What do the admission committees learn about an applicant by knowing which other programs and schools one has applied to? Does applying to another program which is more prestigious make the applicant seem more serious?

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    Related (possibly the same) question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5446/…
    – HJM
    Jan 16, 2014 at 2:52
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    @HJM I think they're different enough questions, and I think the "why" may be even more interesting than the "what to do".
    – user10060
    Jan 16, 2014 at 8:30
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    To avoid the tautological answer, one might also ask, "How might this information affect the committee's actions"? For example, perhaps they don't use it in making the admission decision, but look at it afterward to decide how best to recruit the student. Jan 16, 2014 at 17:14

3 Answers 3


One thing that some programs look at is whether you are likely to come if they accept you. Say you have a 4.0 gpa, perfect GREs, great letters of recommendation, and publications in respected journals from your undergrad research, and you apply to a bunch of the top schools and some mediocre schools. If there isn't something in your personal statement explaining why you are applying to the mediocre school, and that school sees all the other great schools you applied to, that school may not accept you because they assume even if they did, you would surely go elsewhere. Why would a university do this? Well its a waste of money to fly you out, but more importantly when someone gets put on the wait-list awaiting your decline of the offer, that person may accept other offers from schools that did not wait-list them. I have been told first hand by members of admission committees that the "where else did you apply to" question is used at least partially for this purpose.

Additionally, at the university administration level, they like to keep track of which universities they compete with for students. I have seen Universities present statistics on how many students reject their offers, and which universities they end up in. So the question is also probably there for statistics tracking purposes unrelated to the admission process. This is a potential reason why even the top schools will ask this question.

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    But why do top schools ask this too?
    – Ooker
    Dec 23, 2015 at 13:28
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    I am aware of no school with only PhD programs that would be considered top 10. Many schools have a base application that is unrelated to the program, and it might be the default to include this question. For example, UC Davis is one of the best schools in the world to study ecology, but probably not top 20 in most fields. So when you apply to their ecology department, you may face this question, even though they are likely to ignore it (as far as deciding who to let in). Harvard, on the other hand, is top 10 in most fields, but they do have some PhD programs that are not top 10. Dec 24, 2015 at 23:21
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    Additionally, I suspect at the school administration level, they like to keep track of who they compete with for students. I have seen Universities present statistics on who they "lose" students to. Dec 24, 2015 at 23:25

Some things I (as someone sitting in academic admission committees) would learn from this question is

  1. is the person flexible (willing to move)
  2. Did (s)he just apply to some randomly selected institutions or is there a clear dedication to one field
  3. Who are my main competitors (and this might be the true reason for this question).
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    The first two are really silly reasons to ask this question (although I don't doubt that some people may think about those things). What may appear like a random selection of schools may actually be very purposeful and methodical. If your school is far away enough from them, the fact they applied to your school should show enough flexibility. (3) is more likely the reason out of these Jan 17, 2014 at 16:49

I concur with OBu that competitive intelligence is the major reason for this question, but there is one individual-level strategic concern: financial aid. It's sometimes possible to guess what kind and amount of aid a given applicant is likely to attract. That leaves us with the question of whether we can or should match it.

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