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The question of whether the PhD applicant should disclose what other schools they are applying to has already been discussed here. There does not appear to be any decisive conclusion to this, however. The issue also infringes on the ethical issues of lying and bluffing.

Assume that the applicant wants to fill this question in the application. Given that most of the applications ask for 3-5 other institutions and some (most?) PhD students are applying to 10-15 departments that are spread out in terms of prestige, this leaves some degree of freedom. If the goal is to increase the chances of an offer, this creates an optimization problem:

  1. Applying to a top-level department, what other institutions should one list? (e.g. top-level or mediocre ones)
  2. Applying to a mediocre department, what other institutions should one list?

I assume that in the first case, it does not matter but I have no idea about the latter. Some have suggested that listing top-level institutions would lower the chances of admission. On the other hand, listing these prestigious institutions could create a good and positive association with the application (anchoring bias).

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Sorry, but you are suggesting gaming the system at the extreme margins. If I'm on an admissions committee, how/why would I boost your chances by knowing that you're applying to MIT or to East Podunk State College? Your acceptance will be based (in the US) on a completely different set of criteria.

I might take such a statement from you as a mark of whether you have realistic goals, I suppose, but nothing more. And, of course, for it to matter, I would also have to assume that you are being honest, but without any way to verify it.

Any effect of this would be extremely small at best and might backfire at worst. Focus on what is important, not on what is peripheral.


Edited to add:

There is one scenario I can think of where knowing what other universities a candidate has applied to might figure in decision making - but it would require knowing the truth of it.

If I'm on an admissions committee in one of the top few institutions in my field and I've already decided not only to accept you but that you are one of the few top candidates, I will really want to "catch" you. Having made those decisions, we, the committee or the administration, need to put together a support package that will attract you so that "we" are now competitive in your eyes. If I (truly) know that you have other top level options, then we need to make the offer as rich as reasonable.

But it could also backfire, if "we" figure we have little chance in catching you we might focus on other candidates.

In the above scenario, I would also normally just assume that you have such options, so, again, the added information, even assuming I can rely on it, is marginal.

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