Ma, a former hedge fund analyst, makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets. Using 12 variables from a student’s profile—from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status—Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years. Ma’s algorithm, for example, predicts that a U.S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. Those odds determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18,826 for USC. “Of course we set limits on who we’ll guarantee,” says Ma. “We don’t want to make this a casino game.” ... Some 10,000 students—sixth graders to junior-college grads—use ThinkTank’s services now, generating annual revenue of more than $18 million. Nearly all are Asian immigrants like Ma, 36, who moved to Northern California from Taiwan when he was 11. He reels them in at free seminars, held in Holiday Inn ballrooms on Saturday afternoons. The standing-room-only events, advertised in Bay Area Chinese media, include a raffle of free SAT prep classes and a pep talk for the college-obsessed. Ma reassures the bewildered, multigenerational audiences that top-ranked American universities aren’t nearly as capricious as they seem, once you know their formula. ThinkTank boasts that 85 percent of its applicants get into a top-40 college, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. “Our model knows more about how to get into many colleges than their own admissions officers know,” he says. ... College admissions officers and other educators scoff at Ma’s guarantees; they say no one can predict acceptances to elite colleges because grades and scores are only one part of the highly subjective process.