Social Media, College Admissions and the New Reality

Every year at this time, Kaplan Test Prep releases its survey of college admissions officers measuring their use of applicant social media in the admissions process. This year, based on the headline finding that more admissions officers are now looking but finding less negatives, Kaplan concluded that students must be "sanitizing" their social media for college. In an example of seeing "what is" versus "what could be," Kaplan proclaimed social media still only plays a "peripheral" role in the admissions process. This limited view is bad news for college bound students and their parents who are seeking relevant guidance on how to best navigate and optimize social media for competitive college admissions advantage.

According to Kaplan's 2014 survey of college admissions officers:

"Over a third (35%) of college admissions officers have visited an applicant’s social media page (emphasis added) to learn more about them. This is the highest percentage since Kaplan first began tracking the issue in 2008, when just under one in ten admissions officers reported doing so. But even as this practice becomes more commonplace, college admissions officers are actually finding fewer things online that negatively impact applicants’ chances — just 16% reported doing so this year, down from 30% last year and 35% two years ago."

The first question to ask is what exactly does "an applicant's social media page" refer to? When Kaplan first started asking this question in 2008 the answer was clearly Facebook (launched to the general public in 2006). In 2014 does this phrase still refer only to Facebook or does it include Twitter (also launched in 2006) or Instagram (2010) or Pinterest (2010) or Wanelo (2012) or Google+ (2007) or Vine (2013) or YikYak (2013) or Kik (2010)? All the above? Some of the above? Other than the above?

Without the benefit of knowing the social media pages colleges admissions officers are actually visiting, it is hard to draw any reasonable conclusions from Kaplan's data. Yet, Seppy Basili, Kaplan’s vice president for college admissions and frequent company spokesperson, attributes this year's lower negative impact to students proactively "sanitizing" their social media profiles for college by "making them private, deleting certain posts, removing name tags in photos, using pseudonyms."

Unfortunately, Basili's "sanitization" theory is not necessarily supported by Kaplan's own data and arguably is nothing more than misguided speculation. Interpreting Basili's own terminology such as "deleting certain posts" "removing name tags" and using "pseudonyms" sounds like Kaplan is still referring singularly to Facebook.

Kaplan's survey has not evolved with the times and Kaplan's analysis of its own survey results remains questionable.

Everyone is well aware that teens have been leaving Facebook in droves ever since Mom and Dad began invading that social network. Piper Jaffray's Fall 2014 teen survey reports only 45% of teens even admit to using Facebook (as opposed to 76% using Instagram). This mass teen exodus from Facebook refutes the fact that teens are proactively sanitizing Facebook for college. The majority no longer maintain an active presence there and, for the remaining 45%, they know better than to post controversial content on that platform. If they are sanitizing for anyone, it's for Mom and Dad (71% of teens are friends with their parents on Facebook). Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as more college officials are checking applicants' Facebook pages they are not finding negative content because the applicants aren't actively there in the first place. It's not sanitization, it's desertion.

It is almost impossible to draw any conclusions from Kaplan's survey data other than more colleges are looking at applicant social media and the stigma behind such inspections is lessening.

In the company's press release, Christine Brown, executive director of K12 and college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep states:

“There’s no doubt social media has become increasingly a part of the admissions process, but students should recognize that it still plays only a peripheral role. Applicants’ online personas are really a wild card in the admissions process: the bottom line for students is that what you post online likely won’t get you into college, but it just might keep you out.”

As long as Kaplan keeps perpetuating the limited view that social media is a one-sided affair only coming into play if a college decides to look and then only to find negatives, Kaplan will continue to lose influence on this topic.

It is not difficult to comprehend Kaplan's reluctance to acknowledge that social media can play a positive role in college admissions. In the article Why College Bound Students Aren't Taking Their Social Media Too Seriously Yet it was argued that "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.” Interestingly, based on this year's survey results Brown concluded: “Admissions chances are still overwhelmingly decided by the traditional factors of high school GPA, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, personal essays and extracurricular activities."

Social media is opening doors of opportunity for applicants to make themselves seen by colleges in ways never before possible.

In almost an afterthought, Kaplan shared the following information: "And even as schools have adopted social media for recruiting purposes, some savvy teens see it as another channel for promoting themselves. Kaplan's survey also finds that while most students are indifferent to the role of social media in the admissions process, at least 18% plan to use online channels to help improve their college admissions chances."

Fortunately, Natasha Singer of The New York Times, who wrote last year's "They Loved your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets" and this year's "Toning Down the Tweets Just in Case Colleges Pry," explores the ways colleges monitor their social media and make judgments about applicants through their social interactions. In her latter story, she reports the following:

"At Washington College in Chestertown, Md., admissions officials do not proactively seek out candidates on social media. But while monitoring the college’s brand online, admissions officers often happen upon applicants who have publicly commented on the college, and they immediately forward those posts to Satyajit Dattagupta, the vice president for enrollment management. Mr. Dattagupta said he looked favorably upon applicants who posted positive comments about the college and about themselves. But he said he was troubled by applicants who publicly disparaged his college or any other on social media using offensive language."

Ms. Singer's view more accurately presents the true power of social media for college applicants. The ability to interact and engage with the college community and to be noticed. Building positive, consistent content rather than "sanitizing" content is a key element of social media optimization. Once optimized, an applicant can effectively engage with a campus community using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram. There are people on the other end who can be favorably impressed with an applicants thoughts, insights and activities. This is not peripheral. This is powerful.