Applicant Digital DNA Now Touches All Aspects of College Admissions


The results of the Kaplan Test Prep 2013 Survey of College Admissions Officers are in and Kaplan’s headline reads “College Admissions Officers Increasingly Take to Google & Facebook to Research Applicants.”

Of the 422 college admissions officers surveyed, 131 reported visiting social networking sites to learn more about applicants. When Kaplan first began tracking the issue in 2008, only 10 percent of schools reported checking applicants’ social networking pages. The 2011 survey made headline news when that number approached 25 percent and now that same number is nearing 33 percent. Think about it, the number of schools checking applicants' social media jumped from a quarter to a third in just two years. Colleges are most certainly looking.

As interesting as this trend might be, the Kaplan survey and others like it fail to capture and measure the current way colleges and universities are receiving and processing applicant driven social media.

Today, rather than proactively searching applicants' social media activities, admissions officers and other members of the university community are passive recipients of a plethora of applicant metadata courtesy of everyday social media interactions. These social interactions may take the form of friending a college or university on Facebook, sending a tweet to the admissions office, requesting to connect with a college official on LinkedIn or simply posting a comment to a school’s Instagram, YouTube or other social media account.

Given its ubiquity in their everyday lives, high school seniors are comfortable turning to social media to research colleges and universities. According to one survey, about two-thirds of the high school class of 2012 used social media to make “real time” connections with university communities. The same survey indicates that students are less interested in hearing canned ‘updates from the institution’ as compared to having an organized way of connecting with ‘people at the institution.’  

Today’s college applicants are imposing their social media expectations and experiences upon universities and universities are actively taking steps to cater to this tech-savvy generation of students.

Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on social media networks to reach and engage with candidates who may be making decisions about a school based on its online presence. A recent academic study indicates that 99 percent of colleges have a Facebook page, 94 percent are active on Twitter and 92 percent post videos to YouTube. University sponsored Instagram accounts, with their inviting photos of campus life and student activities, are rapidly replacing printed brochures.  With the recent opening of LinkedIn’s platform to high school students and the launch of University Pages, where applicants are encouraged to follow colleges and connect with school officials, students and alumni, LinkedIn is poised to become a critical center of social interactions between colleges and applicants.

StudentAdvisor, a Washington Post company, currently ranks the Top 100 Social Media Colleges. This ranking system gauges how active and effective each school is at engaging their audiences on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media tools, such as iTunes and podcasts. With Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Yale and Duke Universities leading the list, the site’s editor states “Social media has revolutionized how colleges communicate. These innovative schools use social media to give students insight into their culture, personality and DNA.”

Cara Rousseau, social media manager at Duke University, observes “Admissions offices are not surprised by the trust high school students are placing on social media platforms when researching schools. We know that prospective students use many tools to research schools they're interested in applying to. Our social media handles and pages have been a big way for us to communicate with prospective students."

Likewise, Garrett Brinker, director of undergraduate outreach and senior assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago, has stated “What we're trying to do with social media is take down that wall between us and prospective students, and give them an opportunity to interact with us on a genuine basis.”

All social networks utilize native messaging systems for direct communications within the platform and, according to The New York Times, millennials prefer native social media messaging over email as a means for communication. What does this mean for the socially engaged college applicant?  When a message or inquiry is sent to a college official using a network’s native messaging system, the applicant is also transmitting a digital dossier containing all profile information specific to that network including posts, photographs, friends and followers. These young adults are so accustomed to using social media to fire off informal messages to friends that it is hard to imagine they will take the time to properly craft a message as they might if using email or writing a letter.

Sarah Ramsey, Director of Recruitment and Admissions for University of California Irvine, is quoted as saying “a lot of schools are on social media now, so it’s a great way to foster interaction and engagement and connect with schools to make an impression and let yourself be known. Again, it’s important for applicants to be self-aware and understand how their brand is represented — i.e. what types of Twitter updates are they sending? How would that sound to an admissions committee or a company recruiting them?”

Colleges and universities are using social media not only to research prospective students but also to recruit them. Online behavior can have important consequences for young people and their social media activities can, and will, be utilized by others to make decisions about them. Whether its liking a page on Facebook, following a school on Twitter or connecting with college officials on LinkedIn, whenever an applicant uses social media to demonstrate an interest in a college or university they are simultaneously delivering their digital presence for potential review.

Whether or not the digital DNA that affixes itself to these social interactions will impact admissions decisions remains to be seen. Regardless, students must be educated on how to become curators of their social media and to be sensitive to the personal information that flows with each social media interaction.

Back in 1964, when describing how the form of a medium embeds itself in the message and influences how the message is perceived, Marshall McLuhan famously stated “The Medium is the Message.” True in 1964 and even more so fifty years later.



Alan KatzmanComment