Admissions

Report: Fewer Admission Officials Checking Applicants' Social Media

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It’s funny how a really big deal one day can become “no big deal” the next. A perfect example of this happened last week. Just a few days before Thanksgiving Thursday, at the peak of dinner preparation, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a shrieking all points bulletin that Romaine lettuce was a ticking time bomb of sorts.

The CDC alert was the top story on TV and internet news sites across the land. “Throw away all your Romaine lettuce, regardless of when or where you bought it!” the breathless warnings commanded. DON’T EAT IT OR YOU MAY GET E-COLI AND DIE!


We had three unopened bags of Romaine in our ‘fridge, so my wife dutifully returned them to the grocery store for a refund and came home with something called “butter lettuce,” which I like even more than Romaine. Hmm. Maybe the Romaine scare was a plant by the International Butter Lettuce Association (or the Butter Business Bureau).

Well, that was a week ago. Today I saw the news proclaim: It's OK to eat some romaine: US officials: “It's OK to eat some romaine lettuce again, U.S. health officials said. Just check the label.” …” WHAT?!?! You got us all riled up for nothing! Sure, we can read the label! But what the … [Extended rant deleted for the benefit of weary readers.]

Anyway, my redacted rant was merely going to point out that sometimes we’re the victim of bad information, or at least misleading information. And that punchline brings me to the wonderful, scary, stressful, paranoid world of college admissions.

Are Colleges Checking Social Media?

Years ago, I wrote about an inside scoop that revealed how college admissions officers would peruse applicants’ social media posts to see if the applicant was really the kind of person portrayed in the application, through essays, short responses and other personally revealing information. At the time, this revelation about colleges snooping Facebook, Twitter, etc. was right up there with the “Romaine lettuce can kill you!” hysteria. No one knows how many social media pages were deleted after this information emerged.

Quickly recapping, high schoolers learned that college admission committees were investigating increasingly personal aspects of the applicants who sought admission to their schools. So what was the problem? What could have possibly gone wrong?

Well, back then I received an interesting and instructive report from the Kaplan test prep people, headlined: Kaplan Test Prep Survey: Percentage of College Admissions Officers Who Visit Applicants’ Social Networking Pages Continues to Grow — But Most Students Shrug. In part, here’s how I covered that story:

Over a third (35 percent) of college admissions officers have visited an applicant’s social media page to learn more about them, according to Kaplan Test Prep’s 2014 survey of college admissions officers.  This is the highest percentage since Kaplan first began tracking the issue in 2008, when just under one in ten admissions officers reported doing so. But even as this practice becomes more commonplace, college admissions officers are actually finding fewer things online that negatively impact applicants’ chances — just 16 percent reported doing so this year, down from 30 percent last year and 35 percent two years ago.

“As social media has evolved from early versions of MySpace and Facebook to a broad ecosystem of platforms and apps that are a daily part of millions of people’s lives worldwide, we’re seeing greater acceptance of social media use in the college admissions process. This means admissions officers are increasingly open to what they once viewed as a dubious practice, while teens have come to terms with the fact that their digital trails are for the most part easily searchable, followable and sometimes judged,” said Christine Brown, executive director of K12 and college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep.

“There’s no doubt social media has become increasingly a part of the admissions process, but students should recognize that it still plays only a peripheral role. The majority of admissions officers are not looking at Facebook for applicant information, and even those who are typically do so as an anomaly — because they were flagged, either positively or negatively, to particular applicants,” said Brown. “Admissions chances are still overwhelmingly decided by the traditional factors of high school GPA, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, personal essays and extracurricular activities. Applicants’ online personas are really a wild card in the admissions process: The bottom line for students is that what you post online likely won’t get you into college, but it just might keep you out.”

From all that, back then, high schoolers could take away two rather sobering pieces of information:

- There’s no doubt social media has become increasingly a part of the admissions process …

- What you post online likely won’t get you into college, but it just might keep you out

So, Romaine lettuce time? Maybe. I couldn’t find any information on how many college applicants over the past several years gave pause to wonder how their social media presence might affect their chances of getting into college.

However, due to the high-profile broadcasting of this “warning,” I’m sure that the news may have cast a cloud of doubt over some applicants. Knowing how human psychology can conjure rationalizations, I’m willing to bet that more than one high school senior looked at his or her application denial(s) and wondered if those careless party pictures on Facebook had a part in the bad acceptance news. If so, that’s unfortunate.

But … Not All Romaine Lettuce Can Kill You!

Just yesterday, I received a news release about the latest Kaplan Test Prep survey. It found that for the third year in a row, the percentage of college admissions officers who visit applicants’ social media profiles to learn more about them has declined, with only a quarter (25 percent) saying they do so, down from a high of 40 percent in 2015. One possible contributing reason? They can’t find them! Kaplan notes:

… Of the admissions officers who say they have visited applicants’ social media profiles, a majority (52 percent) say that students have become savvier about hiding their social media presence over the past few years or moving away from social communities where what they post is easy to find by people they don’t know.

According to a 2018 report by research firm Piper Jaffray, about 85 percent of teens say they use both Instagram and Snapchat -- two platforms which make it easy to share posts with people you want and hard to find for people you don’t -- at least once per month. This compares to just 36 percent of teens who use Facebook once per month, a decrease from 60 percent two years ago. ...

Another factor may be a shift in attitudes about checking social media. While 57 percent say that it’s “fair game” for them to visit applicants’ social media profiles like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help them decide who gets in, it represents a significant drop from the 68 percent who held this view in Kaplan’s 2017 survey.

Yariv Alpher, Kaplan Test Prep’s executive director of research, continues to advise students to be thoughtful about what they post, like making a snap decision and posting an opinion that others may find offensive. He also cautions about spending weeks on perfecting a video library on YouTube in the hopes that admissions officers will organically come across it -- he suggests applicants call it out to them instead.

If you’re a college-bound high schooler, the one message you should take away from all this flip-flopping is what Alpher says -- that college admissions officers “are sticking with the traditional elements of the application to help them make enrollment decisions, like standardized test scores, GPA, letters of recommendation and personal statements.” I couldn’t agree more.