and fold on gut instinct. They had a general feel for the room, their hand, and the other players, and based purely on their feelings, they made their choices.
2 – Slowly, people started to realize that you could be more precise if you relied on statistics and probability. Regardless of how you feel about a particular hand, if you need a three, wouldn’t it be good to know if all the threes have been played already?
3 – Today, poker tournaments are dominated by data nerds who are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the probability of what the next card is going to be. If you need an eight, have only seen one eight so far, and there are only seven cards left in the deck, you can feel much better about pushing forward than if you had already seen three eights.
In admissions, we’ve gone through a similar transformation.
Slowly, admissions professionals realized they could be more precise if they relied on statistics and probability. Enter a slew of A/B tests by the leading search company, the rise of financial aid discounting matrices, and data analysis as an emerging core competency.
Today, the most successful among us rely much more heavily on statistics and probability than was possible twenty years ago. The subtle signals students send throughout the process can help us better understand their probability of enrollment. Much like counting cards in a poker tournament and reassessing probability along the way, admissions deans can count the signals students are sending and better understand where the class will land, enabling them to make better adjustments along the way.
A generation ago, the leaders in our profession were much more attuned to the general feeling of a recruitment cycle as it was shaping up. As such, mid-cycle transitions would be made (or not) on that basis.