Preparing for College

Should Colleges Know Where Else You've Applied?

Question: College applications often ask for the names of other colleges to which the student is applying. How do admissions officers use this information? Should the applicant list all the other colleges he or she is applying to, even if it is a long list?

The majority of college applications do not ask students to list the other schools to which they are applying, but it’s certainly true that some do, and if you happen to hit on a number of those in the latter group, it can certainly seem as if everyone wants to know. It can also make you wonder how this information is used.


Admission officials are quick to insist that they do this to get a better sense of how they are viewed by applicants, parents, and counselors. They want to know who their most recurring competitors are and will attempt to discern common traits. For instance, as they examine that list on each candidate’s application, they will try to determine if the student chose them for their size, location, programs in a particular academic area, etc. Often this data is used to evaluate marketing efforts and only rarely is it used to evaluate kids.

Undoubtedly, some families are concerned that, if a college that makes such a query is less competitive than others on their application roster, then admission officials will proclaim, “Aha. She thinks we’re a back-up school, eh? Well, we’ll show her. We won’t take her at all!” Similarly, parents and students worry that a long list of target schools will suggest indecisiveness or will lead admission evaluators to infer that their college isn’t especially important to the applicant.

Never fear, despite what the grapevine may tell you, most admission folks know that they would be shooting themselves in the foot by passing up a top prospect simply because they suspect he or she will never enroll. Admittedly, a few may opt for that strategy, but— at top colleges in particular—the staff are generally savvy enough to know that it’s unwise.

Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, is a highly respected institution that is accustomed to receiving applications from many students who hope to be Ivy bound. While the rumor mill may tell you that Wash U. is known to turn down well qualified candidates because they’ve earmarked them as safety-seekers, that’s entirely untrue insists Director of Admissions Nanette Tarbouni.

“Washington University admits students that we want in our community,” Tarbouni explains. “We do not take into consideration anywhere else they might be applying, nor do we assume or question that we might be a ‘safety’ school. We assume that when students apply to Washington University, they are interested. If we admit a student, we work hard to get them to choose to join us. That is our job—to encourage them to enroll—even if somewhere else was initially their first choice.” By the way, Wash U. does not ask applicants to declare where else they’ve applied.

Colleges don’t compare notes with each other to determine where else their applicants may be heading. (The exception is early decision acceptance lists, which are circulated among some highly competitive institutions, but only after decisions have been made.)

When it comes to determining how you—or your child—will respond to one of those “Where else did you apply …?” queries, keep in mind that you have no obligation to reveal this personal information to target colleges. Admittedly, it could be off-putting to respond with something along the lines of “None of your beeswax,” but you can certainly list a couple colleges that are definite, where applications have already been sent, and then note, “The list is not finalized yet.” After all, when you’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds, minds can indeed change from day to day, if not from minute to minute.