Insight Retreat Center

How the IRC Lottery System Works


On Playing the Retreat Lottery

We are frequently asked how applying for several retreats affects one’s chances of being selected in retreat lotteries, and also how ending up on a wait list affects the likelihood of being selected in future lotteries.  The best strategy for getting into the retreats you want and working with the lottery software turns out to be the most sensible one:

“Identify retreats that you are willing to attend if you are selected and apply to all of those.  Conversely, avoid applying to retreats that do not interest you or you would not be able to attend if you are selected.”

We could stop with this simple advice, but we’ll describe the mechanics for those who are curious about why it works this way.

It’s Like a Raffle Drawing

Each time you enter a lottery you get 1 ticket.  If you get accepted, you give up your ticket.  Each time you don’t get accepted, you keep your ticket. Once you get accepted, you give up all the tickets you accumulated, and start over again with one ticket in your next retreat lottery.

Just like a raffle, your chances of winning are determined both by the total number of tickets that have been sold and by the number of tickets that you hold.  If the total number sold is low, or you hold more tickets, your chances of winning go up. Conversely, if the total number of tickets sold is high or you hold few tickets, your chances of winning go down.

If an applicant is not selected in the lottery after applying for a retreat, the probability of getting accepted increases with each subsequent retreat they apply for.

For retreat lotteries, the number of tickets is equal to the number of applications with deposits we receive by the cutoff date. For popular retreats, this averages about 115 applicants.  We have about 38 rooms available. Five Service Leaders and a few others bypass the lottery due to special circumstances (such as a terminal illness or a teacher-in-training)*.  Thus we can accept about 30 applicants for each retreat from the lottery, only 20-25% of  applicants for popular retreats.  The rest end up on the wait list. If you hold four or five tickets in a lottery, you have a good probability of being selected, because one in four tickets is a winner.

Retreats with less familiar teachers attract fewer applications.  Since we still have the same number of rooms, a greater percentage of  applicants is accepted–about one in two or three.  It therefore only takes two or three tickets instead of four or five to make it fairly certain to be selected.

Waiting List

The tickets only affect if you “win” the lottery or not.  They will not influence your position on the Wait List, that’s random.

Apply Only to Retreats You Intend to Attend

Applying for a retreat you do not intend to attend may temporarily give you an extra ticket, but if you are accepted and subsequently cancel, you still forfeit all the tickets you were holding at the time of the lottery.  In your next lottery, you start over with a single ticket.  Any advantage you may have built up by spending time on wait lists in previous lotteries is lost. Applying for and canceling retreats therefore actually delays you getting into retreats you really want.

Flexibility on Short Notice

If you are on a wait list and can be flexible and take a retreat on short notice (such as the week before), you may often be able to take the place of a late cancellation and get in.  So if you have the time flexibility, it makes sense to stay on the wait list—you may end up sitting more retreats.


*Exceptions that bypass the lottery or for moving someone to the top of the Wait List:
There are a number of circumstances where a retreatant may either bypass the lottery or move up on the Wait List, such as:

  • Five Service leaders who serve each retreat:  Kitchen Mentor, 2 Co-managers, cook & assistant cook(s).
  • Buddhist Retreat teachers and retreat teachers in training (trained by IMS, IRC, Spirit Rock) – it’s part of the IRC mission to support dharma teacher training.
  • Life Transitions: Sometimes, a teacher, at their discretion, will make an exception for a yogi that is going through some exceptional life transition, such as a terminal illness.