Cognitive Bias in College Thinking
Updated: Mar 14
Cognitive bias in college decision-making is one of my favorite topics. After more than two decades working in admission and counseling, I've seen these biases play out again and again in student and family behaviors. The world is complicated, and our brain sometimes undermines our capacity for good judgment in its subconscious attempts to filter and decipher reality, while keeping us safe. We are all subject to cognitive biases in our thinking and decision-making-- they're part of being human.
Fortunately, learning about these biases and honestly assessing our reference points, assumptions and decisions as we work through research can help keep us from making decisions that aren't ultimately in our best interest, and missing out on options that could be transformative and fulfilling. These are some of the biases we see play out most often in college thinking. In each case, we'll look at a typical example of how each bias might play out, and my advice on how to stay clear of the pitfalls it could lead to. The bandwagon effect occurs when people do something because others are doing it. Example: Applying to a certain college not because the student understands it as a fit based on their self-assessment and research, but because their friends are applying, they've seen it on their high school matriculation list, or family members keep talking about it. Response: Understand your motives and priorities. Keep your research, observations, and personal values central in decision making, every step of the way. None of those other people are going with you on your journey. Confirmation bias describes the tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs. Attentional bias occurs when we allow our expectations and preconceptions influence our focus and how we perceive the world. Selective attention occurs when we allow our expectations to influence how we perceive the world. Example: When students and families hear what they want to hear when considering college counseling advice, and listen selectively, not fully and realistically. This set of biases are often at work when folks find ways to define the more "prestigious," highly ranked, "perfectly medium-sized in a pleasant urban area," or more selective colleges as "fits." This may coincide with consulting the problematic US News Rankings, while not giving due attention to other colleges with resources and communities that could be transformative. This set of biases contribute to the phenomenon of the Myth of Fit. Response: Check and examine your frames of reference and the voices and inputs you're privileging. Ask yourself, "How do I know the things that I know?" Seek stories and perspectives of people you admire and who are successful, whose lives haven't followed a script (you shouldn't have to look far!)
Outcome bias refers to judging a decision based on the outcome, rather than how exactly the decision was made in the moment. Example: When a student's college process is deemed "successful" because they are admitted to a high-profile college, even if that school isn't necessarily well suited to that student's needs and potential growth and well-being. Likewise, when students make decisions about their own high school courses and activities to emulate what they know of someone who "got in"-- thereby losing sight of their own priorities, values, and authentic story (and the fact that you don't know what aspect of that other individual was a tipping factor at the specific time their application was reviewed.) Also, this bias is sometimes at work when we over-estimate the power of an Early Decision application. Response: Assess your methodology, remember your priorities, embrace your story-- and follow your curiosity and your authentic, self-generated interests. Make thoughtful use of the data that you have access to. Keep an open mind; there is so much to learn on your one trip through this process, and there are so many colleges that could serve your needs. The college admission decision process has been best described by the "garbage can model", meaning it is constantly in flux, and attempts to identify specific factors that led to a positive or negative outcome are futile. The process at the same college will not necessarily lead to the same outcome in a different admission year-- or even on a different day. (*Credit to Noble Jones of Wesleyan University admission, who wrote a dissertation making the connection to the garbage can model to demonstrate the way constantly shifting priorities and met/ unmet targets make admission unpredictable.) Survivorship bias occurs when people focus on successful outcomes, yet overlook failures. Example: Focusing on the one case of someone you know of getting in to a hyper-selective college (and potentially that person's anecdotal advice), rather than the statistics of the more than 9 out of 10 applicants who were not admitted (because you did not hear about all those examples.) I see a related issue here with the growth of peer-to-peer counseling models, selling the notion that someone who "got in" knows exactly why and can lead others to the same result. Response: Keep anecdotes in context. Look at the data critically, and be honest with yourself. Seersucker illusion/ authority illusion is the over-reliance on expert advice. Example: When a student seeks the opinion of multiple "expert" outside voices, they risk diluting their autonomy and clarity in making the decisions that are right for them. A particular minefield here are Reddit forums, where self-described "experts" offer all kinds of advice without real insight (and even when it's well intended, it's usually advice that is influenced by some combination of survivorship, outcome, or other biases...) Sometimes, we also assign greater credibility to advice that comes at a higher price or with "prestige" marketing... there are plenty of folks taking advantage of this bias in the college counseling and test prep industries. Response: Learn to recognize genuine professional expertise, and build trust with your counselors. Be an informed consumer. Trust your own self-knowledge and priorities. Keep your college talk to a trusted inner circle-- but also be cognizant of self-affirmed biases within that group! Hyperbolic discounting happens when people make decisions for a smaller reward sooner, rather than a greater reward later. Example: When students choose to apply Early Decision to one college now for the potential benefit of a secure offer (or just to "be done") but do so without honest assessment of the probabilities. There can be real opportunity costs here... and also I have seen plenty of "buyer's remorse" over the years from students who got into a "dream" school and then realized it might not be a great fit, or were disappointed to lose the chance to get an offer from a place that genuinely felt like more of a home to them. Response: Keep the long view, evaluate trade offs, and break down large goals into smaller, more manageable ones. Remember that colleges are strategizing for their own advantage, too. Illusion of control happens when people overestimate how much control they have over certain situations. Example: We can see this happen when folks over-analyze data around college admission statistics, find creative ways to make the data favorable (there is also an information bias, that reflects that way that too much data actually limits your ability to make predictions), or fixate on actions like "demonstrating interest" to an extreme, or writing the "perfect" essay. We also see it reflected in the aftermath of disappointing news when folks think they were somehow cheated when "they did everything right." Ultimately, admission decisions reflect the institutional priorities of a given year and the point in the cycle when a specific application is read, not to mention the personal story of each applicant. Response: It is vital in the college application process, and in life in general, to develop the skill of recognizing what is in our control, and what isn't, and learning to assign our focus accordingly. Spend time on what is in your power, and learn to live with what isn't. Developing this skill is a surefire contributor to a happier life. Do you recognize these patterns? Cognitive bias is just part of being in the world, but we can practice recognizing its influence-- it's one of many ways that the college process is a dress rehearsal for adult life, and the chance to practice skills learned in school that will transfer into all the scenarios you'll navigate in the future!