Sep 17, 2014

Colleges that ask where else you are applying

George Washington University

Last year, Knox College and George Washington University were among over 50 Common Application member institutions asking applicants to provide a list of “other” colleges to which they were applying. 

Both colleges dropped the question for 2014-15.  

Knox says it was part of a technical overhaul of their application.  They dropped the writing supplement and because the question was part of the writing supplement, it simply got dropped as well.

GW, on the other hand, doesn’t have an answer why the question was left off the application. It just was.

But beyond begging the question of how much thought goes into structuring applications for admission, Knox and GW represent a small minority of colleges that have given up on placing applicants in the uncomfortable position of disclosing where else they are applying.

In fact, well over 60 Common App members, including some belonging to the Universal College Application group, are once again asking students to volunteer their college lists this year.

“When we used to consider admissions to be counseling work, it was a very helpful question to ask:  If a student had five other colleges, all of whom shared many similar characteristics, you knew she was on the right path; that she had decided to focus on the things you offer and had determined for herself what the right fit was,” explained Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University.  “If on the other hand you found a list of colleges that seemed haphazardly put together, you could ask and probe about why these colleges made it to the final list.”

Along these lines, the college list applicants voluntarily provided on their applications could also be compared with that generated via FAFSA, which also asks for a list the feds share with all the schools receiving your application for financial aid.  And that’s what some colleges do.

“It was never perfect, of course,” added Boeckenstedt.  “But it often led to good discussions about what the student was really seeking.”

In addition to DePaul, Bentley University, Chapman University, Goucher College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), RISD, and Hampshire College plant their list requests among Common App member questions labeled “General,” while Davidson College, Lynn University, Texas Christian University (TCU), Roanoke College, the University of San Diego, and the University of the Pacific place them within the “Other Information” category. 

Hendrix College asks, “To what other colleges or universities do you plan to apply?” under “Granola.”

Rice University, on the other hand, tucks theirs into its writing supplement.

For the most part, the questions are designated as “optional,” but not always.  The University of Redlands requires students to answer, “To which colleges are you applying and why have you included Redlands in this group?”

And some colleges are a little cagey.  Samford University asks, “Where does Samford currently rank among the colleges/universities you are considering?”

But both St. Michael’s College in Vermont and Salve Regina University are careful to specify that there should be “no ranking” of their lists, while Elon University (not a Common App member) and Macalester College have disclaimers stating that responses will be used for research purposes only.

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 only 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.

“I find it to be an invasive and unfair question. To me it is in conflict with NACAC guidelines,” said Shelley Levine, an independent educational consultant (IEC) in Potomac, Maryland. “The question should be outright banned.”

Colleges wanting 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. 

“The value for the college is to know who their major ‘over-lap’ colleges are and to sometimes assess where they fall on the student’s list,” suggested Shirley Bloomquist, a college advisor in Great Falls, Virginia.
And they want you to believe this data is used to evaluate marketing efforts—not for admissions or scholarship offers.

But few colleges bother to provide such specific assurances in the framing of their question, and this makes applicants and their families very uneasy.

“…parents and students are so bogged down with suspicion about college motives, there is effectively no practical value to [the question] anymore,” explained Boeckenstedt. 

Yet sometimes, a truthful response can actually boost an application.

“Typically, people think this works against the student—and it can,” advises Hannah Serota, another Virginia-based independent educational consultant.  “BUT, it can also work for the student.  At a college down the list of selectivity a bit, they may work harder to yield a highly desirable student based on the list.”
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. 

Wendie Lubic, who works with students in the Washington metropolitan area, suggests, “If [the question] is required, I tell students to put on their state school, and maybe one or two comparable colleges from their list.”

And more specifically, “When colleges are disclosed, I always recommend listing them in alphabetical order—same approach to FAFSA,” adds Serota.

Bottom line:  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 or offer some additional scholarship money.

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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