Weather Can Affect College Admissions

As if students applying to college and graduate school didn’t have enough to worry about—what with grades, test scores, activities, interviews, and essays—it turns out the weather can also affect admissions decisions, specifically when there’s an interview involved.

A recent study from Canada showed that medical school applicants who interviewed on rainy days scored lower than those who came in during sunny weather. “Interviews,” the authors blandly generalize, “are prone to subconscious biases from extraneous factors unrelated to the candidate.” The results reinforced a 2006 finding by a University of Pennsylvania researcher that a sunny-day interview results in a higher predicted probability of an applicant’s being admitted to a university. The odds a person will be injured by hazardous weather in a year are 1 in 73,870, but those odds refer to physical injuries, saying nothing about injuries to one’s pride.

While they’re complaining, along with (so it’s said) Mark Twain, that “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it,” college-bound hopefuls might take a little comfort in knowing that it can work both ways. At an interview, you’re in the hot seat, but when you visit a school, you’re evaluating it. And as it turns out, the weather on the day of a campus visit affects the student’s likelihood of enrolling there. Cloud cover, perhaps surprisingly, makes it more likely the student will choose that school. And colleges and universities, with all their powers over financial aid and students’ academic fates, have no more control over the weather than the most lackluster high school senior does.

These seemingly nonsensical biases probably wouldn’t surprise Sigmund Freud (who, by the way, attended medical school in Vienna, which averages 160 wet days a year; Toronto, where the med school researchers did their work, averages 145). The phenomena are a form of projection bias, which goes back to Freud’s observation that we sometimes unconsciously deny things about ourselves by “projecting” them onto someone or something else. An interviewer’s mood, subliminally affected by the weather, “projects” onto something logically unrelated—her impression of the prospective student. In turn, a student visiting a campus is affected by the weather in such a way as to influence his impression of the school positively or negatively.

That doesn’t explain why clouds discourage in one case and encourage in the other. Smokey Robinson sang, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” but evidently, countering the effects of the weather on one’s mood isn’t so easy, since it happens without us realizing it. Sufferers from SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder—psychology-speak for a serious annual case of the winter blues—know the power of the weather over mood. The odds an adult 18 – 29 has ever been diagnosed with major depressive disorder are 1 in 6.25—significantly higher than the odds an adult 25 or older has an advanced degree ( 1 in 9.9).

Smokey, incidentally, dropped out of college half a century ago to focus on his burgeoning music career. But Berklee College of Music in Boston awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2009. “Follow your dreams,” he told the students, “but stay humble.” And try to wait for a sunny day if you’re heading for an interview, he might have added.

NOTE: For an inside look at life in medical school, see Rachel Shing’s blog “Making Rounds” in our “My Everyday Life” feature.

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