Why Aspiring Ivy Leaguers Have No Choice But To Google Themselves

One of our first articles "Why Ivy League Admissions Officers Have No Choice But To Google College Applicants" was published by Business Insider in  2013. Over two years later, the subject matter of this article remains very timely and continues to generate great interest among college bound students and parents alike. I decided to update the original story by incorporating current statistics and introducing new concepts and trends surrounding social media's impact on college admissions.

Each year, the 26,407 public and 10,693 private high schools across the United States graduate approximately 3.3 million students. This means that high schools across this country annually produce over 37,000 valedictorians and 37,000 salutatorians with over 330,000 students finishing in the top 10% of their class.

On the college entry side of the equation, the eight Ivy League schools accepted just 8.7% of their applicants for the Class of 2019. When Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust recently commented “We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians” she was greatly understating the problem. In actuality, Harvard could have filled their class of 2,023 incoming freshmen 18 times over with valedictorians. Her advice to parents who want to send their kids to Harvard: “Make your children interesting!”

This intense selectivity is not exclusive to the Ivies either. Stanford, MIT, USC, Berkeley, Duke, Northwestern, Georgetown, Amherst, Emory, Bowdoin, Rice, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt and other top schools also continue to reject far more qualified applicants than ever before.

In the recent article, “Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%” The New York Times reported that admissions directors at the nation’s top universities say that “most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

Indistinguishable from those who get in? This seriously begs the question of how acceptance decisions are being made at these institutions.

Twenty years ago, before the Common App, admissions counselors could properly sit and review transcripts, read essays and recommendation letters and then make their acceptance decisions. If needed, they would personally interview several dozen candidates to determine those who will be selected for the last remaining class seats. 

We all realize that given the exponential increase in the number of qualified applications received by these schools, it is no longer feasible to make viable objective distinctions based only on GPAs, SAT/ACT scores, activities, essays and recommendations that all look the same. College acceptance decisions are arguably more subjective today than ever before.

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. When the traditional admissions metrics of grades, test scores, activities and essays fail to deliver the needed separation among even the most qualified applicants, colleges and applicants are forced to dig a little deeper to create separation.

We live in a digital age and many high school students are documenting much of their lives online. Whether colleges want to 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.

Thanks to Kaplan Test Prep and its annual survey of college admissions officers, we know that 40% of admissions officers in the United States looked at applicant social media during the 2015 admissions process. What we don’t know are which colleges are looking nor the reasons they look nor the extent of their social media inspection activities. In other words, all we really know is that over a third of all admissions officers examined at least one applicant’s social media during the 2015 application season. Given this frustrating lack of guidance, the responsible applicant needs to assume that admissions officers will be looking at their social media activities as part of the college admissions process.

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, character and likability. Without doubt, this trend is unfair to the applicant who likely has viewed these social 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.

So, when its time to prepare for college, teens are expected to be able to clean and enhance their social media profiles for possible collegiate review. Remember that we are dealing with 17 and 18 year old adolescents with judgments that are not yet fully developed. Teens understand that many of the activities they are sharing online may come back to haunt them down the road but they are naturally putting off dealing with any potential consequences until a later date. It is important to remember they are living in their moment and are using social media as a way to socialize and meet people while dealing with teenage peer pressures and their need for social acceptance.

While housekeeping remains an essential preliminary task for social media readiness, the unfortunate reality is that once posted, social media activities are permanent and discoverable. Shares, tags, screenshots and reposts make deleting one’s own prior activities something of a crapshoot. Nevertheless, some degree of care should be taken to mitigate the chances that legacy social media postings contain any compromising posts before commencing online interactions with colleges.

Almost all colleges now have a prominent social media presence and encourage applicants to interact with them on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Interacting with school officials, alumni and current students is a great way for applicants to demonstrate interest if, and only if, the applicants' social media is in proper order. Remember that whenever an applicant sends a message to a college official using a social network's native messaging system, that applicant is also necessarily transmitting a digital dossier containing all profile information specific to that social network. This includes all past posts, photos, friends and followers. As a result, colleges are routinely receiving full access to applicant digital DNA by way of these social interactions. By having their social media optimized for inspection, applicants can freely and safely interact with colleges using social media and may very well impress the right people as a result.

What is clear is that college admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest to search social media simply to find reasons to reject qualified applicants. 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 prepared applicant to set themselves apart from other qualified applicants.

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 qualified applicants to the most competitive colleges and universities, it is imperative that serious applicants consider their digital presence as a natural extension of their college application.