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Social Media's Expanding Role in College Admissions

5 years ago
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Why did a recent Facebook virus requiring users to join a group (and, in doing so, contract a spamming bug) have such devastating success? The promise to reveal "the status update that got a highschool [sic] student REJECTED from Harvard!" must have struck a chord. Though the page was a hoax, the response it earned reflects a growing apprehension about the increasing significance of social media in the college application and decision-making process.

Establishing a presence on Facebook is a smart recruitment move for colleges, since the site's 350 million members, many of whom are in their target audience, spend a collective 10 billion minutes there daily, the New York Times reports. Schools like Tufts University, which first garnered attention for its forward-thinking admissions essay option allowing students to submit a one-minute YouTube video with their application, have developed social media-based marketing strategies to capitalize on the unprecedented direct access to high school students in their natural environment.

"I think one of the mistakes a lot of universities make is not having a very clear mission for what they're trying to do with social media," says Daniel Grayson, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts. "Our goal is to create a place for dialogue between admitted students and current students, and then get out of the way."

For prospective students, Facebook provides opportunities to both complicate and improve the application and decision process. For a hopeful high school senior with questionable content on their online profiles, there's a new risk: a Kaplan survey of 320 admissions officers from the top 500 schools found that one in ten visited applicants' social networking profiles during their decision-making process. Of those visiting student pages, 38 percent reported that what they saw generally had a negative impact on their admissions evaluation (compared to one quarter of respondents who said these background checks improved their opinion of most applicants). One admissions officer admitted to Kaplan that a status update expressing disinterest in the school contributed to his decision to reject the student.

Online background checks aren't limited to admissions decisions. According to a report released April 29 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 26 percent of colleges use web searches to scrutinize candidates for special programs or scholarships. "In all these cases, the intent was to protect the school from potential embarrassment," the report says.

Alternately, Facebook's mounting presence in the decision-making process affords students unprecedented access to direct sources and accurate information during the difficult decision-making process. While evaluating his options for college, Yotam Tubul, a 17-year-old high school senior from Caldwell, New Jersey, used Facebook to connect with current students at the schools he was considering, which he says he found much more informative than official university websites or promotional materials. For Grayson, this marks an important and welcome shift in school selection.

Tufts's official online social media strategy is somewhat unique compared to most universities that maintain an official Facebook fan page out of their admissions or PR departments. The Boston research school recruited students who were already blogging, or involved in social media independently, to transfer their content to official university forums -- without censoring or guiding their content in any way. Although Tufts's open forums do contain criticism of the university, Grayson thinks students will respect and appreciate the unvarnished honesty, and that it will allow for more informed decisions.

"One of the challenges in the admissions process generally is cutting through the background noise, the kind of propaganda people really get numb to," Grayson said. "I think social media gives students agency; it puts them in a position to make informed decisions, and when you do that you can have a lot more pride in your school."

Rutgers University has offered an interesting compromise to the conflict between offering students total honesty and preventing the negativity from a few from overshadowing the positive viewpoints of many. In addition to their official student blog, the school recently created an invitation-only social networking platform called GO-Rutgers to connect current and admitted students. The site is restricted to remove "the creepiness factor" of open-access communication forums, Lee Ann Dmochowski, GO-Rutgers site coordinator and senior officer of undergraduate admissions, said. The State University of New York at New Paltz tested out a similar program last year, but they have since discontinued it, Dmochowski said.

One arena where the inclusion of social networking in admissions shows great promise is in reaching international students who have little access to information about schools beyond official, university-released content. A recent study conducted by Judith Olson, the Bren Professor of Information and Computer Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, found that certain behavior in online social interactions fosters a sense of trust and builds relationships, like responsiveness. For students committing their college experience to a school sight-unseen, universities that can develop a positive online relationship with prospective students are likely to recruit more passionate and committed individuals. Many schools, including Tufts, where Grayson says they study analytics for their blog site to trace page views from outside the United States, prioritize their international students in their social media plans for this reason. But the principle of expanding the college-finding experience to paint a more comprehensive, accurate portrait of the student and the school has the potential to drastically improve the decision-making process.

"I think it's easier to have pride in your school when you show up on campus on your first day as a freshman and you feel like you know why you made that decision," Grayson said. "I think that schools that use social media effectively are better able to give their students that purpose."
Filed Under: The Cram

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