The NCAA Tournament and College Admissions—It’s All Madness


The past week has been exciting as our daughters participated in March Madness mania for the first time–each of them carefully choosing their brackets based upon school colors and mascots. While (gleefully) watching Oral Roberts University overtake Ohio State, I realized there are a lot of similarities between March Madness and the college admission process.


So, how are they alike?


Upsets Happen – Just like Oral Roberts wasn’t expected to beat the Buckeyes, upsets happen in the tournament and in the admissions process. In particular, this year’s admissions decisions are even more unpredictable. For the Class of 2021, applications are up significantly at most selective universities. Additionally, most colleges did not require standardized tests for the first time. As college consultants, we do our best to help students assess the likelihood of admission to the colleges on their list. We rely on experience with other students, past data, admitted student profiles, etc. In a year like this, an application to a school we considered to be a target school may not actually result in an admission offer. This is one of the reasons we constantly stress the need to have a balanced college list with at least half of the schools in the target or likely category. We want students to have options even when upsets happen.


Questionable Calls – None of us can predict what happens behind closed doors on a college campus. Does a state school decide to enroll more nonresident students? Will a new chancellor want to increase enrollment among first-generation students? Does the board of governors want to grow their STEM program while reducing enrollment in the humanities? These are all examples of institutional priorities that can result in a decision that is perceived as unfair. A student who does everything “right” can feel very disappointed when they don’t receive a positive decision. In a process that can feel very personal, there is a lot to an admission decision that isn’t about the student at all. Encouraging students to tune out the noise and focus on what is within their control is how we combat the unpredictability of this process.


Single Elimination – The NCAA tournament is single elimination and college admissions can be too. I don’t mean that applications will be rejected due to frivolous errors like a misplaced comma in an essay or misspelling mom’s maiden name, but there are a number of errors that will get you eliminated from consideration. Here are the ones I saw most often as an admissions officer:

  • Submitting the application after the deadline

  • Sending test scores after the deadline

  • Not submitting the required recommendation letters

These errors may not get your application rejected at all colleges, but at U-M where we received 65K+ applications, we were stricter with deadlines than schools with smaller application volumes. To prevent this, I recommend students have a system for tracking all their colleges, deadlines and requirements. For the students I work with, we use an Airtable tracker that we both have access to, so there’s no excuse for either of us to miss important dates or requirements.


As for my NCAA bracket, it’s beyond salvageable. I hope you have more success as we move into the Sweet Sixteen!



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