3 Reasons Why “40% of College Admissions Officers Look at Social Media” is Misleading

The biggest misconception about social media’s role in college admissions is believing it is a game of chance that can be boiled down to two questions. Will colleges really be looking at my social media? If so, will they find anything bad?  

With this defensive view, there is little incentive for students to construct a social media presence that will impress a college audience. Most students have been repeatedly warned not to  post anything “bad” to their public social media profiles. As a result, most students are comfortable with college admissions officers checking their social media.

This "less is more" attitude completely misses the mark about social media. If students view social media as an asset, they will take a more thoughtful and constructive approach towards their social media activities. Here are three reasons why they shouldn't care about the percentage of college admissions officers who look at social media.

(1) Colleges Will Likely Look When Invited. When a student takes the time to build a digital portfolio of their best work and then includes the link on their college application, chances are colleges will click on that link. Likewise, when their community service activities are documented on their social media pages, a link with an invitation to learn more about their service will likely be accepted.

We recently worked with a student who created a reflective and informative LinkedIn profile. When Harvard asked if there was anything else they should know about him that wasn’t already disclosed on his application, he simply invited them to take a look at his LinkedIn profile and provided Harvard with the link. This student was accepted to Harvard's Class of 2020 as part of their Early Decision program.

The key takeaway here is students who take a proactive stance by inviting colleges to look at their social media create a clear advantage for themselves. First, by showing they have nothing to hide sends a powerful message of transparency and authenticity. Second, they can extend the scope of their application by showing colleges why they are worthy of acceptance in powerful and tangible ways. 

(2) Effective Social Media Engagement. Social media opens up many new channels to engage and converse with  a college community.  Administrators, professors, alumni and other members of a college community are all present on social media. LinkedIn, Twitter and even Instagram can provide touch points within the college community. Savvy students have initiated social media conversations with key influencers to make a positive first impression. Subject matter curiosity, questions about college life and demonstrated interest in a particular field of study can serve the student well. Getting people to take notice of you in a positive way is a key element of social networking. Beyond that, generic college accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram are fully staffed and actively monitor mentions across social media. This creates opportunity for engagement we have never seen before.

(3) Good Character versus No Character. Character is a rising metric in college admissions. For example, Harvard’s Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions recommends ways to reshape the college admissions process to promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students. The report includes recommendations in three core areas:

(a)    Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good;

(b)   Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class; and

(c)    Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

Social media is a great place to assess someone’s character. Unfortunately, hiding bad character on social media is not the same as presenting good character. We need to teach our students how to use social media as a public portfolio of their achievements, interests and activities. If the student is pursuing an athletic or academic scholarship, we know that character assessments via social media are becoming the norm. These students should spend more time making sure their social media shows the full spectrum of their lives and not just focus on hiding potential embarrassing blemishes like drinking, sexting or cursing on public social media channels. Moreover, as holistic admissions grows in importance and places less emphasis on grades and test scores, social media's ability to showcase a student's interests, dedication, maturity and aspirations will remain unmatched. 

The fact is that social media is here to stay and offers a deeper dive into a student's true self than any shortlist of credits and accomplishments. While almost everyone uses social media to spread news amongst existing friends, one of its greatest, often untapped, powers is to showcase a student’s potential to colleges, scholarships, employers/internships, and those who share their interests. By using social media properly, students may discover that the world is a wider place than they ever imagined.