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Lottery Preferences 101: Factors to Consider for Your School System

3 min read
Mar 9, 2017 4:33:06 PM

Defining school lottery preferences for your unified enrollment system.

A key question in designing the application and lottery process for a unified enrollment system is determining the types of preferences that will be offered to applicants.

An application, or lottery preference (sometimes called a priority), is basically an advantage to an eligible applicant who meets certain criteria. An applicant with a preference is more likely to be admitted to a school than one without a preference.

Consequently, preferences are an important tool for schools to ensure equitable access for students who want to enter their school.

For example, a school may offer a preference to applicants who are siblings of students currently enrolled at a school in order to ensure that families will be able to keep all of their children together at the same school.

Or a school may offer a preference to applicants who live in a specified geographic zone around the school, in order to ensure that the school is accessible to families in the surrounding neighborhood.

Preferences are typically school-specific, so an applicant may have a preference at one of their school selections and not at the other selections on their application.

Preferences are different from admissions requirements that are common at selective or magnet programs.

Selective schools may require students to meet certain academic conditions to be considered for admission, such as a minimum GPA, or may require students to participate in additional activities to determine eligibility, such as an audition for a performing arts school.

Here are a few questions to consider in designing lottery preferences.

What Kinds of Lottery Preferences Can and Should Schools in Your System Offer?

Public schools offer a wide range of preferences in the admissions process. While the rules vary by state, some preferences are common across the country.

Most preferences in unified enrollment systems fall within one of the three categories:

  • Sibling preferences
  • Geographic preferences
  • Preferences for children of staff

In What Order Will School Lottery Preferences Be Applied?

In other words, which group of applicants should be given higher priority?

  • For example, if schools are allowed to offer both a sibling preference and geographic preference, which is a higher preference?
  • Would an applicant with a sibling enrolled in the school be admitted ahead of an applicant who lives in the neighborhood?

At popular schools which have more applicants than seats available, the order in which preferences are applied makes a big difference.

Preference order can be particularly complicated to explain to families in a unified enrollment system, especially when it varies by school.

If some schools prioritize siblings, while other schools prioritize children of employees, that can create confusion for families seeking to understand their chances of gaining admission to the school.

How Will Lottery Preferences Be Verified?

Will families need to prove their eligibility for a preference in some way? For example, schools might offer a preference to siblings of students currently enrolled in the school.

  • How will the unified enrollment system verify whether or not an applicant is truly eligible for that preference?
  • A related question concerns timing: will families need to prove eligibility for a preference in advance of the lottery?

If not, there might be errors that require correction after the lottery when a family intentionally or accidentally claims a preference that it is not actually eligible for.

In Washington, D.C., for instance, the My School D.C. system requires schools to verify “sibling enrolled” preference prior to running the lottery.

School staff must review every applicant who claims to be eligible for this preference and let the My School D.C. system administrators know which applicants are in fact truly siblings and should receive the preference, and which applicants should be denied. If there are any ineligible applicants, that preference is removed for them prior to running the lottery.

However a city answers these questions, it’s important to communicate the information widely for families so that all applicants understand the preferences that they may be eligible for, and how to claim them.

Key Takeaways:

  • A lottery preference or priority is an advantage given to certain categories of applicants for admission. Laws regarding legal preferences vary by state, but tend to fall into three categories: preferences for siblings, geographic preferences, and preferences for children of staff or board members of the school. Preferences are generally school-specific.
  • Cities implementing unified enrollment must determine the order in which preferences are applied, and how and when preferences will be verified. It’s important that systems publicize this information widely so that both applicants and schools understand how the system works.
  • While there may be legitimate reasons for preferences to vary across schools, there is a tradeoff with simplicity: the more variety there is between schools, the more confusing it is for parents.


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