Your Social Media Profile: An Admissions Roadblock?

I've written about this before on Admit This! I'm writing about it again today because now I have some convincing objective data to show that what I've reported before is true. That is, how you look to admissions committees on your social media accounts could affect your admission chances.

Many students don't believe that what they say or show on social media can influence a college's decision about their application. Well, speaking not as a college admissions officer but as just an ordinary guy who reads the web, let me tell you how things I see posted on social media can quickly turn me off about people who may otherwise be reasonably “normal." (I'm using quotation marks to allow for momentary idiocy, which we all lapse into now and then.)

We've seen in the news recently that privacy is pretty much a thing of the past. The saying, “The internet is forever" is true, in my opinion. Whatever you put out there on the web remains there, in one form or another, indefinitely. Thus, when you submit a college application (and by extension, a job application), admission officers (and employers) who are so minded might look you up to see what kind of impression you project.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Dave, you're just plain wrong. There ain't no way some dude in a college admission office is going to take the time to check out little old me when he has a two-foot stack of other applications sitting on his desk!"

Okay, that's a fair statement. So let's go to the hard evidence and see what some of those hard-pressed admission officers say about this. If you're sticking to your “Dave is wrong!" mantra, then you may care to stop reading right now. Otherwise, prepare to change your thinking.

Could Social Media Be A Deciding Factor in Admissions?

Russell Schaffer, senior communications manager at Kaplan Test Prep, keeps me informed of trends in higher education. He also provides interesting survey data and other supporting information to illustrate these trends. The other day, Russell sent me the results of Kaplan Test Prep's most recent survey of college admissions officers, revealing that the vast majority of both colleges and teens think it's "fair game" for admissions officers to check out applicants' social media profiles to help colleges decide who gets in.

I hope that you naysayers are still reading. The interesting thing about this survey is that not only do colleges feel that social media can be a deciding factor in admissions decisions but also the majority of applicants agree. Frankly, that surprises me, since I would have thought that high schoolers would have defended their social media accounts on the grounds that they contain personal information that is not in the public domain.

Well, once again, I must remind those of you idealists out there that privacy, especially on the internet, is a dying -- if not dead -- issue. So, you'll just have to deal with that.

I think the best way for you to understand the results of this Kaplan survey is for me to post, with Russell's permission, what he sent me, in part. Here it is:

Kaplan Test Prep Survey Finds Colleges And Applicants Agree: Social Media is Fair Game in the Admissions Process

More than two-thirds of colleges (68 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 -- despite the fact that less than a third actually engage in the practice, according to Kaplan Test Prep's annual survey of admissions officers*. Notably, students agree: A separate Kaplan survey of over 900 high school students finds that 70 percent consider social media profiles “fair game" for admissions officers evaluating applicants -- an increase from 58 percent in 2014**.

Admissions officers who say it's “fair game" shared the following reasoning:

  • “Employers do it all the time. Colleges can do it as well."
  • “I think if things are publicly accessible without undue intrusion, it's OK. If it's searchable, it's fair game."
  • “We don't do this, but we could. I think high school seniors make poor choices sometimes when they put stuff online."

Admissions officers who said they viewed this as an “invasion of privacy" shared the following:

  • “Their application should be the sole decider."
  • “We use social media for recruitment, not admissions."
  • “We only look at social media if the applicant includes or provides it."

[I must interject a comment here regarding the admissions officers who think this is an invasion of privacy but who still use social media as a recruitment tool. I find it hard to believe that an admissions officer who looks at any social media account -- for any reason, recruitment included -- can resist being swayed one way or the other about a candidate's personality presence and behaviors. For example, let's say that that admissions officer checks the social media account of an applicant and sees evidence of political activity that flies in the face of the college's general political atmosphere. I can't help but believe that this evidence would be at least some kind of influence on selection, either positive or negative. If these officials think looking at an applicant's social media account is, as they say, an invasion of privacy, then why invade the applicant's privacy -- for any reason? I view their righteous stance as dichotomistic, to say the least. Back to Kaplan …]

But while a strong majority of admissions officers are ideologically comfortable with this practice, only 29 percent say they have actually done it -- a decline from 35 percent last year, and down from a 40 percent high watermark in Kaplan's 2015 survey. But this isn't because admissions officers are necessarily forbidden from doing it, as only 20 percent say that their school has official guidelines or policies; and of that 20 percent, only 33 percent are not permitted to do so.

Yariv Alpher, executive director of research for Kaplan Test Prep, noted that some of the decline can likely be attributed to changing social media habits, as teens have migrated from Facebook to non-archival social media platforms like Snapchat.

“You cannot visit an applicant's social media profile if you can't locate them, and as one admissions officer shared with us, 'Students are harder to find.' They've gotten savvier in hiding or curating their social media footprints, even as they've become very comfortable with the notion of having a digital presence to begin with. By the same token, colleges have largely become comfortable, in theory, using social media to help them make admissions decisions," said Alpher. “That said, in practice, the strong majority are sticking with the traditional elements of the application, like standardized test scores, GPA, letters of recommendation and personal statements, which still overwhelmingly decide an applicant's path. For most, these traditional factors provide enough useful information to make a decision, like they have for generations of their predecessors."

College Applicants: Pay Attention to What Follows

And lest applicants think that what they post online can't be held against them once they are already accepted, they should think again. Nearly one in 10 (nine percent) admissions officers say they had revoked an incoming student's offer of admission because of what they found on social media. This finding comes on the heels of Harvard University's decision last year to revoke the acceptances of at least 10 students for posting highly offensive memes on a private Facebook group for incoming freshmen....

*388 admissions officers from the nation's top national, regional and liberal arts colleges and universities -- as compiled from U.S. News & World Report -- were polled by telephone between July and August 2017.

**914 high school students who prepared for the SAT, ACT or PSAT with a Kaplan course between October 2017 and February 2018 were polled via email.

If you would like to see a brief video concerning this survey, check this Kaplan page.

Use That Data to Make Social Media Decisions

I find this to be very interesting information. Current high school juniors and even sophomores should find it interesting as well.

I'll leave you with this thought concerning your social media presence: To make sure that you're putting yourself in the best possible light when you use social media. Just imagine that your mother and grandmother are standing behind you, looking over your shoulders as you write. That should be enough to keep your train on the tracks!


Check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.