Finally The Truth About Social Media and College Admissions

While much has been written on the topic of social media and college admissions, the real news is not that admissions officers are looking at applicant social media but rather how access to that information has changed. 

Articles by Natasha Singer of The New York TimesMark Bauerlein of Bloomberg News and Will Oremus of Slate have moved the conversation beyond Kaplan Test Prep's dated methodology of whether admissions officers proactively Google or otherwise seek out and assess applicant social media. Of course they do and the practice has been on the increase each year since the survey started in 2008 (well before the mainstreaming of social media).

As I originally discussed in a recent blog on this topic, rather than proactively searching applicants' social media activities, admissions officers and other members of the university community have become passive recipients of a plethora of applicant metadata courtesy of everyday social media interactions. 

When an applicant sends a message to a college official using a social network's native messaging system, that applicant or student is also necessarily transmitting a digital dossier containing all profile information specific to that social network including past posts, photos, friends and followers. As a result, the schools are routinely receiving full access to applicants' digital DNA by way of these messages courtesy of their applicants.

These social interactions may take the form of friending a college or university on Facebook, tweeting a request to the admissions office, requesting to connect with a college official or alumni on LinkedIn, by posting a comment to a school’s Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or other social media account, or simply by using a hashtag that is tracked by a college admissions office.

With almost all schools now deploying social media portals to interact with students and candidates, this viewpoint is critically important to understanding the potential impact of social media activities on college admissions, internships, scholarships, jobs and many other activities.

Now let's get to the truth on privacy. 

The threshold objection to the practice of colleges looking at applicant social media posts is one of privacy. In his article published by Slate, Will Oremus summed up this issue best when he wrote: "Public Facebook posts are public. All tweets from non-private Twitter accounts are public. There's nothing troubling about anyone—whether parents, employers, college admissions officers, or otherwise—reading these posts." He continued "If college admissions officers started trying to hack into kids’ Snapchat accounts, that would be chilling. If they were using trickery to gain access to kids’ private Facebook posts, perhaps by posing as a friend, that would be creepy. But there’s no indication that they are."  

Jeannine C. Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia wrote on her blog: "On Twitter and Instagram, I think you need to be careful about your profiles and your use of hashtags. You might forget that a hashtag with a school name in it is probably used by students, faculty, administrators, and people in the community. That's the point of a share something with people interested in the same topic....The point is that admission officers aren’t sketchy folks with nefarious intentions." 

It is important to remember that we are talking about information that the poster voluntarily publishes into the public domain whether they realize it or not. There is an old saying that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The same principle seems applicable here. Is it fair? Maybe not. Is it wrong as an invasion of applicant privacy? Absolutely not.

As to the concern over introducing subjectivity and bias into the admissions process, I am afraid that train left the station a long time ago. Just last year, the eight Ivy League schools accepted 14,000 freshman out of 275,000 applicants. Distinguishing between such a large pool of highly qualified applicants requires astute yet inherently subjective judgment on the part of the admissions office as GPA, ACT and SAT scores simply fail to deliver the needed degree of objective differentiation.

Rating essays on content, quality and originality (i.e. is it a 'paid for' product), reading teacher recommendation letters and personal statements or placing a value on student extracurricular activities are all inherently subjective assessments.  As an Ivy League admissions officer once said, "Some 70 percent of kids who apply are qualified to come to school here, and we have space for one in ten. We can be as choosy as we like. It almost always comes down to whether or not you're a like-able person.” What is more subjective than that?

In his article published last week by Bloomberg, Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University shared his thoughts on why he believes social media is fair game for college admissions: "At selective colleges, the list of applicants is long, and if a compromising photo or incident helps them narrow the pool, they'll use it," and then continued "More than that, the aim is self-protective. If a student commits an assault and there was ample indication on social media or elsewhere of a violent streak before the student was accepted, people will ask the dean of admissions, “How did you miss this?

Which brings me to my final point. Let's remember that for each academic year, admissions officers are charged with assembling a diverse, vibrant and safe student community. No one is saying that universities are interested in assembling a student body comprised of only boy scouts and girl scouts (even though having a few in the mix is always a good idea). I don't think that photos of teens expressing themselves and having a good time will necessarily disqualify them from going to college.

If, however, publicly available social media shows evidence of past anti-social, intolerant or violent behavior, then it benefits the entire university community to screen those candidates before they arrive on campus. 

What seems to be missing from the current discussion is the realization that social media can impress colleges as easily as it can dissuade. There must be some degree of validation and positive rating when the admissions officer can see that the character traits, experiences and activities highlighted on an applicant's essays and personal statement are also on display by way of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. This speaks to genuineness and credibility which should lead to a higher likability quotient.

I see this all as an opportunity. As I previously wrote in an article for Business Insider, "College applicants should be embracing social media as a vehicle to set themselves apart from the other qualified candidates. Social media should be viewed as a virtual resume for the world to see. Given the large number of applicants to this nation’s most competitive colleges and universities, it is imperative that serious applicants consider their digital presence as a natural extension of their college application."

Since the person you are online now has a real impact on the life you lead everywhere else, knowing how to curate one's social media presence has become an imperative life skill not only for college but for one's career as well.

Alan KatzmanComment