Campus Bound College Admission Blog

Helping high school students and families through the college application process

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The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media

I’ve noticed a lot of buzz in the “twitterverse” recently surrounding the use of social media in admissions decisions. Some of the statistics and data posted in this March article, "Colleges Using Facebook for Admissions" are absolutely astounding. According to a Kaplan Test Prep Center survey, 24% of the 359 admission officer respondents reported going on to applicants’ social media pages; 20% have Googled applicants. This statistic is more than double the 10% that acknowledged visiting applicants’ social media sites in 2008. 

Full disclosure - in 8 years as an admissions counselor I never looked at an applicant’s facebook profile when making an admissions decision. Part of my responsibilities included managing the social media presence for my office, so I spent a significant amount of time interacting with prospective, admitted, and deposited/committed students online. I created and monitored accepted student groups for several years and had very few issues. My first post in the group was always that I was there to answer questions and facilitate discussions, but that the goal of the group was for students to connect with each other and get important information. I had only one rule: I would not censor negative content and would only intervene if I saw a post that led me to believe that a member was going to harm themselves or someone else. Thankfully, the only posts I ever had to remove/address were those with significant profanity, and they were few. During my interaction with students on facebook, I would sometimes see their profile pictures. Occasionally a student would friend me (I had a separate professional profile as an admission counselor, separate from my personal profile). As a rule I never friended students so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

I’ve been asked my opinion about admissions officers using social media as part of the admissions decision before. My response has always been that while I’ve heard of some schools (usually small with a strong religious affiliation) practicing this, if an admissions officer has the time to be prowling facebook looking information about applicants, they likely had bigger problems - like not enough applications! My response was sincere and I still have the same opinion today. As a college counselor now and former admissions counselor, I do not think it’s appropriate to allow information on facebook, twitter, mySpace, Google+, etc to negatively influence a decision, unless of course there are extreme circumstances. However, if something suspicious was brought to my attention about an applicant’s social media profiles, I would not immediately dismiss the applicant, but would follow up with the student’s guidance counselor to see if there might be additional information I should be aware of.

This issue doesn’t end for students with the college application process. This same article reports that 91% of employers use social media sites to research applicants for jobs. I understand all of the arguments for exploring social media sites: if it’s online, it’s not private; students should police their own profiles; if it’s posted online, it’s fair game. I get all of that, believe me. I also believe that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Should 17-year old college applicants think twice before posting pictures of themselves engaged in suspect (maybe even illegal) activities? Of course they should. But they don’t always. Isn’t part of the college experience to help students grow and mature into young adulthood? So are we expecting too much of college applicants?

I don’t have all the answers and the philosophical discussion about the practice of using social media in admissions can (and will, I suspect) go on and on. What I can do is offer students and parents some tips about how to make sure your profiles are “clean.”

1. Learn Facebook’s privacy rules and use them! You can control who sees every part of your profile and even whether you can be found in a search. Settings can be set so your pictures can only be seen by who you designate, and you can be notified when you are tagged by someone else in a photo to make sure you’re OK with being associated with that picture.

2. If your profile is set to only reveal a small amount of information, your profile picture is likely included. Be conscious of the picture you choose - you don’t have to look angelic, but probably best to not have a picture showing too much skin or showing you perhaps drinking underage (just examples…that I have seen in the past).

3. If the idea of a college admission officer searching your profiles and/or Googling you is horrifying, ask the question at the schools to which you are applying. If a school openly acknowledges the practice, it may be worth considering if the school is really a good fit for you.

4. Learn facebook (et al)’s privacy rules and manage your settings accordingly. Yes, I’m repeating this for effect. I am still amazed with all of the stories in the media about this subject how many high school students don’t have their profiles protected and leave lots of information out there for everyone to see.

5. Parents - for reasons other than college applications, you should have access to see your child’s online profiles. You should see what pictures are posted of them, what they are saying, and most importantly, what is being said to them. Being online has lots of great benefits, but now parents have to deal with cyber bullying and child predators. You and your child may disagree about the content that is acceptable to be online, but the most important thing is that, as a parent, you know what others can see about your child, and also who is contacting your child online.

Filed under social media facebook twitter college admissions cyber bullying online safety