Why do grad schools need to know what other schools you are applying to?
December 28, 2011 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Why do grad school applications ask you what other schools you are applying to? Will being honest hinder my chances at getting into a competitive program?

My two top choices both ask applicants to list any other schools that they're applying to. I see nothing to lose, generally, but although my numbers are technically fine (okay, even!), my academic record is a little unusual: Four semesters of dean's list, followed by five semesters of normal grades and an F (for incomplete grades I didn't address the following semester because I was young and terribly, terribly dumb, see also: serious depression and how not to deal with it), followed by a general getting-it-back-together return to the dean's list. Yes, that's a lot of semesters, and as a result, in terms of an actual number, my GPA is ok (but not great).

I'm now four+ years out of school, and I've lived abroad mostly and been a hard-working young professional type. I realize there will be less importance placed on my undergrad record; however, because of those blemishes, I'm afraid that admitting that such-and-such program isn't my only choice (even though it's my top choice!) will hurt my chances of getting into that program.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think part of it is they want to know who their "peer schools" are, but also to gauge your likelihood of attendance. If you've applied to a lot of schools, the likelihood of you accepting their offer is obviously lower. If you have great credentials and they are obviously a "safety" school, once again it's less likely that you will accept their offer.
posted by jayder at 8:49 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

What jayder said: they want to make a judgement call on whether they're your first choice or a backup option, so that they can make the right number of offers for the places available, and their own sense of where they stand on the pecking order will guide them. I don't see any reason not to be honest, and the admissions office should be smart and experienced enough to deduce that they're your top choice.
posted by holgate at 9:00 PM on December 28, 2011

I've done grad admissions a number of times for two different universities, in a humanities department. We've never paid any attention to this.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:04 PM on December 28, 2011

I think I left this question blank when I applied. It struck me as the one question really worth ignoring on the applications.
  1. I couldn't fathom how answering honestly could help me.
  2. I could definitely imagine scenarios where answering honestly would hurt me.
  3. I didn't have a fixed, honest answer that I could give anyway, because I was simultaneously submitting some applications while deciding whether to submit others.
It struck me as a survey question, not an actual informative/screening question. I'm the type to overdisclose out of an abundance of caution, and leaving this field blank didn't give me the slightest pause that I was somehow being secretive or dishonest. I got into great schools.

If such-and-such program really is your top choice, make sure you have communicated that fact to them. If your merits can get you on the cusp of admission, then that fact can definitely make the difference in knocking you into the basket. Tell them. Good luck!
posted by red clover at 9:36 PM on December 28, 2011

At a highly specialized program with a fairly clear set of peers/friends worldwide, the list of schools an applicant provides often reveals right away whether that applicant really understands what kind of program they're getting into (it's a plus if they do, though you can often guess their top choice and read the applicant as headed there), or whether they're applying to a selection of "top 10" schools (that's understandable, if a bit calculated and perhaps unenlightened), or whether they're applying to a region (sort of understandable, but generally a pretty bad sign), or whether they have really strange, possibly ill-informed criteria (also a bad sign).

But I've never seen or heard of it being an indicator that makes or breaks an application. Even people whose applications scream "I'm a local who doesn't know that much about your department's specialty" sometimes get in, if other factors hit close enough to the mark.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:55 PM on December 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've applied to and attended a couple grad schools. None asked this. I'm in the process of applying to another at the moment - this also doesn't appear on the application. Perhaps its related to the subject you're studying but I think you can safely ignore it.
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:01 PM on December 28, 2011

Ditto Monsieur Caution-- it lends insight into what type of schools you regard as a "good fit" for you, which in turn tells them how good of a fit you are for their program. For example, if schools A, B, and C are all great for your interests, but X and Y are not (even if they're otherwise prestigious schools), you want to show them that you're applying to A, B, and C. But I can't imagine anyone holding it against you if you left it blank...
posted by dino might at 10:05 PM on December 28, 2011

We used it as marketing information to see who we had to compete with. But that could have been just us.
posted by danteGideon at 6:05 AM on December 29, 2011

When I sat in on admissions meetings at Law School, that question was ignored by the people making the admissions decisions. It was for the marketing and recruitment committees, like danteGideon says.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:43 AM on December 29, 2011

I asked the head of the admissions committee for my grad program this same question a while back and he said it was interesting for the committee to see what kinds of programs their candidates were considering (he made it sound like a fun trivia project each year) but the admissions decision came down to things like research interests, academic record, writing, coachability, etc.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:52 AM on December 29, 2011

It was on the applications I did, and it was optional - but I answered it anyway. When I sat in on admissions, I learned that it was used for marketing and recruitment for the admissions office (all those wonderful stats they do), but no one one the committee actually pays attention to this. Leaving it blank doesn't make you look like you are more interested in the program, filling it out doesn't make you less - it's your other credentials and paperwork that do that for you.
posted by sm1tten at 7:45 AM on December 29, 2011

Dittoing Monsieur Caution - when I was applying to my phD program, at several of the places I interviewed faculty members asked me where else I was applying. The feedback that I got from my answers was "Oh, those are all really good schools for your interests/Professor X at U of Z is a good mentor/That means you must be interested in A, B, and C, right?" It may have been useful for pecking-order type negotiations behind the scenes, but in my case it was definitely also being used as a (minor?) metric of how much I knew about the field I said I wanted to work in.
posted by heyforfour at 7:55 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think this is on my school's application, but during interviews (which are usually post-admission in my field) professors would ask it basically every time. Now, when I'm talking to applicants I want to know this too. I was confused like you when I was applying, but being on the other side it makes more sense.

Basically, it's about understanding your particular story. Are you laser focused on a particular style of program or are you applying to different sorts of places and keeping some options open? Where does any particular school fall on your list? Are you location-limited or applying nationally/globally? How well do you know the field and where different sorts of work gets done? How does your application to my program fit in the broader application process?

You don't say what kind of grad school you're applying too. If it's a professional program, I think these sorts of narratives matter a lot less. But in research programs where it's important to figure out whether someone is going to be a good research/personality/interest fit, getting a broader sense of what sorts of paths someone is considering is useful. The only time I can see it tipping the scale is if you listed an incredibly (unreasonably) diverse set of schools. That might make it seem like either you don't know the field or have no focus. If either of those is true, though, it's going to show up throughout your application and your school list isn't going to matter one way or another.

So I would recommend not really worrying about it one way or another during the application process. If it seems too weird to you, just ignore it. If you end up visiting schools post-acceptance, though, I would strongly recommend you be 100% frank with people about your options. I got a lot of really great candid advice about my options when I was visiting that was revealing about both the values of each program and how they perceive each other.
posted by heresiarch at 8:30 AM on December 29, 2011

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