College Admissions On Facebook: Not All Bad News

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Admissions iIt’s been a very busy college admissions year in our household. I have a high school senior and a gap year kid, both applying to college, while I have been busily promoting my book about how to use social media to booster college admissions. To say that college admissions have taken the lion share of my attention here lately would be the understatement of the century…

Two years ago, as part of the research for my book, I asked a fair number of college admissions officers how they were using social media in their college admissions processes. And even though I got a mixed bag of responses, it was clear that social media had created a bit of a quandary for them. Social media offers these great online tools for reaching a target audience.

Facebook, the pre-eminent social media destination, is this perfect gathering place for college-bound students. In addition, the profile pages of this target audience represent a great deal of time spent setting forth who they are and how they want to be perceived. From an admissions assessment point of view, the opportunity on Facebook to learn about students is nearly ideal. For admissions personnel, at first, the problem with this new medium was that it was too uncharted and quickly-evolving to comfortably fit into the very deliberate admissions process. Colleges had to grapple with questions of privacy and expectation -- is it fair to judge a student based on information intended only for his or her friends? If an admissions officer “friends” a prospective student, is access to the officer’s private page appropriate? Is it hypocritical to be lurking around on someone else’s pages, but not grant access to your own? And is it fair to gauge how prepared a student is for college based on their casual and highly youth-oriented content and interaction?

These are not easy questions to answer. And as college admission folk began to engage in social media, as several admissions officers I spoke to confessed, some mistakes were made with over-access and awkward interaction, especially as the friend requests started pouring in from increasing numbers of ambitious students. (80% of college admissions personnel say they have received friend requests from prospective students.) Soon admissions offices found that they needed social media policy and rules about how to use it in an official capacity, and whether or not they should have private accounts. And even for the admissions offices that put policies in place, so much of what was to come could not be anticipated, which is often the case with new technologies.

Still many schools jumped in anyway, however cautiously. And it has paid off big time. The tactical and ethical dilemmas that plagued the use of social media for assessment purposes has eased a bit, with the dominance of one site -- Facebook; the development of Facebook groups and pages; and the installment of more-user friendly privacy settings. Colleges have been able to successfully use social media to connect with students and create up-to-the-minute two-directional information flows. Some colleges have been creative with the use of social media models on their own websites, where students can join college affiliated communities, share information about themselves and interact with staff and even current students. Look at how Stanford University and Dartmouth have utilized the Facebook Office Hour model, and how the University of Texas at Austin has provided a way for students to sign on to its website, get a UT identification number and share with admissions folk and students, even in real time. So far, for the most part, it’s been a win-win.

But these warm and fuzzy feelings between school and applicant about increased access and inexpensive ways of connecting is beginning to be eclipsed once again by the dark side of the social media paradigm. We’ve known for some time now that colleges look at the pages of applicants as part of the assessment process. My interviews uncovered a consistent and growing movement toward utilizing social media for this purpose among admissions officers. One veteran admissions officer I spoke to commented on the ease of having an applicant’s Facebook profile on his computer while his or her application is on his desk. And while most of the admissions officers said that they do not have the time or the inclination to look at the social media of every applicant, there are occasions in which they will look for sure. If, for example, an alumnus or other school-affiliated person informs the admissions office that an applicant has compromising information on his or her Facebook page, they will take a look. And every admissions officer admits that what they find when they do look impacts their decision. My admissions interviewees were very reticent to admit the degree to which they utilized social media to size-up applicants. Their concern is that students will begin to use the medium differently -- creating, for example, artificial admissions-friendly profiles and then camouflaging their “real” pages under aliases. I suspect some Facebook users are already doing this to avoid the watchful eye of parents. But it appears that these concerns are not stopping admission offices from forging ahead.

Kaplan Test Prep’s 2010 survey of college admissions officers, reports that 80% of College admissions officers use Facebook to recruit students. Well, let’s not make more of this study than it states. You can take a look around Facebook pages and see how lots of colleges are using this medium to connect with prospective students. There are hundreds of college pages there. You can also hop on over to YouTubeEDU and check out the awesome presence of college channels there, offering a myriad of ways students can explore and acquaint themselves with a school. There are hundreds of college YouTube channels, many with thousands of video offerings.

The Kaplan study reflects the trend of increasing and conspicuous college presence on Facebook and other social media. And while there is no indication that the schools are increasing their use of the medium to research students for assessment purposes, the fact of the matter remains, lots of schools have already been doing this.  The UMASS study, which was the first to examine how colleges were utilizing social media, discovered back in 2007, that schools were embracing all forms of Internet connections to reach students. The study found that college use of social networking and blog sites far outpaced Fortune 500 and Inc. 500 companies. According to the study:

Social networking, the social media that was most familiar to college admissions officers in 2007 and 2008 is still the most familiar. Familiarity with social networking has jumped from 55% reporting they were very familiar with it in 2007, to 63% in 2008 and now [2009] to 83%.(UMASS, p.2)

The findings of the UMASS study, citing 83% of colleges using social media to recruit, mirrors the Kaplan study results quite closely. But the UMASS study goes even further to suggest that colleges are not only using the Internet to research students, they are refining their modes of research, preferring the use of social networks like Facebook over search engines like Google. The study found that:

A significant proportion of schools continue to research students via search engines (16%) and social networks (17%). While these numbers are the same for social networking as they were last year, fewer schools are reporting the use of search engines in their recruiting strategy. In 2007, 26% reported using Google or Yahoo, in 2008 that number dropped to 23%. There seems to be a preference for information from social networking sites.(UMASS, p.6)

How significant is a number like 17% in relation to colleges snooping around Facebook? The answer is significant, considering that the UMASS study was a survey of Admissions Directors, Deans or other admissions officers from four-year accredited public and private schools, with a representation of all 50 states. The surveyed schools ranged in size from 10 to over 41,000 undergraduates, with tuition ranging from $1,000 to over $56,000 not including fees. The UMASS researchers spoke by telephone to admissions officers at well-known schools like Brigham Young University, Carnegie Mellon, George Mason, Ohio State and Howard University as well as smaller lesser-known U.S. institutions. Given that the UMASS study offers a three-year comparison of a wide and representative range of institutions, all of its percentages warrant some considerable attention from college applicants across the board.

And it bears mentioning that universities who, as a matter of policy, have chosen to not to use Facebook to investigate prospective students, still will not ignore reported information from a profile page. Julie Shimabukuro, director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University told the campus' student newpaper, “Reviewing Facebook pages has not been a formal part of the admissions process here...That doesn’t mean that information about an applicant’s Facebook page is not referenced.” And not only is the information used to deny admissions, but in some cases, admission has been rescinded. Shimabukuro said that at Wash U, incriminating information on Facebook constitutes fair grounds for rescinding admission offers.

 So what is a student to do? How should college applicants respond to the very clear message that what they do and say online may now have an impact?  The best way students can capitalize on this reality, instead of shutting down or white-washing their sites and pages, is to make their social media work for them!  With a little caution and planning, students can show who they are and what it is that motivates them to bound out of bed in the morning! They can use their social media to showcase their interests, strengths and attributes, making sure to leave on their pages what makes them interesting and unique.

One thing to do for sure: If a high school student has a picture wherein he is drinking with a beer in both hands, that picture should come off. All content and pictures that are profane, illegal, show profound poor judgment or taken as a whole, reflect immaturity and lapses of intellect, should be removed from social media profiles. The reality is once students reach seventeen years of age, they really should start to view their social media through the eyes of an adult and recognize that what shows up there may have negative consequences. College admissions, job applications, internships, scholarships and merit award considerations -- all of these assessment-related activities begin to be affected by how we represent ourselves online.

Do you have a high school senior looking at colleges? How did you deal with the Facebook/social media aspect?


Gina Carroll, author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers.

Photo Credit: janetmck.

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