Timothy Peck 5 min read 12th Grade, College Lists

Can Colleges See Where Else You Apply?

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You’ve narrowed down your college list  and are ready to tackle the application process, but you can’t help but wonder: can colleges see what other schools you’ve applied to? If colleges can see where else you apply, will that affect your odds of admission? 

 

In this post, we’ll go over those questions, plus what you should do if you’re asked where else you’ve applied. 

 

Can Colleges See Where Else You Apply?

 

In general, colleges can’t see where else you apply. Colleges are also strongly discouraged from asking applicants which colleges they’ve applied to. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) states in their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices that they advise against asking “candidates…to divulge or rank order their college preferences on applications or other documents.” 

 

That said, there are exceptions, so you should be careful not to accidentally reveal your preferences, as it could impact your chances of admission. This is because colleges are very protective of their yield, which is the percentage of students who enroll at a school after being accepted. The higher the yield, the more “desirable” a college appears to be. So, some schools will reject or waitlist highly-qualified students if they think they’re unlikely to attend (this is known as yield protection, or Tufts Syndrome).

 

When Can Colleges See Where You Applied?

 

It’s on your transcript, or in your rec letter

 

This is uncommon, but it’s possible for the writer of your letter of recommendation to mention the school you’re applying to early decision, and to reuse the same letter for other colleges on your list. Luckily, most teachers know to make their rec letter work for all schools you’re applying to, but you can check with them to be 100% sure.

 

Your transcript could also list the schools you’re applying to, but this is also not super likely. Again, you can check with your counselor to be positive.

 

Early Decision

 

Another way colleges learn where else you’ve applied is through early decision. Under this admissions timeline, you sign an agreement where you promise to enroll in the college if you’re accepted, and to withdraw all other applications.

 

Some top colleges were sharing lists of students accepted early decision, and they claimed to do so to verify that students weren’t breaking any ED rules, and that the policy wouldn’t impact one’s chances of admission. Still, this practice came under investigation from the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2018 for potentially breaking federal antitrust laws. Several admissions officials defended the policy, stating that students entered the early decision agreement voluntarily, and that if they didn’t want their information shared, they shouldn’t apply ED.

 

The bottom line? No need to worry about this if you aren’t breaking the rules of your ED agreement. Be sure to withdraw your Regular Decision applications if you’re accepted, and absolutely do not wait for a decision “just for fun,” as you’ll be violating the agreement, and taking spots from other students.

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They Ask in an Interview or Application

 

The NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices permits admissions officers to “ask the question [‘Where else are you applying?’] verbally only if the answer will not be used to influence an admission, scholarship, or financial aid decision.” Why would colleges care where else you’re applying, if not to protect their yield? They may college the info for marketing purposes, to see who their competitor colleges are.

 

So, while uncommon, you may be asked where else you’re applying in an interview, and sometimes even on on some college applications. In 2015, the Common Application was criticized for allowing colleges to ask applicants what other places they were applying to. Still, some colleges will ask anyways. For example, SUNY ESF directly asked the question on their 2019 application.

 

In cases such as these, CollegeVine recommends leaving the question blank, if possible. If you have to answer the question because it’s required, or you’re in an interview, we suggest giving vague answer that avoids directly naming schools. For example, you might say I’m applying to my state flagship university and a few other schools across the country or I’m applying to other schools with strong environmental science programs.

 

FAFSA Form 

 

This has been a quiet topic over the past few years, but in the past, it’s been asserted (by reputable publications such as Forbes and Inside Higher Ed) that colleges not only look at the list of schools on your FAFSA form but might base college decisions based on the order you listed those schools in. This is because listing schools a certain way may indicate your order of preference. A simple away to avoid any issues caused by your FAFSA form is to list your schools in alphabetical order, which gives no indication of your preferences. 

 

A Few Other Items to Be Aware Of 

 

Forbes similarly warns college applicants to carefully choose how they rank schools on their four free score reports from the ACT. It’s hard to determine the validity of this, so play it safe and list your schools in alphabetical order. We also don’t recommend using the free score reports anyways, as you won’t know your score before it’s sent.

 

It’s also been suggested by Quartz and the Chronicle of Education that colleges are increasingly turning to high-tech methods to get inside the minds of applicants by studying their social media habits and browsing activity. Because this practice is fairly new and in the shadows, it’s difficult to judge just how much data mined from internet activity is used in the admissions decisions, but you should know that it could be getting tracked. 

 

At the very least, you should open any emails you get from the schools you’re applying to, even if they’re promotional. Schools can and do track how you engage with their emails, and use it to gauge your interest.

 

The Takeaway

 

An overwhelming percentage of college admissions decisions are made using standard criteria such as GPA, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities, with no consideration given to what other schools you’ve applied to. Even so, there are ways for colleges to see where else you apply, if they’re interested in that info—and your best course of action is to make it as difficult as possible for them.

 

For more information, check out our post “Where Else Are You Applying?” Why Colleges Ask This + How to Respond.

 

One way you can get a handle on your admissions prospects is with our free chancing calculator. Using factors such as grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and background, CollegeVine can predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges and universities. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants, and how you can improve your chances. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today and put this valuable tool to work for you.

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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.