Nov 13, 2013

Colleges that want to know where else you’ve applied

Rice University wants to know where else you've applied.

Colleges are no longer satisfied with knowing the basics.  In addition to grades and scores, they want to know how often you’ve visited campus or checked out their websites.  They track how you respond to emails and if you attend local events.  They want to know where your parents went to college and make assumptions about your income based on zip code. 

And quite frequently, they want to know where else you are applying to college.

On occasion, they discover who the competition is by accident.  A counselor spills the beans by referring to another college in a recommendation or the applicant makes the classic mistake of praising another institution in the body of an essay.

Sometimes an applicant uses social media to signal interest in other colleges or comes to information sessions dressed in logo gear from a cross-town rival.

But colleges aren’t always satisfied with just stumbling on your college list.  They frequently actively and quite openly research the information.

We now know the federal government gladly accommodates colleges by providing everything they want to know about where else you’re applying on lists it communicates via the FAFSA.

And increasingly, colleges ask the question outright their applications. 

In fact, the Common Application may have encouraged colleges to ask for college lists by providing the question as one of a series of options from which they could choose in designing member-specific sections of the new application.

As a result, well over ten percent of this year’s 517 Common Application member colleges elected to include questions probing college lists either as part of the main application or as part of the Writing Supplement.

For example, George Washington University, Davidson College, DePaul University, and Lynn University planted their list requests within their member-specific questions, while Knox College, Rice University, and Hendrix College tucked theirs into their Writing Supplements.

For the most part, the questions are designated as “optional,” but not always.

And all of this this begs the question of whether or not these probes violate the intent of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), which clearly states that all postsecondary members should “refrain from asking students where else they have applied.”

It may be considered a “best  practice,” but someone within the NACAC organization seems to think it’s a bad, if not unethical idea to ask students where else they are applying.

Colleges that want to see your list will insist that they do this to get a better sense of the context in which they are viewed by applicants. 

They want to know who their competitors are in an attempt to determine commonalities.   For example, they look to see if students choose them for size, location, or programs in a specific academic area.  

And they want you to believe this data is used to evaluate marketing efforts and not applicants.

In its question on the Common Application, Macalester College adds, “…your response is for research purposes only and will not affect the decision on your application for admission.”

But few others bother to provide such an explanation in the framing of their question, and this makes applicants and their families very uneasy.

So how should applicants deal with these requests? 

Colleges generally reassure you there is no penalty for simply leaving it blank (except if it's "required").  But sometimes being non-responsive feels uncomfortable. 

If you are confident in your research and have selected colleges that reflect a strong “fit,” you may want to share a few names. 

Try not to be paranoid and take the perspective that you’re possibly providing an opportunity for a school to recruit you away from competing institutions. List a couple of comparable or crossover colleges that would seem reasonable in context of your stated goals and interests.  

And if space permits, add that your college list is still a work in progress, subject to change as you learn more about what each has to offer.

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