Bracketology, or How to Pick a College

It’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about spring break, mating season for half of the world’s animals, or the looming start of major league baseball. It’s March Madness time.

Picking brackets is something of an art and a lottery at the same time. Statistically, those who spent weeks researching the 68 teams in the tournament fare no better than those who let their children, pets, or sports-illiterate significant others make the picks for them. Although picking the higher seed in each case is a rookie mistake (in the first day alone, 9-seed Pittsburgh throttled 8-seed Colorado by a score of 77-48, 11-seed Dayton clinched an overtime thriller over 6-seed Ohio State, and two 12-seeds, Harvard and North Dakota State upset two 5-seeds, Cincinnati and Oklahoma, respectively), picking trendy upsets involves about as much guesswork as trying to predict the weather. After all, who ever watched teams like the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns or the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (I don’t even know what a chanticleer is)?

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This is apparently what a chanticleer looks like; source: Coastal Carolina University

This is probably why Warren Buffett feels comfortable offering a billion dollar prize to anyone with a perfect bracket through Yahoo; no one’s ever picked a perfect bracket. The probability according to a Duke professor of math is somewhere around 1 in 10 pentillion. This doesn’t make me feel so bad to have only correctly picked 13 of the first 16 winners;¬†ESPN reported that of the more than 11 million brackets submitted on its website, fewer than 19,000 (approximately 0.17% of all brackets) correctly picked all 16 of the winners on the opening day of the tournament. By the time half of the games had been played on the second day, 3-seed Duke had fallen to 14-seed Mercer, 11-seed Tennessee had upset 6-seed UMass, and 10-seed Stanford had gutted out a win over 7-seed New Mexico, leaving just 16 perfect brackets left in the contest for Buffett’s billion dollars.

While most of the country is fascinated with Cinderella teams, buzzer-beaters, emotional post-game conferences, and alma mater pride, most of the nation’s high school seniors are anxiously waiting for college decisions. In many ways, trying to pick a perfect bracket is like trying to pick the right college. With so many factors, how do you compare two entirely different schools, neither of which you may have much orany first-hand experience with? Even overnight stays and tours (the equivalent of watching one or two nationally televised games) can only tell you so much. Talk to current students and they’ll spend more time talking about the strengths rather than addressing the weaknesses of their institution. (Ask any team if they think they can go all the way, and they’ll respond in the affirmative.) How much is a name brand worth (are #1 seeds, particularly Wichita State, really all they’re stacked up to be)? In the end, students who have decisions to make (i.e., not ED admits) will find themselves taking a bit of a shot in the dark. So many unknown variables can change one student’s experience compared to another. After all, how will you ever be fully sure that a college is right for you until you actually attend it?

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The Mercer Bears celebrate their victory over heavily-favored Duke. Source: ESPN, photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images.

This is both a lesson in “what-if’s” and multiverses as well as probability. What if people had been placed in different sponsor groups? Had different professors? Went on a different OA? I guarantee you that in one of my alternate universes (several actually), Bryan Gee is actually a biology major. Heck maybe I’m not even a science major anymore. In another, I’m not a sponsor. In yet another, I’m not an RA next year. Maybe in others, I’m not even at Pomona. Maybe I transferred. Maybe I went to Pitzer. Maybe I never heard about Pomona on a chance recommendation, never applied, and continue to confuse it with Cal Poly like everyone else. Everything in life, brackets or otherwise, is a game of probability (e.g. rolling dice, flipping coins, etc.)

Of course, in this universe, I’m a geology major at Pomona College. So let’s focus on what did happen, rather than what could have happened. I did hear about Pomona on a chance recommendation. I did tour the college. I did completely fall in love with its small, intimate atmosphere. I did feel attracted to its vision of an intellectual community. I certainly did appreciate the weather. I did want to be here (very badly I might add). I did completely rethink my desire to apply EA to Stanford. I did apply to Pomona ED. I did wind up in one of the best sponsor groups with an amazing roommate. I did have the exact kind of one-on-one academic relationships with my professors that I envisioned (i.e. first name basis). I did have classes with fewer than ten students. I did go to the Taylor Swift concert. I did play with puppies during finals week, did spend hours into the early morning having deep philosophical discussions instead of doing homework, and did spend most of the year wearing flip-flops and shorts to class. I did decide to be a sponsor. I did declare a major. I did all of the things I loved doing in my first year. I did even more things.

My experience cannot, will not, and should not be yours. After all, I don’t think there’s another Taylor Swift concert in the works. But the potential at Pomona to really do whatever you want, not just with respect to what you study or what career you start to build, but also with respect to what kind of person you want to be, what you want to do outside of the classroom, and what you want to contribute to Pomona is still the same as that which I’ve experienced: limitless. Choosing to come to Pomona isn’t like building a bracket. It’s about building a tree (graphically speaking). It’s about starting from the ground up, the fundamentals, and the basics, and building on your dreams, your passions, your interests, and your strengths to become something greater, larger, and more complete. It’s about starting as a seed and having the right nutrients surrounding you to foster your growth. It’s about what you can provide and give back. That’s what choosing to come to Pomona means.