How Online Posts Affect Colleges’ Decisions

With social media’s permeation of teenage life, online posts have increasingly become an indicator of college readiness — and one that more schools take into consideration when making admissions decisions.

For the first time, a full third (35 percent) of college admissions officers say they look at applicants’ social media profiles, according to data released in November 2014 from Kaplan Test Prep. That’s up from 10 percent, when Kaplan began asking in 2008.

“For students who are artists, musicians, or even coders, social media presents new and different ways to showcase their work,” says Christine Brown, Kaplan’s executive director of K-12 and college prep programs. “Athletes often get a lot of coverage. Colleges are always looking for must-have students that [can] have a positive impact on the student body.”

Students create portfolio through social media

David Prutow
David Prutow

While some admissions officers actively search for students online, others are directed to a curated experience by the students themselves, or by their teachers. For example, fine and performing artists and athletes at Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches in Florida are encouraged to develop YouTube portfolios; links can be put right in student recommendations, says David Prutow, director of college counseling.

Despite the steady rise of admissions officers looking at student profiles, only 16 percent say they find things that make a negative impact on the applicant’s chances — a steep drop from 30 percent in 2013, and 35 percent in 2012.

That may well be due to an increased awareness and sophistication about how students present themselves online.

“In the age of very slight differences in applications, anything that they can do to dismiss a bubble candidate, they will,” says Bruce R. Mendelsohn, a marketing communications consultant working in higher education in Massachusetts.

The down side of social media

Take one of his former students, who used Storify to aggregate various social media accounts. The smart, motivated captain of the rugby team chronicled an entire day’s game. In the morning, he posted photos of gathering his cleats and uniform, meeting his friends, and the final score.

But it was the post-game festivities picture of the underage player doing a keg stand that made a lasting impression.

Bruce Mendelsohn
Bruce Mendelsohn

“Once it’s out there, it’s very difficult to erase. For me, this was an opportunity for a learning lesson,” Mendelsohn says. “You have to be discreet.”

This student made a classic mistake: “For him, [social media is] a conversation with his buddies, not a conversation with an admissions counselor.”

The larger trend, says Brown, is an increasing awareness of how long a digital footprint can stick around. “Our advice to students and parents is to be conscious of the fact that what you do online has an afterlife,” she says.

Prutow says they train all their kids on appropriate use of social media with both potential admissions officers and future employers in mind.

Strategies for using social media

One strategy is to set up one Facebook account for personal use, and another for a public persona, or to use pseudonyms or handles not easily linked to a student’s real name.

Still, with privacy settings and breaches in flux, face-identifying software, and sophisticated online forensics, the safest strategy is to avoid posting content that that could be perceived as illegal, immoral, or simply immature.

In other words, follow the grandmother rule: “If you’re boasting about anything that you think your grandma wouldn’t approve of, don’t tag, don’t Instagram, don’t post,” Prutow says. “Position yourself as a person with class and character.”

Many parents feel like they can’t control their kid on social media, Mendelsohn says. He recommends a social media continuum, giving a child enough latitude so they portray themselves positively and appear mature enough for college. Start by monitoring a child on Instagram; older teens who have demonstrated good judgment can graduate to Twitter and then Facebook.

Given the steady use of social media by ever-younger digital natives, Brown says she’s interested to see how its role in college admissions evolves, and expects that the pattern of more college admissions officers looking at applicants’ profiles will probably continue to increase.

The old standbys of a solid application remain the same: strong essays, transcripts, test scores, and extracurricular activities.

“The advice we always give is that social media is not the most important factor in admissions,” Brown says. “Think first, and post later.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.