Social Media Plays an Important Role in College Admissions Decisions

When it comes to social media and college admissions, it is time to move the conversation beyond "Is this really happening?"

For years college admissions experts have been obsessing over whether colleges really looked at student social media during the admissions process. Many advisors questioned whether colleges had the time to look at anything but a small sampling of student social media. Other advisors accepted the trend but singularly focused on protecting their students from the potential negative outcomes of such inspections. 

These somewhat opposing yet equally flawed views have stifled what could otherwise have been an inspiring conversation about how students can learn to use their social media channels as conduits to deliver compelling information to college admissions personnel. There are, however, valid reasons why these opinions took hold.

First, the media habitually highlights the negative outcomes of poor social media decisions. Whether it is the Harvard 10, the lying University of Rochester applicant, or the Bowdoin dirt slinger, these headline stories only highlight the risks of uninformed social media use by teens. Dig a bit deeper and one can find stories of successful social media use by students including one student's strategic use of LinkedIn to get into Harvard. Colleges are not looking at social media to find reasons to reject applicants. When they look, they are looking to learn more about their applicants. In today's competitive world of college admissions and scholarship grants, social media provides another lever students can use to deliver actionable information to an admissions officer's desktop.  

Second, there is a definite lack of transparency when it comes to colleges acknowledging the extent of their social media review activities. Although recent surveys published by Kaplan Test Prep and AACRAO confirm that student social media review by colleges is real and prevalent, there is a significant discrepancy between the survey results and the number of colleges that publicly acknowledge looking. Perhaps this is best explained by the overall "black box" nature of the college admissions process.

The black box approach is arguably a strategic defense used by colleges to protect them against potential claims of unfair or differential treatment. Each college deploys a proprietary system of applicant review that serves its own unique organizational purposes. The weight given to grades, test scores, essays, community service, extracurricular activities, recommendations, character,  and other elements varies from school to school. As a result, the student selection process is far more subjective and ad hoc than most people realize. Admissions criteria are often described in broad and vague terms and admissions decision-making is rarely disclosed.

What are the legal and/or PR risks of a college looking at the social media of some but not all applicants? Is it fair if an acceptance or a rejection stems from that selective ad hoc social media review? Beyond social media, will a college want to disclose that it accepted a student with a 3.6 GPA, 2050 SAT and 2 AP credits over a student with a 3.9 GPA, 2275 SAT, 8 AP credits because the college determined the former has the ability to pay retail and is likely to enroll if accepted? It may be a good business decision but it throws out any semblance of college admissions being a pure meritocracy.

After years of lamenting the difficulty of gaining acceptance into elite colleges, many college admissions experts have now come to embrace social media as a way for students to take control of their digital narrative. The college admissions process has become more complex. Schools must contend with selecting (and filling) an incoming class that is talented, diverse (culturally, intellectually, athletically, and economically) while also measuring applicants' ability to pay, genuine interest in enrolling, legacy history, character and fit to withstand the rigors of college life, and probably several other factors beyond an outsider's comprehension. 

Once the modern metrics that are driving today's admissions decisions are understood, we can see why the traditional college application no longer necessarily delivers the information schools require to make informed decisions. The Common Application and even the Coalition College Application are rooted in an outdated framework. Colleges are faced with needing to look at applicant credentials beyond the scope of the application to assess them in accordance with their current business needs.

At a majority of schools, student social media now delivers this missing and actionable information to admissions, enrollment, and financial decisionmakers. While solid grades and academic rigor continues to be the primary metric for college admissions, students can improve their chances for admission to their dream school once they understand how to utilize social media to demonstrate interest, convey good character, and showcase their skills, talents, accomplishments, and activities.