Aug 19, 2015

Counselors offer advice on what to do when asked where else you are applying

ODU asks where else a student is applying.

Last spring, Todd Rinehart, associate chancellor for enrollment and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of the National Association for College Admission (NACAC) Admission Practices Committee, started a conversation about the appropriateness of asking applicants where else they are applying to college.

In a piece he penned for the NACAC Bulletin, Rinehart took a strong stand against the practice on the grounds that the college application process is stressful and complex enough without adding “yet another layer to the tangled web by posing a question that puts the student in an awkward position.”

In his column, Rinehart singled out the Common Application for taking a hands-off position on the question and suggested that “NACAC members should encourage the Common Application leadership to reconsider this topic—removing the question.”

Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common App, replied by pointing out that it wasn’t his responsibility to enforce a rule that’s subject to interpretation and seldom policed as part of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), even if he personally disagreed with colleges asking “the question.”  And this year, over 125 Common App members—more than double the number in 2014-15—responded by asking candidates to provide their college lists.

So Rinehart has stepped up his campaign and the Admission Practices Committee will be moving forward with an amendment to the SPGP, to be considered at this fall’s Assembly scheduled to take place during NACAC’s Annual Conference in San Diego.

If passed, the proposal will forbid schools from asking “candidates or their secondary schools to list or rank order their college or university preferences on applications or other documents.”  The new policy would go into effect for the fall 2017 admissions cycle.

While colleges find the information useful and may be even more inclined to ask the question now that FAFSA won’t be sharing the information, those on the counseling side of the desk are almost uniformly opposed to the practice.  

“A key problem with colleges asking which other schools students are applying to is that they won’t know the logic behind a student’s list,” said Tracey Hyams, a Massachusetts-based independent educational consultant (IEC).  “A seemingly outlier college may have an academic program that aligns perfectly with a student’s goals and interests.  Or the student might be a legacy and is applying to appease a parent.”

In fact, when asked, IEC’s voiced strong opinions about the value and purpose of the question. They also have a few strategies for what to do when confronted with the question:

Larry Blumenstyk, Learning Associates LLC.  “[I]n most circumstances I counsel individuals not to answer such an optional question on an application.  There are other sources from which colleges can accumulate data about ‘overlaps’, including the information they ask for after admission offers are sent. Providing this sort of information in the body of an application is fraught.  We cannot control how the college will assess the information—whether favorably for the candidate or unfavorably, if they consider it all.”

Gail Currey, Gail Currey College Counseling.  “I don't advise my students to answer the question about where else they are applying, except in the most general of terms. They might answer ‘Similar liberal arts colleges’ or ‘A range of colleges in your area.’  That way, colleges asking this question know these students are serious about their type of college or geographical area, but not much else!”

Todd Johnson, College Admissions Partners. “I always tell my students that this is an inappropriate question which doesn't need to be answered. However, I then tell them that to look cooperative they should list several other colleges that are similar but slightly less competitive than the college asking for the information.”

Ann Scheder-Bieschin, Carina College Counseling.  “I advise students that it is not compulsory to put in a complete list of the schools to which they are applying, but to put in similar schools, in terms of size and program they are interested in. I want the school to know that the student has a cohesive list. If the schools are totally dissimilar, it might make the college wonder how their school fits into the student’s choices and if the student is serious about them.”

Andrea van Niekerk, College Goals, LLC.  “I encourage them to list a few schools that might be either in the same tier of selectivity as the college (thus reinforcing the impression that they are thoughtful about fit but also quite likely to matriculate if accepted), and a few schools that might be similar but safer options.”

Note that this question isn’t limited to applications.  Interviewers sometimes feel empowered to ask applicants where else they are applying.

“My assumption is that colleges use the question to determine who their competition is in the marketplace, as well as assessing where they stack up on the student’s list,” explained Cori Dykman, of Annapolis College Consulting. “I prepare students to answer the question when asked in an interview, but not to respond on the application. My advice is to name two other colleges which are very similar, and to let the interviewer know how interested they are in their school.”

To date, the only national organization of counselors taking a public position on this issue is the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS).  In 2013, the ACCIS went on record with a proposal to the Common Application Board that stated, “We advocate the elimination of any question on member schools’ supplements asking applicants to disclose other colleges or universities to which they have applied.”  

Hopefully, other organizations representing the counseling community will come forward and support the changes being proposed this fall by concerned members of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee. At the very least, it should be an interesting conversation in San Diego.

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