Social Media and College Admissions: How Fear Mongering Obstructs the Upside View

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An Obstructed View

Social Assurity Commentary

“WARNING: Colleges May Reject You Based On Whom You Follow On Social Media” 

Blares the headline of a recent article published by The Daily Wire, a story which was later picked up by Breitbart News. The story highlights a college applicant who was purportedly asked by a “prestigious college” why he followed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Twitter.

The story delves into a conspiracy theory of its own making and then draws an irresponsible and inflammatory conclusion: “Prospective college students beware, university administrators are not only going through your educational history and social media feeds to see what you’ve said in the past, they’re now looking to discriminate against you based on whom you follow.”

If that wasn’t enough, the author gratuitously piles on.

“Many college admissions offices such as Harvard are encouraging anyone who has ‘digital dirt’ on an applicant or accepted student to send it to the admissions department so they can reject an applicant or revoke an offer. This happens regularly and finally made international headlines last year when Harvard revoked offers to at least 10 applicants based up their digital footprint.”

These intentionally alarming and patently false statements perpetuate an enduring myth - colleges who view applicant social media do so with malice aforethought designed to bring down qualified students.

In reality, colleges and employers are not looking at social media to find reasons to reject qualified applicants. They do not have to.

They are looking to learn more about those applicants and to assess their intentions. Social media tells them a story, shedding an unfiltered light on an applicant’s interests, accomplishments, values, and social causes. These are all “fair game” elements of informed decision making.

Why the Outrage?

Unfair! Invasion of privacy! Discrimination! These are just a few of the more common reactions to the news that colleges and employers are looking at applicant social media.

“What I do or say on social media has nothing to do with whether I am qualified to attend a college or qualified for a job.” This belief is as ill-conceived as the idea that colleges “are encouraging anyone who has ‘digital dirt’ on an applicant or accepted student to send it to the admissions department so they can reject an applicant or revoke an offer.”

For some reason, the idea that someone would look beyond an overly scrubbed college application, essay, resume, or cover letter is blasphemous. Beholders of this way of thinking insist that college admissions must remain a meritocracy with grades and test scores being the only metrics that count!

Let’s Get Rational

Articles like the one published by The Daily Wire are intentionally sensational and often reflect the extreme bias of the author.  It is time to level set the social media and college admissions conversation.

Let’s counter their core argument with a fundamental premise - admissions to “prestigious colleges” have always been subjective. If college admission decisions were simply algorithmic, there would be no need for college admissions officers having to review college applications. Humans are inherently biased. We like people who like what we like.

Some 70 percent of kids who apply are qualified to come to school here, and we have space for one in ten. We can be as choosy as we like. It almost always comes down to whether or not you’re a likeable person.
— Former Ivy League Admissions Officer (2009)

Interviewing candidates, whether for college admissions or employment, has always been a subjective screening process that seeks to answer the question: “Do we like this person?” Social media serves a similar purpose by providing a window for others to assess who we are, what inspires us, and what we value.

A large number of colleges now use social media to help them better assess the credibility, character, and credentials of college applicants. This is a good thing, especially for smaller colleges looking to assemble a cohesive and engaged student body.

The ascent of character assessments as a metric for college admissions is not a new phenomenon. This summer, court documents revealed that Harvard ranks applicants on 'humor' and 'grit.'  The groundbreaking Turning the Tide report marks the first time in history that a broad coalition of college admissions offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement. 

The report includes concrete recommendations in three core areas:

  1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service, and engagement with the public good. 
  2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class. 
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure. 

When it comes to college admissions and employment pursuits, students will be assessed on factors beyond their grades, test scores, and resumes. Soft skills, personal attributes, and values are fair game and can often be culled from their social media feeds. Making sure their social media tells the story they would want to tell people they’ve never met but who will be making critical decisions about them is now a critical life skill.  

People ought to be paying attention to their social media feeds. The opportunities presented by the productive and informed use of social media far outweigh the liabilities of taking a laissez-faire approach. Their future will be watching.

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