Odds of Winning Sweepstakes

Probability in Real Life > Odds of Winning Sweepstakes

What is a Sweepstakes?

Sweepstakes, lotteries, and contests might seem the same, but legally they are quite different. This is important, because to calculate odds of winning sweepstakes, or improve your odds of winning, you first must understand what they are. A sweepstakes is a random drawing for a prize. In other words, sweepstakes have two features: an element of chance, and a prize.

“You never have to purchase an item or pay a fee to enter and win a sweepstakes. You always have an equal chance of winning whether or not you order — it’s the law” ~ USPS [1]

A lottery is also random drawing for a prize. The difference between a lottery and a sweepstakes is that to enter a lottery, you must give something of value, like cash. Legally, this is called consideration. In other words, if you are required to make a purchase of a product, buy a ticket, or hand over some other type of consideration to enter, then that’s a lottery, not a sweepstakes.

Where this can get a bit confusing is, in some cases, a sweepstakes that requires a donation or purchase can be classified as an illegal lottery. To avoid this legal pitfall, an illegal lottery can become a sweepstakes by making an “Alternative Method of Entry” a.k.a. free method of entry available. Omaze is a good example of this: you can get entries by donating, or by filling out an AMOE form. Legally, sponsors are not allowed to treat people who enter for free differently from those that paid. In other words, your odds should be the same whether you make a purchase or enter for free [2].

When an element of skill is involved, like making a judged dance video, then that qualifies as a contest, not a sweepstakes. You can’t calculate your probability of winning in contests, because the winners are chosen by judges; there is no element of chance.

How are Winner’s Chosen?

odds of winning sweepstakes
Winners are, by law, chosen randomly. That’s me, randomly chosen as the winner of a surfing trip to Hawaii in 2018.

By law, sweepstakes winners are chosen in an unbiased manner—like a random drawing or preselected number—so that everyone has an equal chance to win. In a random drawing, a computer might be used to randomly select a winner, or the winner might be selected (at random) by an employee or a trained judge. If you enter a preselected number sweepstakes, an independent third party chooses the preselected numbers—which correspond to certain prizes—before mailings are sent to consumers. The sponsor does not know in advance who the winners are. Preselected number mailings are becoming less common as more and more companies turn to the internet for their sweepstakes and contests.

Odds of Winning Sweepstakes

Sweepstakes are games of pure chance. In other words, it’s all about numbers, not skill. Every year, around 55 million Americans enter some kind of sweepstakes (called “competitions” in the UK or “contests” in Canada) [3]. I’m assuming that you’re not interesting in throwing one entry into a hat and hoping for that Hail Mary win. You want to know how to win more…and win big. As you are up against 55 million people who are also entering sweepstakes, you can gain an advantage by entering more. Generally speaking, the more sweepstakes you enter, the more probability there is of you winning. I say “generally”, because which sweepstakes you enter matters.

For example, if you were to enter once in the Publisher’s Clearing House (PCH) sweepstakes, your odds are about 1 in 1.7 billion [4]. Enter one thousand times, and your odds are still tiny: 1 in 1,700,000. Therefore, you’ll want to choose contests that have lower entries and better odds:

  • Anything that requires effort, like uploading a photo or making a Tweet. I once entered a contest where I had to upload a different photo every day for a month-long contest. It was a pain to find 30 different photos, but I was rewarded with a win: a $1,000 Macy’s gift card.
  • Enter local sweepstakes. For example, promotions run by your local NFL team are often restricted to fans who live in the area (this is how I’ve won multiple tickets and prizes with the Jacksonville Jags).

Tips to to Increase Your Odds of Winning Sweepstakes

The quantitative method involves making as many entries as possible. Many sweepstakes’ enthusiasts spend an hour or two a day entering hundreds of contests. To cut down on the amount of time it takes to enter, they often use form-fillers (like RoboForm), or Excel spreadsheets. If you’re going to take this quantitative approach, your odds will be best if you at least match what the high-quantity sweepers are doing: enter several hundred contests a day. The more you enter, the higher the probability that you will win. Carolyn Wilman, the “Contest Queen” submits around 36,000 entries a year, winning about 1 percent of them. “I recommend spending one to two hours a day entering contests and sweepstakes,” Wilman told the Washington Post [5]. “That’s enough to win plenty, but not so much you cut into work, family time and other obligations.”

You’ll also improve your odds if you enter sweepstakes that have multiple prizes. For example, let’s say there is one prize with 100 entries: that’s 1/100 = 1% probability you’ll win. But if there are ten prizes, the probability is 10/100 = 10% chance you’ll win from that same single entry form.
Although Sweepstakes are supposed to be random, there might be a human element involved in choosing a winner. For example, a person who pulls a “random” envelope out of a bucket of 100 white envelopes and one red envelope might find that red envelope irresistible. If you can, make your entries stand out to improve your odds.

In the qualitative approach, you don’t enter true sweepstakes. If you have a knack for creativity, and you’re comfortable with posting on Social Media, you may way to enter contests instead. You can’t calculate your odds with a mathematical formula, but you can improve your odds by making your entries stand out. As an example, one contest entrant won a trip to Florida with a photo of herself in a bathing suit on a snowy English street [6].

As the odds depend on the number of people entering, every sweepstakes has different odds. These can range anywhere from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1.7 billion, depending on which sweepstakes you enter. I go into more detail about the odds of winning specific sweepstakes in:
Omaze Odds of Winning


[1] USPS: https://about.usps.com/publications/pub546/welcome.htm
[2] Pitfalls of Sweepstakes and Contests from: https://www.jonesday.com/en/insights/2007/11/pitfalls-of-sweepstakes-and-contests
[3] https://thehustle.co/biggest-sweepstakes-winners/
[4] https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-lazarus-lottery-scams-20170315-story.html
[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/winning-contests-and-sweepstakes-isnt-just-luck-ask-the-sweepers/2017/09/06/11dab032-82c5-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html
[6] https://superlucky.me/selling-prizes/

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