Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

Advice on How to Answer an Unusual Application Question

college admissions expert advice from eprep.comCollege applications require a lot of information that is ultimately useful to admission committees as they determine whom to admit. As a result, applicants routinely–almost mindlessly, complete forms that ask about home, school, family, extracurricular activities and unusual educational experiences. After all, it is usually easy to imagine where each piece of data might be useful to admission officers as they put your candidacy into a broader context.

Occasionally, however, there will be a question that gives the applicant reason to pause–a question that seems to have little bearing at all on the student’s personal qualifications. One such question asks applicants to “List the names of the other colleges to which you have applied.”

It turns out that this request and others like it show up in other places as well (interviews, meetings with alumni, recruiting sessions with athletic coaches, etc.) during the application process. Is seems innocuous enough; however, the savvy applicant is left wondering, “Just how will this information be used? Why do they want it and do I really need to give it to them?”
The answer is quite simple. Admission officers are pretty savvy about collecting information that can be used to predict the likelihood of your enrollment. This is particularly important in institutional environments where improving the yield on offers of admission and becoming more selective are criteria used to measure the success of their admission operations. As a result, admission officers are constantly trying to calibrate the yield on their offers of admission. The more they know about where you are applying (and likely to get in), the easier it is for them to determine the likelihood that you will enroll at their college if admitted. While the information you provide has no bearing whatsoever on the strength of your credentials, it can influence the status of your application if a college suspects that you are likely to pursue other options.

When you think about it, there is really nothing good that can result from providing such information. Therefore, I counsel students to leave the space blank. Unless you want admission officers to know where you are applying, keep that information to yourself. The same is true when the topic comes up conversationally. Give them only what you want them to know about your interests and intentions.

An interesting variation on this theme is found on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application–the form you must complete in order to qualify for financial aid administered by the state/federal governments and–in some cases, the colleges themselves. You see, the FAFSA will also ask you to list the colleges to which you have applied in order of preference. This information is required to complete and submit the FAFSA–and the resulting need analysis as well as the reported data will be forwarded to the colleges listed on the form. It is not uncommon for admission officers to cast side-long glances at such lists as they make their final determinations about whom to admit.

When asked for this information on the FAFSA, consider the implications of your response. You can list the schools in order of preference or you can confuse the issue by listing the schools in alphabetical order. While the ordering of schools on the FAFSA will not affect your eligibility for financial aid, just remember that it might have a bearing on how admission officers assess the likelihood of your enrollment.

The thing to remember about this whole discussion is that it is important to get on–and stay on–the “radar screens’ of the colleges that interest you. By making sure the authenticity of your interest in a college is clear and undeniable, you force admission officers to make decisions based on the strength of your academic and personal credentials.

For more advice from Peter Van Buskirk on college planning, visit

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