Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 26, 2000

Beyond the luck of the Draw: Strategy counts in fevered quest for coveted dorms

BY JAMES ROBINSON

Sounding like war-scarred veterans, a group of sophomores this week laid out their battle plan to meet a fast-approaching deadline. To an outsider, their lingo might seem odd: priorities, preferences, theme houses, focus houses, special priorities and, of course, the dreaded draw number.

"We're going to get a priority somewhere," vowed Hubert Pan, as his draw group mates nodded in approval outside Yost House in Governor's Corner -- where he and six other guys ended up this year. "We hardly knew about priorities last year."

Seven freshmen from Casa Zapata finalized preparations to form a draw group to compete for sophomore housing. In this photograph taken last spring, they are, from left to right, Arnulfo Medina, Gabriel Pardo, Daniel Reyes, Antonio Mora, Derek Jackson, Osvaldo Medina and Hubert Pan. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Most faculty and staff know little or nothing about the draw, the annual spring ritual that preoccupies undergraduates at least as much as academics at this time of the year. Students have until this Sunday to form draw groups -- groups of students with whom they'd like to live -- a process that can be as demeaning as choosing teams on a grade school playground. For many, it's safe to say that "coolness" is at least as high a priority as cleanliness when it comes to choosing their future roommates and suitemates.

On May 3, students will await, with trepidation, the posting of their computer-generated draw numbers; unlike test results, in this case the lower the number the better. Then they'll use their best qualitative and quantitative skills in an attempt to figure out how best to use that draw number to their advantage, even splitting up their group into subgroups if necessary. Some feelings are likely to get hurt along the way.

Stanford's Housing Assignment Services has devised a system that does its best, under the conditions, to make the draw system as fair as possible. One reason the system is so complex is that it takes into consideration both where and with whom students prefer to live. And while little can be done about a truly lousy draw number, Stanford boasts a wealth of housing options -- from cherished Row houses like the ever-popular Bob to theme residences like Casa Italiana to larger dorms that run the gamut in age, amenities and geographic desirability.

"There is absolutely an element of chance that enters into the draw," said Todd Benson, the manager of Housing Assignment Services. "As much as we'd like to create a process that is completely equitable, some residences will inevitably be more desirable than others."

Swept into this process last year were a bunch of freshman guys from Casa Zapata, who were interviewed several times over the last 12 months.

One year ago: coming together

"We just kind of came together on our own," Daniel Reyes of San Antonio said, not wanting to take credit for organizing the draw group that eventually put seven Casa Zapata freshmen together in Governor's Corner.

Sitting in the Stern cafeteria one day last May, Reyes was munching on cereal for lunch while most of the others were scarfing down burritos as if they weren't sure where their next meal was coming from.

"We all played a lot of volleyball and soccer together," Reyes continued.

"And wrestling, occasionally, in the hall," interjected Derek Jackson of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

"We're all on the same floor, except Antonio," Reyes added, referring to Antonio Mora of Virginia. Rounding out the group are Gabriel Pardo and Arnulfo Medina of Los Angeles, Osvaldo Jimenez of Alameda and Pan of Singapore.

It soon became apparent that the prime reason for the group's bonding is the simple fact that, besides being nice guys, they were all freshmen living together on the same floor of the same dorm. They went through the shock of entering college together and lived to tell about it -- or at least most of it. Their camaraderie was forged, in part, by playing soccer and going to dances together. But their unfinished sentences, giggles and guffaws seemed to correspond to some off-the-record antics and incidents that also unified them -- something vague about a stolen golf cart, for example. And water raids on other dorms.

"We raided all the other ethnic theme dorms with water guns," Jackson boasted. "With big, big supersoakers -- like water cannons," Reyes said, elaborating.

On this and other occasions, they interrupted each other and, especially, made fun of one another -- in a good-spirited way that betrays the affection they share.

"Any dorm activity, we do together," said Jackson. "We all got along well together from the beginning."

Most members of the group assumed they would all go in as some sort of draw group in order to maximize their chances of living together sophomore year. But there were some changes that happened to the makeup and even the size of the group, and it's easy to imagine the scenarios that can occur when 18-year-olds are strategizing about making it into the "in" group.

"Sometimes one person wants their friend in a group but no one else in that group wants them in their group," Jackson said.

"At some points there were like 10 or 11 people who wanted to be in our group," Pardo added.

Later there were eight -- the maximum number to a group. Laughing, Reyes insisted that "Osvaldo wanted to kick me out."

Jackson at one point thought he might stop out for a year to go on a religious mission. And he also considered drawing with a group whose members were all of the same faith.

"As far as separating into your ethnic groups or whatever, as you become an upperclassman I think that's true," he said. "Like the group I said I was going to draw with, they were all upperclassmen, white people of the same religion. So a lot of what me not drawing into that group had to do with was I didn't want to limit myself like that and become isolated."

Then one other Zapata resident who had planned on being in the group decided to form one with his roommate instead. The final number was seven.

Not all is left to chance

For their sophomore through senior years, students have two "preferred" years and one "unpreferred" year. If they choose to use one of their preferred years, they will draw a number between 1 and 1,999. If they choose to use an unpreferred year, their draw number is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. All members of a draw group have to have identical status, because only one number will be drawn per group.

The system is replete with intricacies, complexities and subtleties. Group members individually can list eight choices of where they want to live -- sometimes agreeing to all stay together until the bitter end, no matter how "bad" the housing assignment, or in other cases staying together halfway through the process. In still other cases, they can agree to separate into subgroups somewhere down the line. So the group has to calculate the importance of bricks and mortar against being together. Benson gave as an example the case of Storey, a Row house, which to get into last year required a draw number of 727 for a single individual -- who, of course, could wind up with a stranger for a roommate -- but a number as good (and unlikely) as 309 or lower from groups of four to eight students.

But things get even more complicated when one tries to gain admittance to a "theme" residence, such as Casa Italiana, or a "focus" residence, such as Naranja (which encourages "entrepreneurial ideals") or a "cross-cultural theme" residence such as Ujamaa. In differing ways depending on which type of residence it is, some applicants benefit from "priority levels" that make their draw number less relevant. For example, a student with a priority level 1 with a draw number of 700 would get into Casa Italiana before someone without a priority number who received a better draw number, such as 500.

As a result, even though the draw system sounds like a lottery, far from everything is left to chance in housing assignments because they are designed to support residential programs.

"Without some sort of special provisions in the assignment process, a residence designed to support a special program could easily end up being filled with students who had no real interest in the program, but who wanted to live in the residence for other reasons -- such as its desirable location on the campus, superior physical condition or large number of single rooms," Housing Assignment's website notes.

For example, to get priority for the Enchanted Broccoli Forest house, which is a co-op, prospective residents must take a tour of the house and sign the house agreement, which details conditions for living there, such as working a kitchen shift. Speaking French will help you get priority for La Maison Française.

For theme residences, priorities apply to all spaces in the house. But in "focus" residences, priorities apply to only some of the spaces, typically one-third of them.

And in cross-cultural theme residences, students who are members of specific ethnic groups are given preference for some -- typically one-half -- of the available spots.

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jim Montoya told a recent Faculty Senate meeting that after a committee studied the draw system it decided against making any changes. "The current system we have seems to be as acceptable to our student body as any system we could come up with," he said, explaining that the draw system is so complex because of the wide variety of campus housing -- both physically and in terms of the objectives different types of residences have. "Any recommendations that we make regarding the draw we will not move forth with unless there is strong student support. It's simply too close to our students' hearts."

He added that the first time he went through the draw as a Stanford undergrad, the maximum -- or worst number -- was 5,000. "I drew for the group, and drew the number 4,995."

Crunching the draw number

Much of the draw process is carried out via computer. Over the web, groups give themselves names, receive passwords and submit their preferences (and priorities, if applicable) and wait for the fateful draw day. In last year's case, it was Friday, May 21.

"We naively thought we were going to draw 5 or something," Reyes said about a week after their number was dealt last spring.

"I remember hoping that we'd at least get something decent, like 800," Jimenez said, recalling the fateful day. "Not 1,581." The group's draw number could have been worse -- anything from 1,582 to 1,999 -- so the guys tried to look at the bright side.

Drawing 1,581, the group had to do a reality check. They used a guide to results from the previous year's draw as an indication of how they might fare, but of course dormitories can go in and out of favor from one year to another. Safe to say, however, was that a Row house was out of the question.

The group zeroed in on Governor's Corner. Their first choice was EAST (East Asian Studies Theme) House; their second choice was American Studies, or AmStud (which since has been renamed Murray); and their third choice, Yost. Their strategy was that they would allow their group to get split up for those first three choices -- reasoning that as long as they were all in Governor's Corner, they'd at least be close to one another. They had three lower choices as well, all larger dorms where they presumably would have been kept together.

In the end, the group had to split up; two got into American Studies and the five others into Yost.

Jackson tried to look at the bright side. "It's a lot better than some of the Row houses. Some are dirty and smelly. And I know a group that got 1,901."

But Reyes said that drawing 1,581 was a waste of a "preferred" year. "We're kind of stuck in a limbo of numbers where there's nothing good you can get. Nothing draws around our number that's decent. It's like all the good stuff is under 1,000, and with 1,100 to 2,000 you can get the same thing as unpreferreds get."

Getting their housing assignments, however, was by no means the end of the process. Five days later came the "in-house draw," where actual room assignments are made in a decidedly low-tech way -- in the evening, at the residence, with names picked out of a hat. Well, sort of, after priorities for in-house draws -- such as seniority within the house -- are taken into account.

"The in-house draw went pretty well. Usually sophomores get screwed," Jackson said. "It was kind of nerve-wracking, looking at all those upperclassmen. You felt like you were getting the leftovers, but I think we all did pretty well. We got decent rooms."

Mora, who wound up rooming with Jackson at American Studies, boasted that the two "got a big corner room." Jimenez wasn't interested. "I don't want to talk about our room," he said.

Reyes said the group never really considered applying for priority status in a theme or focus house, which could have given them an edge. "It's kind of like we knew about it but didn't make the effort. Maybe we could have gotten a Row house."

Adjusting to sophomore year

Last December, as the end of Fall Quarter neared, the guys engaged in some good-natured ribbing about their sometimes lack of togetherness. "I guess if I lived here things would be better," said Jackson, who, with Mora, lives in AmStud adjacent to Yost. It was lunchtime at Yost, but Jackson and Mora don't always make it over for meals. "Antonio's always eating at other places," Jackson said.

"This is the outer rim of the galaxy," Mora said of Governor's Corner's western location.

Other things can affect the time the group spends together as sophomores. "Hubert has a girlfriend, and he's not here to talk about it," Reyes chortled. Academics get more focused and more serious. "We have more work and we're busier in every way, shape or form from last year," he said.

"The dorms are just not the same," Jackson interjected, compared to the rambunctiousness of an all-freshman hallway. "Yeah, they're more quiet around here. People leave their doors closed," said Mora. "Although there are some cool people here," said Jackson.

At the same time, they were beginning to get to know students in other ways. Reyes and Medina were volunteering in the Barrio Assistance Program, tutoring kids in East Palo Alto, and Mora was working at El Centro Chicano and making new friends there.

For a minute, Pardo imagined a housing program without draw groups. "What if there was no draw system? You wouldn't have the draw group dynamic, but you'd be forced to meet new people," he mused.

But they were still doing stuff together, such as the surprise party they threw for Reyes -- and 60 of his closest friends -- in Jimenez's room. And the time they took Jackson to Miyake in Palo Alto and subjected him to the embarrassing birthday rituals there -- although shots of Sprite were substituted for sake.

By Spring Quarter, the group was back to doing more together, including playing intramural sports. "We're making more of an effort, whereas last year we could easily just go eat together," said Reyes.

While they won't all be together for their junior year, their friendships have stayed strong. Jackson is stopping out for a year, and the others will be split into two groups, with Reyes, Pan and another friend hoping to get into Manzanita. Through the priority system, they hope to improve their odds at getting their first choice; for example, they'll vie to get into Manzanita's Castaño Hall -- the Public Policy focus house -- by writing a 200-word essay explaining why they want to live there and a 100-word essay describing at least one public policy interest. If they live there, they have to commit to attending at least three focus programs per quarter, helping organize at least one focus program during the year, attending a 1-unit Public Policy seminar and participating in house activities and meetings.

Jimenez, Mora, Medina and some others, meanwhile, are hoping to get into Mirrielees House because they prefer its apartment-type setup.

But whatever happens next year, the guys know they'll still see a lot of each other, because what ties them closest is their freshman-year, freshman dorm experience. In fact, they still make occasional guest appearances at Casa Zapata -- like the time Winter Quarter they crashed a house meeting and mounted a massive assault with machine-gun-type supersoakers.

"We got a few people pretty good," Reyes said. SR