Leveraging Social Media's Persuasive Powers in College Admissions Decisions

By inviting college admissions officers to look at their social media, students can provide these decisionmakers with a distinguishing and informative digital essay of their lives.

Social media’s role in college, grad school and even employment decisions is evolving as quickly as the evolution of social media itself making it difficult to accurately measure social media’s impact on college and employment decisions.

Social media review at the college level has become significantly more nuanced than the antiquated vision of an admissions officer Googling the name of a prospective student. As the way colleges are utilizing social media evolves, so must the social media advice proffered to college-bound students.

The generally held view of social media’s impact on the college admissions decision process is shaped primarily by the results of Kaplan Test Prep’s annual social media survey of college admissions officers. Since 2008, Kaplan annually queries approximately 350 admissions officers to gauge their use of social media in the admissions processs. Kaplan then editorializes and packages the survey results for delivery to the media.

Kaplan’s editorial takeaways are arguably constrained by the company’s core business as a for-profit test prep provider. This is not to say that Kaplan miscontrues its survey results. Rather, Kaplan typically paints an incomplete picture of its survey findings by primarily focusing on the potential negative impact social media may have on an applicant. What is often overlooked or at best given perfunctory lip service are ways college-bound students can be using social media in a proactive and advantageous manner to help their case for admission.

For example, the packaged media messaging of the 2018 Kaplan Test Prep social media survey can be gleaned from these representative headlines:

Fewer college admissions officers are looking at students’ social media, study finds
— Chicago Tribune
College Admissions Officers Are Putting Less Focus on Applicants’ Social Media Profiles
— Adweek

These spurious conclusions are based on the 2018 survey finding that 25% of college admissions officers viewed applicant social media this past year as compared to 40% in 2015. Before exploring why this decline does not mean that colleges are putting less focus on applicant social media, let’s take a closer look at this welcomed and important development.

The stated rationale behind this declining percentage is that student social media is now harder to find and therefore not worth the time of college admissions officers to pursue. Students have indeed learned how to keep their “unfiltered” digital footprint off of easily discoverable digital platforms. Today’s teens have moved their routine social media activities away from adult ladened platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in favor of youth oriented platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. This exodus away from social media platforms catering to adults is making day-to-day teen chatter harder for colleges to find.

Hopefully, the days of college admissions officers aimlessly performing a Google search on applicants seem to be on the decline (if they ever truly existed at all). The idea that college admissions officers will unilaterally search social media activities of applicants for evidence of malfeasance has always been a weak and unsustainable argument. Kaplan’s underlying message has always been to characterize the use of social media by colleges as an ad hoc instrument for applicant rejection.

In connection with these latest findings, Kaplan included this explanatory quote within its press release:

Admissions officers are increasingly conscious of the need to maintain students’ privacy, and are more inclined to use social media in a more targeted way. Regardless, social media remains an admissions factor for a significant number of colleges, so students should be mindful of what they share.
— Kaplan Test Prep

Let’s be clear, unless a college is seeking to bypass student privacy settings by demanding passwords (a practice which is illegal in almost every state), there is no privacy issue raised by colleges or employers looking at applicant social media.

Kaplan’s subtle endorsement of a student’s right to privacy in social media is questionable. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts are public. Full stop. There’s nothing troubling about anyone—whether parents, employers, college admissions officers, or otherwise—reading these posts. Teens, for the most part, understand this — which is why a growing number of them maintain two Instagram accounts: a public one for the adults, and a more private one (Finstagram) for themselves and their friends.

With that said, let’s move on to why a decline in college admissions officers fishing for applicant social media does not equate to a lessening of the importance of applicant social media profiles in the college decisionmaking process.

The most underreported finding of Kaplan’s 2018 social media survey is the so-called “fair game” factor which measures the percentage of admissions officers who are open to looking at social media to learn more about applicants. The Kaplan survey shows a majority of colleges are open to the idea of enabling students to leverage social media as a supplement to their college applications. This willingness also extends to graduate schools and employment opportunities.

Social Media is Viewed as "Fair Game" in the Decisionmaking Process

We have been saying for years that when it comes to social media and college admissions, having nothing to hide from college admissions officers is not the same as having something to show. So a natural question for Kaplan to ask college admissions officers who consider social media to be fair game in the decisionmaking process is whether they will look at social media if invited to do so by the applicant.

Harvard’s Dean of Admissions has already answered that question.

If someone sends us a link of any kind, it doesn’t have to be from some company or some organization, if it seems relevant to making the best possible case for that person’s admission, we will certainly take a look at it.
— William Fitzsimmons

As of the writing of this article, Kaplan finally seems to have come to terms with this approach for which we give a loud and well-deserved shoutout:

Students should be encouraged to leverage the willingness of college admissions officers to view applicant social media by making it a part of their application package. Only a small percentage of applicants take advantage of this powerful differentiator which explains why there is such a disparity between admissions officers who are willing to look at social media and those who actually look.

The business of college admissions has moved beyond the metrics best delivered by the traditional college application. Students and parents who understand these dynamics will be in a better position to navigate the admissions process in strategic and opportunistic ways.

Standardized test scores do not necessarily predict a student’s success at college which is why more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants. Many colleges have adopted a holistic approach towards student assessment, looking beyond GPA and test scores. Test-optional and holistic admissions review an applicant’s whole academic and lived experience. Many schools are placing an increasing emphasis on personal qualities that will lead students to succeed in college. This renewed focus includes examining “curiosity, love of learning, perseverance, and grit” in addition to the standard “grades, rigor, curriculum, and other qualitative data.”

Social media is one way of delivering this missing and actionable information to admissions, enrollment, and financial offices. Not only can social media positively impact acceptance and scholarship decisions by showing an applicant’s readiness, abilities, skills, and character but it can also be used to gauge an applicant’s interest in attending a particular college. While great grades and academic rigor will continue to be the primary metric for college admissions, a student's chances for admission will greatly improve once they understand how to utilize social media to demonstrate interest, convey good character, and showcase the skills and personal attributes colleges are looking for to set themselves apart from other qualified applicants.

The best generic advice for students is to create a discoverable social media presence designed for colleges that showcases their character, highlights their service, and/or conveys their commitment to an activity. Social media should be viewed as their digital college essay which can be appended to their college applications.

To quote a line from Field of Dreams - “Build it and they will come.”