College and Job Applications in a Social Age

At the beginning of the summer a close friend of mine waited anxiously to hear back from a company she had applied to for a summer internship when she informed me that she would be deleting her Facebook account until the end of the summer.

According to her, the company said it would conduct a sort of “social media background check” so she did not want to risk jeopardizing the opportunity for a photo or post that she may have been tagged in years ago.

After “stalking” her Facebook page to see what sort of things might be of that nature, I realized she had nothing to hide. She was an average, athletic, 21-year-old college student with a social life and a lot to offer. But this made me think.

If a college-aged female with an appropriate social media presence is intimidated by the idea of jobs looking at her Facebook and Instagram, how does everyone else feel? And, on the other hand, what are colleges and job recruiters looking for on these pages? And for what purpose?

Out of 100 high school and college students surveyed, 72 responded that they were either worried about, intimidated by, or self-conscious of the idea that college admissions officers and job recruiters look at social media accounts. This survey also showed that 16 of these same students previously deleted or deactivated an account in order to avoid backlash when applying to schools and employment positions.

Negative feelings toward social media recruitment may have even increased after Kaplan Test Prep conducted a survey in 2014 that found, “Over a third (35%) of college admissions officers have visited an applicant’s social media page to learn more about them”, the highest percentage since 2008 (Kaplan Test Prep).

With this percentage in mind and knowing that social media recruitment has become increasingly popular, I wanted to look into how various colleges and businesses use social media in regards to recruiting and hiring candidates.

Zach Wielgus, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Boston College (BC), states that BC does not use social media in the admissions process, instead mentioning that “The purpose of our social media handles… are to disseminate information, provide a student perspective, and answer questions prospective students and parents have.”

But, while BC and many other schools may not actively seek out applicants on social media, their own online presences (on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram) show they are in contact with prospective and admitted students in other ways, so social media admittedly does play some role in the process.

Wielgus was not the only one who declined the use of social media in the admissions process, however. In fact, after contacting the top 40 colleges and universities on the U.S. News and World Report’s National University Rankings, 28 of them did not reply, 2 declined to answer any questions on the topic, and 10 said generally the same thing as Wielgusto them, schools had no use looking at students’ social media profiles and it was, therefore, left out of the process.

As students, we are often taught to privatize or edit our online presences in order to protect our chances of getting accepted into schools or hired by employers, but all of these schools denied looking at applicants’ pages. Why then, did we get the idea that colleges and jobs would look at our social media accounts? One would think that the more competitive schools would be the ones looking, so why are they denying it? Do schools really not look at our accounts? Or are they denying it because it is not being used fairly?

When asked about the topic, senior Kyleigh McGrail of Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Virginia stated, “I’ve always been told, by parents and teachers and whatnot, that colleges look at your social media accounts. I’ve heard stories of recruited athletes that got their scholarships taken away because of what they put on social media. Because of this, my social media accounts have always been clean— I think it’s super important.”

While keeping a clean online presence is important for high school students, like McGrail, who will apply for college in the fall, social media recruitment in the job world has become increasingly popular as well.

Questions like, “Do you have a blog?”, or sections where you can attach your LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram links are increasingly common on today’s job applications, which are, in more cases than not, found and submitted online.

Mark Babbitt, CEO and Founder of YouTern and President of Switch & Shift, hires through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, often Googling potential team members. “I only want to know two things,” he states, “What are you really, really good at? And how would that help my team accomplish our mission?”

And, in reality, social media is the best way to display what you are “really, really good at” without having your whole life summed up in a resume, CV, and/or cover letter, which lack the personality and creativity job recruiters are looking for.

Using a piece of paper as a first impression is not always good enough because although you may be experienced, employers need another way to distinguish between qualified candidates.

Kristin Magaldi, a recent 2015 graduate of Fordham University, states, “I think keeping your social media profiles clean and appropriate is the best way to avoid employers getting the wrong idea of you before they even meet you.”

Adding that, even though she was lucky enough to get a job right out of college, she was aware of the importance of keeping her social media clean and appropriate, especially during the application process. “I say look at it as a first impression, and treat it that way,” Magaldi continues. “You want them to have a good first impression of you, and your social media should reflect that.”

Unfortunately though, not all individuals get the opportunity to create a good first impression with their social media accounts because some applications are overlooked. But once an application is in the door and interest is peaked, Internet users have the advantage of impressing employers on the “Big Four” social media accounts. According to Tony Restell, Founder and Social Media Marketing Director of Social-Hire, these accounts include LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

“I always start on LinkedIn,” Babbitt states, “but value what I find on social media equally… I look for character first… If I see an applicant is clearly demonstrating passion for their chosen career path, industry, their community or volunteer work, or is exhibiting leadership, I am almost always impressed.”

But, according to Babbitt and Restell, many candidates end up ruining their chances at excellent careers because they do not appear professional online, so their applications and online presences do not match up. “To me, that means the applicant is being dishonest now… and will likely be dishonest later,” Babbitt concludes.

And since there is a variety of candidates applying to schools and jobs, employers are looking for those who are the same both on and off paper. So, the obstacle we face, in a world where not every company and university is as honest as “We are going to do a social media background check,” is not knowing whether we are being looked at online and choosing to make our online footprint attractive anyway.

Like it or not, in the Social Age we are judged by the character displayed on social media.
— Mark Babbitt


Taylor Mead is a Communication & Media Studies major at Fordham University graduating in May 2016 and an advisor to Social Assurity LLC, a company specializing in social media education and awareness for high school and college students.