Debunking the Myths: Social Media’s Role in College Admissions and Employment Decisions

As members of the college class of 2020 are in the midst of application "hell" and those set to graduate college as the class of 2016 are stressing about life after college (i.e. jobs), it is time to take a closer look at social media’s actual role in both endeavors.

Myth #1: My Social Media Can Do Nothing But Hurt My Chances

Yes, we get it. Social media is fun. Social media is a way to let off steam, share experiences, clown around with friends, and even a way to explore one's individuality in relative obscurity. It is also understandable why students never seriously contemplate a future review of their social media by college admissions or employers. For many students, the thought of cleaning up their digital imprint is so overwhelming that the idea of simply taking social media out of the equation by hiding it makes perfect sense. Or does it? 

We know that a significant number of colleges will look at social media as part of the admissions process. We also know that over 90% of employers now include social media review as part of their hiring process. To come up with the right strategy, it is important to determine what colleges and employers are looking for and why. If they are simply looking to find reasons to reject your application, then hiding your social media is the rational thing to do.

The evidence overwhelmingly leads to another, more logical conclusion. Colleges and employers view social media as a way to justifiably learn more about the applicant. Given the uber-competitive nature of college admissions and employment, decision-makers are hungry for ways to learn more about applicants than is delivered via college and job applications. This review is a form of “social proof” that essentially views social media as a digital resume.

This disconnect demonstrates the nature of how students view social media versus the way adults view social media. Students see these platforms as light-hearted, social and whimsical while their older counterparts see social media as a valuable source of actionable information.

So we ask, does hiding social media give you any competitive advantage under this framework?

Quite the opposite. With almost all high school and college students being active on social media, not being found is fatal for most applicants. So unless your social media is hurtful, hateful, illegal or pornographic, students really have nothing to hide. Being playful, having fun growing up, showing some imperfections at an early age is really nothing to worry about.

What is important is making sure your key social media profiles and activities are robust, easy to find and aligned with your college and employment aspirations.

Myth #2: All Social Media Platforms and Activities Carry Equal Weight

Social media is a broad category that now houses many diverse platforms. It is hard to argue that Facebook activities have anything in common with Yik Yak or that LinkedIn competes with Snapchat. We have all heard the term “digital footprint” and the concept that everything posted to social media is permanent and discoverable still holds true. Yet, there are definite distinctions within one’s own digital footprint.

If the paradigm is that colleges and employers have a need to learn more about the applicant, they will first likely search and inspect the most popular student sites: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If students really want to use social media to stand out and leverage their candidacy, an effective strategy is to create a positive presence on the sites used most often by adults: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.    

We doubt that many colleges and employers will dig so deep as to try to find the digital footprints left behind by students on youth oriented social media sites catering to more private, personal activities. If they make the effort, however, finding students on these sites is not nearly as difficult as students might want to believe.

Using Facebook to establish character; using Twitter to demonstrate interest in a school or a topic; getting your LinkedIn profile up and running to generate engagement; and using Google+ to establish your online identity within Google are all great steps towards turning your digital footprint into a working asset. Using LinkedIn and Twitter to optimize your Google search results is another key consideration.

Myth #3: Social Media is Only Used by Colleges and Employers to Assess Candidate “Character” 

Social media is a 24/7 communications tool that is creating an enormous number of touch points between applicants and colleges and employers beyond the application process. The “social” aspect of social media is all about engaging with others which opens up a huge networking opportunity. The “media” aspect of social media is all about creating content that authentically reflects one's aspirations, talents, commitment as well as character. Taken together, these collective aspects of social media obviate many of the traditional processes that were designed to fill the information void for college admissions and employment decisions.

Ask what is the purpose of a resume when a person’s professional and educational qualifications can easily be assessed on LinkedIn? What is the purpose of a cover letter or college essay when personal blogs, work product, photos, and videos abound across social media? What is the purpose of an interview when you can get a real sense of a person’s likes, dislikes, values and activities from Facebook? These traditional methods of vetting candidates no longer hold a monopoly on the process given the data available via social media.

We are seeing this momentum build with accelerated speed as colleges and employers leverage the actionable data available to them via social media to help make their decisions. Employers have been quick to realize the efficiency of social recruiting where they use social media as a source of big data to identify and recruit potential employees. In addition to LinkedIn, employers are also recruiting candidates using Facebook and Twitter.

Colleges have also reported using social media as a source to find and recruit students with specific skills and talents. The integration of college admissions with digital presence will continue to grow as the newly announced Coalition of Affordability, Access and Success releases its own college application which incorporates a digital student portfolio called the student vault.

Myth #4: Thanks But I Can Figure This One Out On My Own

Students are typically described as “digital natives” for the way they consume social media and in many ways they are. They have grown up using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other social media platforms but does obsessive use really make them digitally savvy? Given the discoverable digital track record of student use, we dare say not.

Many high schools dealing with the social fallout from immature and irresponsible social media use pull a page from the scared straight handbook and treat this as a police matter. Guidance offices and parents seeking to limit the harm from these activities tell their students to “clean up the mess” before college admissions. The problem with these approaches is that they focus on mitigating the negatives without thinking about unlocking the positives through proactive education.

When teen alcohol and drug use became a problem, states adopted mandatory education laws. Teens can’t get behind the wheel of a car without drivers education. When sexual abuse became an epidemic at colleges across the country, schools responded with education on the importance of informed consent and respect. We maintain that the same proactive educational approach must be taken with respect to social media.

Understanding the breadth, scope and reach of social media is not as intuitive as it seems. Learning how to post content that will not necessarily impress friends and followers is difficult for students to fathom. Using social media to engage and network with people outside one’s peer group is a learned skill. Expecting students to “clean” their social media prior to college admissions and employment only reinforces the negatives. We need to teach these “digital natives” to post with a purpose and to find their digital voice.