What If Your Future Had Been Decided By Someone Else's Coin Toss?

From a reader we’ll call O.X.H.:

I listened to your podcast on letting a coin decide your future – and wanted to make my own, small contribution to your piece. I am an attending physician now – but back when I was in medical school (early 2000s), I helped out with the admissions process by interviewing prospective candidates. On one day of interviews, my faculty colleague and I conducted six interviews – and by the end of the day, our job was to rank each of the candidates that we had interviewed. We independently agreed on No. 1 and No. 2 (and No. 5 and No. 6), but neither of us could decide between No. 3 and No. 4. He asked me how we should resolve this – and I (jokingly) suggested that we should flip a coin. Ironically, he loved the idea – and pulled out a coin, and then we assigned each candidate to heads/tails. We said that whoever won the coin toss would get 3rd. (Interestingly, we flipped the coin only once – not two out of three.)

So what happened? The candidate who won the toss finished 3rd – and was part of the incoming first-year class in the fall. The candidate who finished 4th didn’t get in, but may have gotten into a med school elsewhere (there’s no way for me to know). And so, while a coin toss didn’t decide my future – it certainly did decide someone else’s — in a big way. I lost track of what happened to the 3rd place candidate after I graduated medical school – but it’s a story that I thought you would certainly enjoy.

If you were candidate No. 4 and somehow found out about this, how would you feel? Was their decision “fair”? If no, was it less fair than what happens every day in many situations, but without the benefit of any coins being flipped?

John MacIntyre

I don't know if it's fair or not, but it is a reality. More than anything, it illustrates the importance of not being 'border line' and getting as far ahead of the pack as you can, so this doesn't happen to you ... or at least not as much.


If I found out that had happened to me, that I'd not been hired or admitted to a program because of a coin toss, I'd be very unhappy for some time. To have a chance and miss because of luck, that strikes me as being more depressing than simply not being skilled enough to get chosen at all.

Was it fair? Certainly. It would be unfair if someone less skilled/experienced/pleasant/etc got it ahead of me because of chance, but if the people who got the job/position were all better or at least equal to me, then there is no injustice. I cannot complain that I was wronged in some way. I might complain that their admission process is a bit capricious, though, but without any moral force behind the argument.


Fair if it was a fair coin ;-)

Doug Evans

Great Question... As I listened to the podcast, I wondered whether the Coin Toss is appropriate for business - due to the nature of the people and communities affected by the outcome: http://successfulworkplace.com/2013/02/01/tough-decision-flip-a-coin/


Totally not fair! While a coin flip is fine for breaking a tie on what restuarant to visit, in this case with an important, maybe life altering decision, I suggest another round with the cndidates in question. This would allow the panel to probe for additional information, hopefully allowing them to come to a deliberate decision. Otherwise why not use "rock, paper, scissors," for a clear winner.

Philo Pharynx

While this might be the best solution in a perfect world, in many cases the scale of the project causes difficulties to get more information and meet the deadline. It also adds a new level of unfairness to the equation. Perhaps when given another round, the 5th or 6th place candidates might have proven superior.


My mom used to work at a prestigious university that shall remain unnamed. She didn't work in admissions, but her division was next to theirs. The would get a bunch of really good applications that they accepted and a bunch of really bad applications they rejected. But there was a mass in the middle that were mediocre and un-differentiable. So they threw them down the stairs. Whoever landed on the top half of the stairs got in and whoever landed on the bottom half of the stairs didn't.


A similar event happened to one of my good friends during Snowpocalypse 2010. My friend comes from an observant Jewish family and was struggling somewhat to meet Jewish women on campus. Unbeknownst to my friend, two Jewish nurses who attended services at the Chabad house were having trouble meeting Jewish men and asked the Rabbi to set them up with two nice Jewish graduate students. The rabbi chose my good friend and another student, also a friend of mine, in our department.

The four met for an evening of dinner and drinks without officially pairing off. Everyone parted cordially and agreed to do it again sometime.

Snowpocalypse happened the next week, and several students in my department gathered for a party. After consuming a couple of beers, the topic of our friends' "double date" came up, and both expressed their interest in the dating the same woman. After discussing several ways to determine who would ask her out (snow olympics, eating contest, etc.) the group settled on a coin toss (as economics students it seemed only natural).

My good friend won the coin toss and asked out the woman that weekend. They are set to wed this memorial day. Unlike the subject of this blog post, I know how my other friend has fared. He has been in a happy relationship with a Jewish graduate student in a different department (not the other nurse) for almost two years.


Tim Sielaff

As a former medical school admissions committee member I have some insight into the process. I submit, after you've established a minimum level of academic credentials, you could pick the entire class through coin flips. We spent hundreds of hours pouring over applicants and congratulating ourselves on the great classes we selected. In reality, random choices out of the large pool of qualified applicants would likely yield equally excellent results.


From your perspective as an admissions committee member, you are right that you would likely end up with a great entering class no matter what the coin flip showed.

My perspective is that I spent my four years of medical school away from my fiance because I was a "middle of the pack" student who did not get into a school closer to home. These coin flips affect the applicants much more than they affect the school, and I hope administrators remember this when all else is equal. (We are happily married now, but I would have been upset if my four years of misery were the result of a coin flip.)

Tim Sielaff

The Admissions Committe is not serving you as the applicant. They are serving the medical school and themselves.


It would anger me. But you cannot say it's unfair. After having used the process to select several candidates, I can vouchsafe that it's probably fairer. Nevertheless, it would anger me.

It's an interesting conundrum.


ask Chigurh


Particularly since we're talking about candidates with similar strengths in the middle of the pack, I think a coin flip is certainly more fair than picking the one who was taller or better looking.


OXH earned a responsibility and failed--he failed that responsibility to the med school and to the candidates too.

He/she feels clever but is clearly half-assed and should not be trusted with other decisions! If anyone doubts it they can look at how this person has not revealed himself to the school or to us or their peers or patients.

Paul in VA

This is PURE LAZINESS on the part of the people chosen to do the selection, and I think all should be embarrassed and ashamed by their similar actions. Students spend years of their lives trying to make the next cut, and to have OTHERS make decisions about them based on such randomness is garbage.

If you have 10 Criteria, and two candidates score equally, you go to an 11th criteria that is intellectually Honest. Still tied, you go to 12, etc.. It's worth the extra 30 minutes of thought,and its the RESPONSIBILITY of the people chosen to make the selection to apply this small amount of extra effort. If you can't handle it, hand the job to someone who can. OF COURSE the High achievers and low achievers separate themselves easily. The entire purpose of having thinking, rational people involved in the process is EXACTLY to be able to bring a professional level of Discernment to the process for those in the middle.

Failure is a term reserved for those who have tried but not succeeded. In this case O.X.H and those like him did not rise up to a level that could be considered failing in their task. The term that comes to mind is not failure, it is Dereliction.

I hope when your Children apply to Schools, that there applications are handled by people more qualified than you sir.


Zareef Anam

I am not sure whether if 'fairness' truly is the topic of interest. If we consider that we are what we are, and where we are, by virtue of nothing else but chance (for an individual could have been born in a low income family in Uganda, or alternatively as a prince in Dubai (not in an attempt to stereotype)), then a coin toss would only be suitable. Ionly attempt to illustrate that we could have had the opportunities that we did (perhaps we were born as intelligent), because someone adopted the same policy of a coin toss, and we might not be adding any distortion to the market by using the same principle.


In almost all admissions situations where there are more qualified applicants than places for those applicants, decisions end up being made based on arbitrary criteria that often have questionable relevance. Perhaps everyone would be better served if all schools used lotteries in these situations. Rejection letters would say either "you weren't qualified" or "you were qualified but not chosen in our lottery". Qualified students who were rejected would know that they weren't deficient but could just try again next year or elsewhere. Schools could advertise their odds so that people would have an idea what their chances are. Eventually people would start choosing where to go based on educational quality rather than irrelevant things like selectivity.

Tim Sielaff

I think you are giving too much credit to the admissions process which is predetermined to be successful because ... there is a significant excess of qualified applicants, those admitted are almost never allowed to fail and it is difficult to discriminate successful from unsuccessful doctors post-graduation.
I have the greatest respect for the applicants, but unquestioning support for the admissions process is unfounded.


What makes you think it's not?