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Challenge: Kids and Technology

How to Help Your Kids Apply to College in the Age of Social Media

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I remember the first time I heard of Facebook. I was working in the Undergraduate Admissions Office at the University of Pennsylvania and some of my colleagues were scouring “this new site” to look at the profile pages of some of our applicants. At the time, it felt like we were crossing the line. I felt uncomfortable judging these young men and women by the photos and posts on a “personal” page. But this little encounter was just the beginning. From that moment on, a student’s social media presence became fair game in the admissions process.

Time is short in the college admissions world. Fleeting glances are given to carefully constructed applications. At a glimpse, admissions officers need to deeply understand and sort massive data on each applicant. And admissions officers, like all professionals, are ever connected and engaged by social media. The problem is that one image, one post, one off-color remark by a student can paint a very different picture of who they are, and can thus negatively affect their chances of admission.

Social media has become another lens through which an admissions officer will consider and judge an applicant. Most private institutions select a freshman class through holistic admissions which allows them to evaluate the application beyond scores and grades. This leads to a much deeper dive into personal aspects of the application to gain insight to the “whole” student.

It is not uncommon for an admissions officer to start sizing up a student well before they officially read their application. An interaction with them on campus, over the phone or email, or even at a presentation in the student’s community can factor into holistic admissions. This process has never been just about what’s in the application, it is about the value and quality of the person behind the application. Social media is the ultimate keyhole into the personal world beyond an applicant’s submitted application.

Some might argue that this is unfair as it creates an unreasonably high standard for teenage applicants. I tend to agree, but the reality is that an applicant’s social media may be viewed, evaluated and judged by those who read their college applications. In turn, students need to approach social media in a different way. Students need to view their social media presence as an unspoken, unofficial, but equally important component of their college application.

If there’s one quality that all good admissions officers have it’s that they are deeply curious about people. They will jump through hoops to figure out a reference to a difficult home life or an illness that caused the student’s grades to go down. They are also willing to probe when they sense that something doesn’t add up. While they don’t have much free time when they are reading and evaluating applications, viewing a student’s social media can be a part of “discovery” just like a detective searching for a motive or fingerprint.

Student’s fingerprints are hard to wipe clean on social media. I wouldn’t want to censor them to the point that they can’t be regular teenagers. However, learning when to post, comment, or hold back is a good life lesson for all of us. Here are some foolproof tips on the dos and don’ts of social media as it relates to college admissions:

  1. As the student approaches the admissions process, they should take stock and review all of their accounts even if they haven’t touched one of them for a while. That random site they only used for a few weeks in 8th grade might still be considered an active account.
  2. Anything that they wouldn’t want their parents to see, is a good test for whether it should stay on their account.
  3. Consider the messaging that each account has as it can become a defining characteristic of the student just as a series of activities or an essay can portray a certain characteristic about the student.
  4. The admissions process starts earlier than ever. Being aware of social media needs to start early too. Having ongoing conversations with your child about their social media presence can be just as important as making sure they’re getting their homework and chores done.
  5. If we use social media in our favor, we can better define who we are and how we contribute. If students feel like they’re being misunderstood, they can use social media to build a positive impression of themselves.

Getting into college is very much about presentation. How students comport themselves on social media sites, how they engage with admissions officers, and what’s actually included in their application are all fair game. Part of our role as parents can be educating our kids on the power of electronic persona-building. Students can use social media as an incredibly influential and positive vehicle to get admissions officers on their side. More importantly, students need to know that their electronic presence in the past and present will define their character and identity in the future.

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