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“What Other Schools Are You Applying To?” A Scary Question.

The other night as I was preparing a quick mac and cheese dinner for my three kids (gourmet food doesn’t happen around here until the weekends!), the phone rang with an “unknown number”.  While I usually don’t pick up the phone for telemarketers, for some reason, I did answer this one.  A very nice woman on the phone indicated that she was calling to do some market research on the college marketplace and asked to speak to my son.

My son is currently a senior in high school and in the throes of college application season.  (Yes, life has been intense in our household!)  He seemed intrigued and even slightly flattered to be getting such a phone call.  Somebody actually wanted to hear his opinion!  He was more than happy to share it.

As a concerned parent, a former marketer with many years of market research experience myself, and somebody who is currently completely immersed in the world of college admissions, I too, was incredibly curious to hear what they would be asking my son.  So, I quietly listened in on another line.

The market research rep explained that the survey was being sponsored by a college in which my son had expressed interest, but that the school did not want to reveal who it was.  No surprise there.  Not revealing the name of the sponsoring client is standard operating procedure in market research.

The rep then went on to ask my son a series of benign questions about what piqued his interest in different schools.  For example, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being very important and 1 not being at all important, rank how important a college’s location is for you.  School ranking?  Interaction with professors?  Campus sports?  You get the idea.

As the call seemed to be winding down, the rep had one more question:  Please provide me with the names of your top 3 schools and give them to me in rank order of your preference.

Alarm bells suddenly went off in my head.  I dropped the spoon, stopped stirring the cheese into the macaroni and went bolting up the stairs to where my son was on the phone, all the time yelling, “Don’t answer that question!  Don’t answer that question!”  Of course, he answered the question.

Call me over-reactive — my son certainly did — but I know that no school should be asking a minor who is going through the college application process to rank order his college preferences.  According to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) which is put out by the National Association on College Admission Counseling, this kind of question is forbidden.  Specifically, the SPGP states:

Postsecondary members agree that they will not require or ask candidates or the secondary schools to indicate the order of the candidates’ college or university preferences except under Early Decision

Even if such information is collected by a third party, as was the case with this market research firm, asking this question does not make it right.  I don’t know who the college is that sponsored this study, but it could very well be one of the schools to which my son intends to apply.  If they have access to my son’s list of top 3 schools, and the sponsoring school is not among them, could the information that he shared with the research company somehow impact his admissions chances?

Whenever the students that I work with are faced with the question on their college applications: “Which other schools are you applying to?” I always instruct them to leave the answer blank (it’s an optional question found usually in schools’ supplements).  Although, I believe that most schools are, indeed, using this information strictly for research purposes, I can’t say for sure that all are.  I worry that a student’s answer could color the way that they are viewed by a school’s admission office.

I contacted the research firm that is conducting this survey and spoke to the project manager on the study about my concerns.  He assured me that the information collected was only intended to be used in aggregate (i.e. specific answers would never be tied directly back to any individual survey participant) and seemed genuinely concerned that the survey may have breached an ethical standard.

After speaking with him, I believe that the question was asked with innocent intentions, but I’m also hopeful that the sponsoring school and the research firm will elect to do the right thing and either remove that question from the survey entirely or at least change the way that the question is asked.

Andrea Aronson

College Admissions Expert

Westfield, NJ

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