Beating the Bear College Market: Why the Numbers Are Driving Admissions to Social Media

As current high school juniors begin preparing for the upcoming Fall college application season, the college acceptance rates for the current class of 2018 isn't very rosy.

While college tuition costs continue to rise, admission rates at the nation’s top schools continue to fall. Whether it’s Stanford’s 5.07 percent, Harvard’s 5.90 percent, Yale’s 6.26 percent or Columbia’s 6.95 percent, the numbers for the Class of 2018 are so startling that Cornell’s 13.98 percent admission rate seems downright reasonable.

Understanding the drivers behind these numbers is essential to devising a strategy for navigating admission into these elite schools.

According to The Center for Education Reform, there are 30,000 public, 11,850 private and 1,450 catholic high schools in the United States producing an estimated 3.2 million graduates. By the numbers, these high schools generate 43,300 valedictorians and 43,300 salutatorians while 320,000 students finish in the top 10% of their class each year.  

Besides organic population growth, factors such as the widespread adoption of the Common App; the growing influx of international students seeking an American brand name education; and the disappearance of the concept of regional schools have generated an unprecedented influx of applicants to the nation’s top schools.

First, the Common Application, launched in 1997, is a single, standardized college application that is now accepted at over 500 member schools including many of the country’s elite universities.  According to the most recent survey by the NACAC; “Each year since 1997, a healthy majority of colleges (between 64 and 78 percent) reported receiving more applications than they did the prior year.” Applicants no longer need to complete a free-standing specific application for each and every school they wish to attend. The NACAC data supports a causal relationship between the ease of applying to additional schools by simply clicking a box via the common application and the increasing number of applications received by colleges nationwide.

Second, the growing influx of international students seeking an American brand name education has further increased competition for domestic enrollment. Ivy League freshmen who are from outside the United States now make up approximately 10% of the incoming class.

Third, the concept of regional schools has disappeared with the relative ease and affordability of air travel from point to point within the U.S. Where the Ivy League was once the sole purview of the well-to-do northeastern establishment, their gates are now equitably open to students from all over the country and the world seeking the same benefits and prestige that an Ivy League education has to offer.

The numbers are staggering and cast justifiable concern on how select colleges make objective acceptance decisions among so many smart, talented and qualified students.

In 2014, the eight Ivy League schools accepted a combined total of 22,597 freshmen selected from a pool of 253,457 applicants. The numbers are not much better at other elite schools where some admitted fewer students than their Ivy League counterparts. Stanford accepted 5.07 percent of its more than 42,000 applicants; the University of Chicago accepted 8.38 percent of its more than 30,300 applicants; Vanderbilt accepted 12.27 percent of its more than 27,000 applicants; and Duke accepted 10.75 percent of its more than 32,000 applicants. UC Berkeley reported receiving more than 73,000 applications this past year.

The burden of reviewing this deluge of applications has fallen squarely on the backs of college admissions counselors.

With this ever increasing workload, how do admissions counselors at elite institutions possibly quantify viable distinctions among the abundance of qualified applicants? The reality is that there is simply not enough actionable data available for college admissions counselors to properly vet such a large pool of similarly qualified applicants.

Given the surging number of qualified applicants, SAT/ACT test scores together with high school grades and honors serve as nothing more than perfunctory minimum eligibility requirements for these top schools. The Common Application collects and generates additional data by permitting applicants to upload a personal resume, teachers’ recommendations and an essay not to exceed 650 words. Although member schools are permitted to add school specific supplemental information requests to the Common App, only a few are thought-provoking while most simply add an additional short essay request along the lines of “why college X.”

Essentially, college application data collection techniques have not kept pace with the growth in applications received.

Twenty years ago, admissions counselors could review their allocated applications, read some essays and perhaps personally interview several dozen candidates to determine those who will be selected for the last remaining class seats. Beyond today’s intensified competition among a field of relative equals, there is also the need for these institutions to assemble a diverse and well-rounded freshman class. We posit that there is simply not enough granular information collected through the standard college application process to support quantifiable, rational and objective acceptance decisions.

For many college applicants and their parents, this analysis points to a painfully obvious conclusion.

We live in a digital age and many high school students today document much of their lives online. Whether colleges admit to it or not, one can subsume that in order to fill the void of actionable data delivered by the common app and supplements, colleges admissions counselors are referring to social media sites to gain further insight into their applicant pool.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+, Instagram, Vine and other social media platforms and online blogs provide college admissions officers with a readily available window to assess the applicant’s transparency, credibility, maturity, authenticity and likeability. Without doubt, this trend is unfair to the applicant who likely has viewed these platforms as a casual outlet for private interactions with friends. Nevertheless, what is shared online has no half-life and is accessible by anyone with an interest in learning more about you.

Harvard College's Allison Otis has said she regularly checks out potential students' social media pages. Otis, a former Harvard interviewer once posted, "When you apply to college you spend such a long time crafting an image through your applications and essays that to be careless about your online data is just silly."

Another college admissions officer states "Tumblr is where I inadvertently see pretty personal stuff from kids. It is something people aren’t thinking about yet. A few months ago, I happened to be looking through my college tags on Tumblr, and I came across a post from an applicant saying, “I’m applying to [X college] and these other schools, and I don’t really want to go to [X.]” Just because it isn’t Facebook and you’re not putting your name on it — I still [have ways to] know who it is."

Just because admissions officers will be looking at an applicant’s online profile doesn't mean they're necessarily searching for red flags either.

College admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest to search social media simply to find reasons to reject qualified applicants. At best, temporarily shutting down a social media profile or using a fictitious name during the college application process will only raise suspicions when that applicant cannot be found. If and when colleges look, logic dictates they look because they want to learn more about the applicant, opening the door of opportunity for the applicant to standout from other qualified applicants.

Moreover, college interactions with applicant’ social media are no longer a one way street. Admissions officers and other members of the college community have become passive recipients of applicant social media courtesy of everyday social interactions. These social interactions may take the form of an applicant friending or following a college on Facebook, tweeting a request for information to the admissions office, requesting to connect with a college official on LinkedIn, posting a comment to a school’s Instagram or YouTube account, or simply by using a hashtag that is tracked by a college admissions office.  As a result, college administrators are routinely receiving full access to applicant digital DNA by way of these social media communications. Again, opportunity presents itself.  

College applicants should be embracing social media as a vehicle to set themselves apart from the other qualified candidates who are vying for acceptance into their dream school. Social media should be viewed as a virtual resume for the world to see. Applicants should post photos from their community service projects and other significant extracurricular activities, share relevant articles about news events they're following, and engage with people and organizations that interest them. By demonstrating interest in a school via social media, applicants will give themselves a chance to be seen in new and different ways. 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.