Why College Bound Students Aren’t Taking Their Social Media Too Seriously (Yet)

For most college bound students, the discussions surrounding the role social media plays in college acceptance decisions are conceptual at best; the stuff of urban legends. Without knowing anyone able to offer a firsthand account of how their social media activities swayed an admissions officer's decision one way or the other, it’s hard to blame them for their skepticism.

We are now a few weeks away from the release of Kaplan Test Prep’s 2014 Survey of College Admissions Officers. Since 2008, this annual ritual has fueled the debate over the ways colleges access and use applicant social media in their admissions decisions. While the scope and reach of social media have changed dramatically over the last six years, Kaplan’s survey methodology has not. Kaplan's once groundbreaking survey questions now come off as parochial and one dimensional, especially Kaplan’s ultimate question: “Have you ever found something [on social media] that negatively impacted an applicant’s admissions chances?”

Let’s remember that Kaplan is a multimillion dollar business selling tutoring and test preparation services. Kaplan has a vested interest in protecting the sanctity of the time-honored college acceptance metrics of grades and test scores. Kaplan’s business model relies, in part, on parents and students believing the only way to get into an elite college is to squeeze every extra point out of their SAT, ACT and GPA. With this in mind, it is understandable why Kaplan has never asked admissions officers “have you ever found something on social media that positively impacted an applicant’s admissions chances?”

Articles such as “Why Ivy League Admissions Officers Have No Choice But To Google College Applicants” and “Is the College Admissions Bubble About to Burst?” make the point that test scores and GPAs have not kept pace with the increase in college applications. In the latter piece, Lindsey Cook observes, “In the 1980s and before, colleges looked primarily at scores on standardized tests and grade point averages. Now, anything about a student is fair game, since so many have qualifying SAT/ACT scores and grades.” Grades and test scores have arguably become the opening ante for deeper consideration of the applicant.

In his opinion piece, Throw Out the College Application System, Adam Grant contends that "when students submit applications, colleges learn a great deal about their competence from grades and test scores, but remain in the dark about their creativity and character."

As colleges start assessing applicants beyond the boundaries of grades, test scores and the written application, the leap to social media to asess creativity and character and the positive influence that assessment can have on acceptance decisions is a logical extension. Yet college bound students remain ambivalent about how they can present their talents, skills and character to college communities via social media.

Kaplan’s most recent student survey asked “if a college admissions officer were to do an online search of you right now, how concerned would you be with what they found negatively impacting your chances of getting in?” Not surprisingly, 50% of college bound students indicated they would be “not at all concerned” while 27% said “not too concerned.” Only 14% of students said they would be “very concerned” while the remainder said they would be “Somewhat concerned.”

What if Kaplan turned this question around by asking “If viewed, will your social media be beneficial to your college application and chances for admission?” Phrasing the question in this manner will redirect students’ thinking from whether they had any discoverable compromising posts and images that could lead to rejection to whether they were presenting themselves authentically and consistently on social media in ways to enhance their admissions chances. Given today’s trends in college admissions, this mindset is becoming increasingly important.

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management has officially integrated social media review into the application process. Applicants’ now have the ability to pre-fill parts of the application using their LinkedIn profile. This may very well be the beginning of the official recognition of social media as a bountiful source of relevant applicant information. Business students applying to Cornell’s MBA program will certainly bolster their LinkedIn profiles to include their activities, honors, recommendations, skills, and awards. Many will likely consider connecting their other social media profiles to LinkedIn to impress Cornell’s admissions office. As more schools adopt the Cornell approach, college applicants will begin to understand how their social media persona can positively influence acceptance decisions. They will come out from hiding and start using social media to extend their story beyond the bounds of their college application.

Until Kaplan Test Prep acknowledges that social media can play a positive role in college acceptance decisions along with grades, test scores and essays, college bound students will remain unconcerned with their social media presence. Sure, they may take a cursory look at their Facebook timeline and past tweets to pacify their parents by deleting a few posts but only a clever few are proactively taking steps to enhance their social media for college review.

The admissions paradigm has changed. The opportunity for every college applicant to enhance their application is literally right at their fingertips. Let’s see if this year's Kaplan survey takes this into account.