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“Where Else Are You Applying?” Why Colleges Ask This + How to Respond

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“Where else are you applying?” Some college applicants might encounter this unnerving question in an interview or application. For example, SUNY ESF directly asks it in their application, and we we address in our essay breakdown How to Write the SUNY ESF Supplemental Essays 2019-2020. Schools ask this question for various reasons. What’s consistent about this question, however, is its ability to fluster applicants. To understand the underlying motivation of this question and how to correctly respond, read on.


Why Colleges Ask Where Else You’re Applying


In some cases, the question is pretty innocuous, but in other instances, it can have a significant effect on whether or not you’ll receive an acceptance letter. For this reason, it’s valuable to understand why colleges ask where else you’re applying. 




One of the primary reasons that schools ask about the other colleges you’re interested in is for marketing purposes. Schools use this information to learn what other institutions they’re competing against and refine their recruitment strategies. This is a pretty harmless reason, and it shouldn’t impact your chances of acceptance.


Interest Gauge


Many colleges are extremely protective of their yield—the percentage of the students who enroll at a university after being accepted—believing that it’s an indicator of prestige. If you share that you’re applying to a bunch of higher-ranked institutions, the school asking the question will conclude that they’re your safety school, which might make them less likely to admit you to protect their yield rate


A common variation of the question “Where else are you applying?” is “Where have you been accepted?” When asking this question, schools are also trying to gauge the likelihood of you attending. For example, if you’ve already been accepted at a higher-ranked school, the odds of you choosing them is diminished. So, the lower-ranked school may again not accept you to protect their yield.


It’s worth noting that college admissions officials are well informed and evaluate hundreds to thousands of candidates a year. No matter how you answer this question, they’ll have a strong idea of how they stack up compared to other schools based on your profile. 


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How to Respond to “What Other Colleges Are You Applying To?”


This question is actually technically not allowed. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) advises against asking “candidates…to divulge or rank order their college preferences on applications or other documents” in their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. The NACAC states “they may ask the question verbally only if the answer will not be used to influence an admission, scholarship, or financial aid decision.”


With that said, it’s still common for candidates to be asked this question. A safe strategy is to answer it as if it might have bearing on your application—because it can. Here’s what you should do:


Don’t Answer


One way to approach this question, if you encounter it on an application, is to leave it blank. For example, this is one of the strategies we advise in handling the question on SUNY ESF’s supplemental essays. Of course, this isn’t a solution if the question is mandatory, or if you’re asked the question in an interview. In that case, you’ll need a more well-thought-out approach. 


Give a Vague Answer


If you’re required to respond to the question, you can simply give a vague answer, without naming any schools. For example:


I’m applying to my state flagship university and a few other schools across the country.


Highlight an Admirable Quality of the School


You can also talk about the shared general characteristics of the schools you’re applying to, without naming specific colleges. An excellent way to answer this question is by spotlighting a particular aspect of the school that’s asking you the question. In this case, your reply to SUNY ESF might look like this:


I’m looking at a handful of smaller schools with strong environmental science programs on the East coast. I’m really interested in schools with small classes that provide the opportunity to get real-world experience in the field. 




I’m interested in the intimacy and attention offered by a small specialized college, but don’t want to miss out on the opportunities and privileges provided by larger institutions. One of the things that stands out about SUNY ESF is its partnership with neighboring Syracuse University. I’m considering schools with similar arrangements. 


Redirect the Interviewer


Although unlikely, it’s possible that an interviewer might press you for a direct response. In these rare cases, the best strategy is to try to redirect the question and say that you’d rather talk about their school specifically, and not other schools. This is often a great chance to talk about the aspects of the school that are particularly appealing to you. 


The Takeaway


The most important thing for college applicants to remember is that they should not answer the question with a list of all the schools they’re applying to—the cons outnumber the pros. This is especially true when asked where you’ve been accepted. 


It’s also valuable to prepare for this question and turn a confounding moment into a chance to demonstrate your interest in the school, and hopefully cement your acceptance. 


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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.