Stories abound of students and even teachers sharing inappropriate items on social media. You would think students who are about to apply to colleges and be evaluated by admissions officers would know better. The truth is that obviously, the vast majority of high school students are very responsible about their social media presence but we only hear about the foolish ones whose mistakes live on as lessons for others.
The big question most parents ask me is whether or not colleges are fishing in the social media waters. Are colleges and universities proactively seeking out information on prospective applicants or not? Do they research the social media accounts of their applicants? Are the results factored into the evaluation of applicants, i.e., how bad does it need to be before it negatively impacts a student’s chance of being accepted? What’s harmless and what’s harmful?
I worked with a family whose high school senior son was visiting a neighborhood friend who was a freshman at college. They went to a party and someone took several pictures of the student drinking and then posted them on FaceBook and Instagram. Someone at his private school tipped off the administration and many of the colleges to which he was applying. The student was expelled from his school and his college acceptances were severely impacted.
Recent research from Kaplan Test Prep, whose survey of nearly 400 admissions officers, demonstrates that “the percentage of admissions officers who visit applicants’ social media pages to learn more about them has hit a record high of 40% — quadruple the percentage who did so in 2008,” when Kaplan first explored this issue. Further research also identified that only 11 percent of admissions officers do it “often.” Googling an applicant to learn more about them has remained relatively stable over the past two years, at 29 percent.
Why are colleges looking?
It’s interesting to note that what triggers admissions officers to look beyond the traditional elements of the application (GPA, standardized test scores, extracurriculars) and turn to Google, Instagram and Facebook are both positive and negative factors.
- Special talents -Students who are musicians, writers, models, or poets will often invite admissions officers to view their social media presence in their applications. According to Kaplan’s research, 42 percent of admissions officers reported an increase in such invitations compared to two years ago.
- Award verification – There is no formal “fact-checking” process when students submit their applications. Colleges generally take at face value whatever honors students list and the time commitments and leadership roles students state in their extracurricular activities and work experiences. However, a mention of a particularly distinguished award will sometimes trigger a search.
- Negative stuff – Some admissions officers say that if an applicant mentions they have a criminal background or a record of disciplinary action, they will do some online digging to get more details.
- Scholarship applications – Students applying for special scholarships can come under greater scrutiny, as schools want to ensure those receiving the scholarships are fully deserving; extra due diligence can come in the form of online checking.
The worst reason a student’s social media presence may be viewed is referred to as “Admissions Sabotage.” The ugly truth is that college admissions officers are occasionally anonymously alerted to social media postings by students or parents who are trying to sabotage another student’s chance of being accepted; presumably with the hope that they will instead be accepted. Admissions officers will typically follow up to verify any accusations.