Behavioural Economics in the Application

When I pressed submit on the last of my uni application, I was elated to be done with what I thought would be the last admissions cycle I’d ever have to participate in; Last set of standardised tests I’d ever have to take; last time taking classes just to look impressive; last time in waitlist purgatory…. Had things gone as planned in HS, I’d be on indeed justifying why a Russian studies major was qualified to be a consultant. Instead, I found myself at the end of another admissions cycle trying to convince graduate schools I am qualified to find new things to attach fancy names to. 

In the three years preceding, I learned about plenty of fancy effects that neither align with “rationality” nor always replicate, but have shown up “in the application”

Starting from the beginning, we have the classic planning fallacy

One of my favourite behavioural econ stories involves Thaler and friends attempting to write a book. The team had a hunch that people tend to underestimate the time and effort required to complete difficult tasks. They were right. It took them 5x their predicted timeframe ><

Knowing this, I got started early with my applications. Yay. I also decided it was a good idea to take an overload of classes and pick up a part time job while continuing to run a club. Oops…

I made it through mostly unscathed- except for some very embarrassing typos on several applications, a very messy desk and more than a few missed laundry days.

Of course, writing SOPs and filling out forms is only a VERY small part of the applications. There is one part that I refused to budge on until it was truly too late. Enter confirmation bias.

I got a 163 on the quantitative section of the GRE. Since receiving the results, I tried everything in my power to convince myself that 163 was a passable score- pestering my advisors, looking at fringe cases, asking an administrator, arguing that my letters … This is AFTER a professor, an entire server of people and multiple older friends told me that scoring anything under 166 is virtually guaranteed to get my application thrown out. When I could no longer justify my score, I resorted to posting angry rants about the futility of the GRE. Had I accepted my position earlier, I would have put more effort into actually studying and gotten >166 in a retake. But hey, my top choice school dropped the GRE requirement and I did not attempt to delude myself into thinking I had a shot at HBS.

Finally, it’s December and apps are submitted. My professor said that the most painful part of applications is not knowing whether you are doing enough or too much. I disagree. The most painful part is the waiting. Enter Grad Cafe and the Ostrich Effect

Let me explain with a little Limerick

There is a website named Grad Cafe
with admissions results on full display,
those who check,
always feel fieked,
most prefer to stay away

The ostrich effect describes the tendency to avoid unpleasant, anxiety inducing information. There are few things more unpleasant and anxiety inducing than knowing that others have already gotten in. As such, applicants avoid checking grad cafe between January and March just like investors avoid checking their portfolios when the market is down. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Panic selling is an arguably worse mistake. 

I personally avoided grad cafe but not to avoid anxiety. I couldn’t stand the UI.

These are just the three biggest fallacies I fell for. I didn’t want to get into focalism, hyperbolic time discounting, and narrow bracketing. And… before someone accuses me of having not learned anything in 4 years of expensive schooling, remember that I learned to attach fancy names to things, not to implement them 😉

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