5 Tips to Create a Winning Bracket (Or College List)

1 in 9.2 QUINTILLION.

According to mathematicians around the world, those are your odds of picking a perfect NCAA tournament bracket. You’re more likely to win a Powerball jackpot, become President of the United States, or be cast in a recurring role on Real Housewives of Easter Island than to correctly predict the outcomes of 100% of the March Madness games.

The good news is that, while there are more than 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, your odds of choosing the right one for you are significantly better than choosing the teams that will make it to the Final Four. That being said, the process of deciding to which schools you’ll apply is eerily similar to filling out your NCAA March Madness bracket. Here are 5 common mistakes people make while completing their brackets (or creating their college list):

1) Choosing Schools With the Coolest Mascots: While it is fun to choose schools when they’re represented on the court at halftime by something awesome like a Billiken or a WuShock, it’s important to remember that you should never base your love for a college on their mascot. If you’re meant to be a future “Johnny Poet” or “Otto the Orange”, it should happen for other reasons and not simply because you thought you could rock a sweatshirt emblazoned with their likeness.

2) Ruling Out Schools Because You’ve Never Heard of Them: As easy as it is to rule out a school because you don’t know much about them, or perhaps have never even heard of them, it’s important to remember that schools make it to the NCAA tournament for a reason. If a college shows up as a possibility for you in a search in Naviance, Big Future or any other site, it’s worth your time to give it some consideration. How many folks were familiar with Weber State when they knocked out UNC in the 1999 tournament? Or what about when Mercer University ended Duke’s chances in the 2014 bracket? Neither of these schools had the name recognition of UNC or Duke, but they proved exactly why they had made it that far.

3) Putting Only #1 Seeds in Your Final Four: Guess how many times all four #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four in NCAA history? Once. That’s right, only ONCE. In 2008 UCLA, UNC, Memphis and Kansas – all #1 seeds – managed to rise to that coveted spot on the hardwood. As you put together your college list and begin searching through the U.S. News and World Report rankings, keep this in mind: rankings don’t dictate who wins. Being #1 in an annual guide has no bearing on what happens once YOU get on the court. It’s what you do once you’re there that will determine the outcome. Sure, rankings can help you narrow down your selections but the #14 ranked school on your list just might blow your #1 seed out of the water (see #2 above).

4) Letting Your Family and Friends Influence Your Picks: Have you ever entered an NCAA bracket challenge only to see that your friend Larry and his girlfriend Susie BOTH picked Virginia Tech to take home the trophy? Upon further investigation you realize their brackets are mirror images of each other. Your friend’s girlfriend soon comes to realize that while her beau really loves the Hokies, she looks terrible in burnt orange and Chicago maroon. She realizes she’s made a big mistake…crimson red and white are much more her style. But it’s too late. Don’t be a Susie (unless, of course, your name is Susie). Choose the college that’s right for you, not the one that’s right for Larry.

5) Limiting Your Choices to In-State Only: We all have state pride. Some of us bleed scarlet and gray, while others favor that unnamed state to the north (you know who you are). Either way it’s important to think about how many options you might be missing out on if you limit yourself to only colleges within your home state. In fact, your bracket isn’t going to do too well in the standings if you choose that path since you can’t fill an entire bracket with colleges from your state only. Don’t miss out on the many other options that exist. Instead of choosing by state, how about checking out their “stats” to see which teams are the best? What is their percentage of turnovers (i.e. retention rates)? Have they had any players in your position go to the NBA (i.e. what do the alumni outcomes and 4-year grad rates look like?). While your in-state picks might make it to the Final Four, or even the championship, you won’t know if another school is a contender if you never complete your bracket.