The idea that colleges will look at students’ social media during the admissions decision-making process is not new. Kaplan Test Prep first began tracking this practice in 2008 when 10% of college admissions officers from the most selective colleges reported viewing applicant social media profiles during the admissions process. This first Kaplan survey was commissioned only four years after the founding of Facebook in 2004, which happens to be the same year as most of our current high school juniors were born.
Back in 2008, the idea that colleges would even consider passing judgment on students’ by viewing their social media was a controversial and newsworthy topic. Social media was still very much a novelty and Facebook was generally dismissed as a teenage infatuation. Social media was (and arguably still is) a place where teens posted impulsively and spontaneously without fear of consequence. These attention-getting posts left an indelible and traceable trail of shallow, unimpressive, and immature content. Unsurprisingly, the social media footprint discovered by colleges in the early days did not bode well for students. Thus was born the enduring myth that discoverable social media could only damage a college-bound student’s admissions chances.
Fast forward to 2021, where social media plays an integral role in teen culture and where Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tik Tok, YouTube, and LinkedIn have joined Facebook on the main stage of the digital superhighway. Recent surveys indicate that over 90% of teens ages 13-17 are actively using social media and, on average, teens are online almost nine hours a day, not including time for homework. The pandemic only seems to be accelerating this trend as 63% of parents report seeing their teen’s social media use increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media is also no longer strictly child’s play as over 70% of American adults are active on at least one social media platform.
Kaplan’s most recent social media survey found 36% of college admissions officers actually do visit applicants’ social media profiles and, more importantly, 65% believe that incorporating applicants’ social media pages into their acceptance decisions is “fair game.” Also referring to the admissions officers who said they check social media, 42% said what they found impacted their view of students positively while 58% said their investigations had a negative impact.
After Harvard University rescinded its acceptance to at least 10 students due to questionable social media activities, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) commissioned a survey on “Social Media Monitoring and the Admissions Process.” Unlike Kaplan’s methodology, the AACRAO survey was sent to enrollment managers and financial officers in addition to admissions officers at over 700 colleges and universities. In addition to finding that almost 75% of colleges monitor social media as part of their admissions/enrollment decision-making process, the AACRAO survey also found that 25% of colleges review students’ social media “regularly and routinely” and that private, not-for-profit institutions are more likely than other types to do so.
The idea that college admissions officers will unilaterally search applicants’ social media simply to unearth evidence of malfeasance has always been a spurious argument. College admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest to search social media simply to find reasons to reject qualified applicants. On the contrary, the data show a majority of colleges are open to the idea of enabling students to leverage social media as a way to deliver distinguishing information in support of their college applications.
Even before the pandemic, many selective colleges found it helpful to consider factors other than grades and test scores when assessing their applicants. Given the large number of qualified applicants who apply each year, it is virtually impossible to make viable objective distinctions based only on GPAs, SAT/ACT scores, activities, essays, and recommendations that all tend to look the same. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.
Holistic reviews assess an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades, rigor, and test scores. When deciding on which students to accept, colleges find it useful to consider a family’s ability to pay and an applicant’s likelihood to enroll. Many elite schools are also emphasizing personal character qualities that will lead students to succeed in college and ultimately graduate.
Schools are finding they can now get a more detailed picture of their applicants, including what they’re saying and thinking about them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter — which are proving to be more meaningful than traditional data points like GPA and standardized test scores. Colleges have begun to use algorithms that work on an individual student basis to profile and predict behavior. In this environment, students should be encouraged to leverage the willingness of college admissions officers to view applicant social media by making it a part of their application package. Only a small percentage of applicants take advantage of this powerful differentiator which explains why there is such a disparity between admissions officers who are willing to look at social media and those who do actually look.
While great grades and academic rigor will continue to be the primary metric for college admissions, a student’s chances for admission will greatly improve once they understand how to utilize social media to demonstrate interest, convey good character, and showcase the skills and personal attributes colleges are looking for to set themselves apart from other qualified applicants.