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Why Colleges Look at Students’ Social Media

With a single-digit acceptance rate, Harvard University in Massachusetts has been among the toughest schools to get into. But in recent years, some students who cleared that high bar for admission had their acceptance rescinded before even stepping on campus. The reason: inappropriate social media posts.

Experts say that colleges want more than just a student with good grades and impressive test scores – they want someone of high character.

“As a residential campus, when we’re reviewing candidates, we’re just not admitting students for the classroom; we’re admitting students to be a part of this community,” says Marilyn Hesser, executive director of admission at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

The University of Richmond doesn’t look at an applicant’s social media accounts, Hesser says, unless the student sends links highlighting profiles. Another scenario is that admissions officers may look at social media if troubling information about a candidate is sent by a third party, often someone who remains anonymous. 

While Hesser says applicants have been turned down “on rare occasions” for social media posts, it still happens both at Richmond and at colleges across the country. 

According to a 2017 survey administered by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 11% of respondents said they “denied admission based on social media content” and another 7% rescinded offers for the same reason.

Do Colleges Look at a Student’s Social Media Accounts?

A 2018 Kaplan Test Prep survey found that about 25% of college admissions officers review applicants’ social media profiles.

“I think it’s important for kids to understand that colleges, even the really large colleges, are doing much more holistic admissions, that admissions goes way beyond the data,” says Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner and founder and co-owner of Score At The Top Learning Centers & Schools in Florida. She adds that social media can offer another look at a student.

Hesser says that if something in a college application is unclear, admissions staff will look to social media if it offers clarity on a matter.

Admissions officers do look at social media accounts for prospective students, but the practice is declining, according to the Kaplan Test Prep survey. While 25% of admissions pros looked at social media in 2018, that’s down from 40% in 2015. According to the survey, the decline is due to applicants who are more cautious about social media and increased privacy concerns.

Looking at social media may also have limited value, Hesser says: “Colleges really aren’t getting that much more information.”

Why Do Colleges Look at a Student’s Social Media Accounts?

Typically, experts say, if admissions officers are looking at a prospective student’s social media account, it’s because a link to the profile was included in application materials. Linking to social media can be a good way to showcase certain skills or add more information, experts say, though the effort may not always pay off considering the sheer volume of applications colleges see.

“We have to weigh that with the fact that the admission officers who are reading thousands and thousands of applications are not going to go check everybody on social media, and probably not everybody who even sends a link,” Hesser says.

And when colleges do find the time to look at social media, it’s not necessarily to disqualify candidates.

“I don’t think they’re trying to find reasons to reject kids. I think that they’re trying to find reasons to advocate for a particular student or to see how a particular student has really set herself apart,” Robinovitz says.

Social Media as a Supplement to Admissions Materials

While many colleges simply don’t look at social media, it can be a way to offer additional information to those schools that do.

“We want (students) to build a digital portfolio to present these noncognitive skills they can bring in, whether it’s leadership, understanding of collaboration, time management, resilience. It’s really designed to complement one’s application or resume,” says Alan Katzman, CEO and founder of Social Assurity, which trains students on how to harness the power of social media.

Katzman compares social media to a supplemental essay, which he notes many colleges no longer require. Social media, he explains, allows students to create vibrant portfolios that provide admissions officers a different view into what they have to offer.

“The beauty of social media is that you’re not limited to 500 words,” Katzman says.

Avoiding Red Flags on Social Media

Katzman boils social media down to three rules: You’re never anonymous, it never disappears and anyone can find your posts. With those three rules in mind, students should think carefully about what they post, he says.

Experts agree that students shouldn’t post anything that is bigoted toward any group, sexist or seemingly threatening.

“Colleges want to assemble a safe, diverse community. If you are showing hatred for any particular people, that’s a red flag. They don’t want you there,” Katzman says.

Hesser says the University of Richmond considers its code of conduct for enrolled students when weighing social media posts.

“The (social media) review that happens at Richmond is similar to the review that would happen if a current student did the same thing,” Hesser says.

Robinovitz tells her students to consider how their grandmother would react: “You may want to put yourself in the position of your grandmother. Would your grandmother be upset, angry or embarrassed if she were to read some of your postings?”

Sending Positive Signals on Social Media

Katzman sees value in using social media to engage with schools and encourages students to follow colleges across various platforms. 

But he discourages students from casually mentioning colleges on social media, noting those remarks are visible to schools. His preference is that students follow and thoughtfully interact with college social media accounts. To get started, they may want to consider creating social media accounts specifically for the college admissions process rather than personal use.

“We want you to create a new channel, a channel that’s going to have content for people who you’ve never met, who are going to be making important decisions about your future,” Katzman says.

Social media can also be a useful tool for demonstrating interest to colleges during the admissions process. 

“My other advice to students is that when they’re on a college visit, and snapping pictures … post it on Twitter or Instagram and have something positive to say about the university,” Robinovitz says. She adds that prospective students should also follow colleges on social media to get a glimpse of campus life in order to craft a more personalized application for each school.

If students plan to use social media as another way to sell themselves to colleges, they need to have a strategy.

“They have to figure out what it is they want to highlight and showcase,” Katzman says.

Students can use social media platforms in different ways to emphasize skills and interests. LinkedIn, Katzman says, is an effective way to highlight school activities, projects and extracurricular activities. Similarly, Instagram can be a great digital portfolio, particularly for artistically inclined students to show off their work. Facebook, he adds, can be useful for showcasing family life and activities, such as community service or experiences abroad.

And once students are admitted to a college, they should still think carefully about what they post on social media. According to AACRAO, 52% of respondents who monitor social media continue to do so “once an admissions decision has been made.”

By Josh Moody

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