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Not Just the College App Essay: 'Where Else Are You Applying?'

04/30/2015 01:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Many of us feel the college app process isn't complicated or stressful enough (NOT!), so the good people at the Common Application, which creates and oversees the application you love so much (NOT!), recently announced a new question for the upcoming season that has sparked a lot of debate.

According to an article, "Inappropriate Question?" in Inside Higher Ed, "The Common Application is planning to let colleges add a question for applicants that some admissions leaders believe is unethical and will encourage more gaming of the admissions process. The question: Where else are you applying?" It's not clear yet whether all colleges will ask this on their Common App supplements and/or whether the question will be optional, and how clearly students will understand that it's optional, if it is. In other words, will the question be posed in such a way that students will feel pressure to answer it and to understand what it might reveal? As of this writing, we don't know the answers to these questions.

Todd Rinehart, Director of Admission, University of Denver, penned a response to this news that's gotten a lot of attention. It begins like this:

This may seem like a harmless question, but NACAC members have long supported the notion that students should be able to apply to colleges without being probed on the other schools they are considering. The philosophy has always been the college application process is stressful and complex enough, and we don't need to add yet another layer to the tangled web by posing a question that puts the student in an awkward position. Does the student need to strategize a response to enhance their chance for admission, or should they flat-out lie? Nothing like colleges setting the table for some good old chicanery.

The Common App folks are not saying much (well, anything) in response to these comments, and we will have to see how the issue evolves in the coming months. My suspicion, based on what's happened this year in admissions, is that the decision to let colleges question students on where they are applying is the unhappy result of students now routinely applying to dozens of colleges and universities, leaving the institutions baffled as to who might actually sign up if admitted. This year's admission season has seen unprecedented numbers of wait lists and highly qualified students rejected from safety schools and many target schools -- leaving everyone, institutions and individuals, wondering "Where the bleep do we go from here?"

The Common Application was created in the 1970s as a way to streamline college applications for students and schools, one E-Z application and you're done! Great idea, but along came the personal computer, along came the U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges, and along came the colleges' obsessive quest for low acceptance rates and high publicity and marketing of their institutions -- and we now have a perfect storm on our hands.

Should students be limited in how many colleges they can apply to? That's a money loser for a lot of important players, including the Common Application organization, the College Board and the ACT folks, which make money on every application you send in. The colleges themselves are probably ambivalent about limiting admissions, because high applicant pools push down acceptance rates and push up their desirability on the rankings game. What the colleges want, it seems, is high applicant pools but some insight as to who will say "yes" if admitted. Hence this question about where else you're applying. But once you answer that, you tip your hand that X College is not really your first choice, since you are applying to 10 schools that are much more selective in their admissions. What's a student to do?

There is no easy answer to this dilemma for students, families or institutions. The good news is that no one has to fill out any application forms for quite a few months. Between now and then, there should be plenty of insight, commentary and suggestions about how to answer the "Where else are you applying question" if it's asked, and whether you need to answer it at all. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, for those on the verge of applying -- and their families -- I offer these suggestions as the application season begins:

Widen your college search beyond standard favorites: Admissions to the most selective colleges and universities -- from Harvard to Vanderbilt, from Stanford to Duke -- is now blisteringly difficult and, it seems, getting more so. If you're considering applying to these institutions, particularly early decision, do the homework and see whether you have the numbers to make the first cut. Yes, it's true that many institutions admit a higher percentage of students early decision than regular, but that's not because standards are lower; it's because those numbers may include special cases, including recruited athletes and the children of donors and VIPS.

As you choose where to apply early, take a good hard look at the numbers and your numbers. For instance, in its description of the statistics for the Class of 2019, Vanderbilt's admissions office summarizes the stats (96 percent graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class -- and, FYI, 0 percent graduated in the bottom 50 percent) and notes that "100 percent of students admitted through Regular Decision held major leadership positions or earned significant honors in high school." If this isn't you, perhaps this isn't the institution to apply to. Yes, admissions is holistic, and not everyone needs to be a superstar, but if you're applying to the most selective schools, see whether you have the numbers that the vast majority of admitted applicants have -- unless you have some other "hook" that might get you through the door.

Find safety schools you want to attend: Now more than ever, find safety schools that you like, not just that you'll tolerate if necessary. I worked with one student this past year who came to me with a list of 15 top schools and no apparent safety schools. It wasn't until I pressed him that he applied to a state university where he had the numbers to get in. Results: He was admitted to one of the lower rung top universities, admitted to the state university, and rejected or wait listed everywhere else -- with top grades, high SATs, leadership positions and excellent essays.

Do the money math: If you will need financial aid, early on, have your parents fill out the Net Price Calculators for each school you're applying to, to determine whether you can go there if you're admitted. Based on your family's income, will they give you enough aid (which consists of grants, loans, and work-study opportunities) to make this a possibility for you? How to do this? Google the name of the institution and the words "net price calculator" and do this early in the game. If your parents need help with this (ie non-English speakers), do all you can to help them so you'll have this information.

Plan ahead: Easier said than done, but still extremely important. If possible, visit colleges and universities when you can -- preferably when school is in session.

And stay tuned to my columns and my blog for news that I hope you can use in your college quest.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling author and founder of Don't Sweat the Essay, and runs the popular blog connected to it.