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Articles / Applying to College / The Social Media Circus

The Social Media Circus

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 27, 2018

If you're a resident of Planet Earth, I don't need to tell you what's happening in America these days. There are horrendous tragedies being detailed in the news, seemingly every hour. Politics are a divisive tsunami washing over us from all directions. Privacy is fading fast and finding "good" (as in uplifting and inspiring) news is getting harder and harder.

In pondering the reason(s) for this dismal state of affairs, I've boiled it down to a few basic causes. The one general word that covers multiple sources is "media." (By the way, "media" is the plural form of the word "medium." Be smart and use "media" correctly. Example: "The media are a potential source of misinformation." Conversely: "The medium of print [newspapers] is losing out to the Internet." Just a pet peeve of mine.)

Within the realm of media, the one aspect of that world that is, at least to me, of central guilt for problems is social media. You no doubt know the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. So how do my words so far here apply to the category of college admissions? Allow me to explain.

I have written about, and you likely have seen in the media, stories about college admission staffers investigating applicants' social media accounts to see exactly what kinds of things they're saying and doing. While this may not be universal behavior by all admission committees, the practice is common enough to inspire any number of reports about it. If you don't believe me about this, check out these links.

Once you see how almost every aspect of your behavior can be scrutinized these days, thanks to the invasive Internet (remember that I mentioned loss of privacy above), you may want to incorporate some cautions in how you handle your social media world. Let's talk about how your social media "profile" can be a factor in your college admissions process.

Obviously, those of you high school seniors who have already applied to college and are awaiting your Regular Decision verdicts are coming late to the social media profile management party. Thus, this information is aimed at sophomores and juniors, mainly. Keep in mind that old saying: The Internet is forever. In other words, anything you put out there on the Web remains there, in one form or another. That's why I'm preaching the "Think before you type" gospel.

So what about admissions officers exploring applicants' Facebook and other social media pages? Sometimes that's good news and other times it's not so good news. My personal opinion is that admissions officers don't have enough time in their days to check out a ton of applicants on Facebook. The numbers are just too overwhelming. However, I do have a theory about which applicants might bear scrutiny. Maybe you're one of them.

You may want to think about the components of your future college applications: your major essay(s), your short responses, and any "Additional Information" comments you'll be making. How do you think your readers in admissions will see you? Will you come off as confident, original, unorthodox, or an arrogant smarty pants? My theory is that if you clearly stand out from the mountain of other applicants in a certain way, your admissions readers may want to take a quick detour to your Facebook and possibly other social media pages to try to confirm any first-blush reactions they have about you.

What will they see when they get there? What's on your "wall"? What kind of impression do those posts and pictures convey about you? Have you made any astounding philosophical revelations? Espoused any strongly political leanings? Maybe you have strong opinions about certain liberal or conservative causes. Or, maybe you couldn't care less about what's going on in the world. What kinds of people and friends hang out with you on your social media? What are they saying and what kinds of images (pictures/videos) appear there?

My theory also includes a caution: Beware promoting one type of personality in your college applications and a completely different one on social media. If you try to come off as being an intellectual in your college applications and then have Homer Simpson-like statements and images on your accounts ... well, I don't have to explain the consequences of that. Likewise, if you claim to belong to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and there are pictures of you chugging a yard of beer, well, again ...

Here's a quote from a past article by Sarah Laughlin about admissions officers and social media: "The number of college admissions officials using Facebook [and lately other sources] to learn more about applicants has quadrupled in the past year ..." That should give you pause for thought. Let's see what other information emerges from this article's look into admissions thinking. Here's an excerpt:

... In today's society, technology is on the rise. The majority of students will come home from class, log onto the Internet and automatically go to Facebook.

Administrators seem to have caught on and are checking prospective students' Facebook pages for hindrances that would prevent them from being a good applicant for that college.

Facebook is a social media website that is used by over 800 million people. When logged into the site, users are able to search others' profiles by looking at pictures, posts, comments and personal information.

The number of college admissions officials using Facebook to learn more about applicants has quadrupled in the past year – though not everyone at Drake University is in agreement of using this method.

“Drake takes a holistic approach," said Laura Linn, Drake's director of admission. “We look at students as real people, not objects of Facebook."

She said that people might portray themselves on Facebook one way but end up being nothing like they seem, and it is unfair to judge them based on Facebook. ...

... Lilianna Bernstein, senior admission counselor at Drake, reviews between 500 and 600 applicants each year. In past years, there have been over 6,000 applicants, and out of those only 3,800 were admitted, Bernstein said.

“I don't have time to look at 600 profiles and still be able to do my job," Bernstein said. “It's unethical to look at some students profiles and not others."

Bernstein said that she is sure this debate will go on for a while, and that Drake is obviously an exception from other schools.

“If you wouldn't want your mom and grandma seeing pictures of you doing beer bongs, then don't put that on the Internet for others to see," Bernstein said. “While Drake doesn't check, other schools do. Keep that in mind."


Words of wisdom. If you're reading this now, while possibly on spring break (Ha! that's a real possibility, huh?), stay alert to the above cautions. Also, remain vigilant during your upcoming summer vacation, which will be here before you know it.

No matter your age or where you live, chances are that you love summertime. The warm months mean you have more time to spend with friends, possibly living a relatively carefree life filled with trips, parties, and other fun. If you're like most young adults, you or your friends relive these moments by posting photos, videos, status updates, and other reminders of your summer activities on your social networking pages.

Next time you go to upload an album of your bonfire on the beach, though, first pause to consider the potential consequences. Do any of the photos depict actions that are illegal or that would make a potential summer-job, internship employer, or college admissions officer think twice about you?

In reality, your online profiles are never as private as you like to think. Take Google + for example. There's much talk about who's on it and who's not, whether it can surpass Facebook as the number one social network, and what its capabilities are. But do you know anything about its privacy and data sharing policies? Probably not.

A carefree summer attitude -- and the behaviors that accompany it -- can have a lasting impact on your online reputation. The bottom line is that it's better to be safe than sorry. If you're unsure about a social network's privacy settings, refrain from posting content or allowing your friends to tag you in their photos, status updates, Tweets, etc. until you're sure your profile is as secure as possible.

You haven't worked this hard during your school years to have your chances of landing your dream summer job or college diminished because of summertime behaviors that lead to a photo in bad taste, a status hijack, or an incriminating Tweet. Here are some tips to help you keep your summer fun private, and your online reputation untarnished.

- Strong passwords are an essential first step to keeping your social networking profiles private. This means not just password protecting your laptop or PC, but also your mobile device if you use it to access social networks. According to a study by Internet security provider AVG Technologies, 78 percent of Americans ages 18-25 use passwords to secure their laptops, but only 41 percent do the same for their mobile phones.

- When setting your password, keep it private and don't share it with anyone. The AVG study found that 35 percent of users share their passwords with friends. Nearly half of women in this age group (42 percent) share their passwords, whereas only 28 percent of men do.

- If you can't imagine your summer fun without posting the photographic evidence online, take precautions to protect your reputation and that of your friends by adding safety defaults. For example, Android users can download an app that anonymizes photos by blurring out faces.

- Familiarize yourself with the privacy policies of any social networks you're a part of. This means not just Facebook and Twitter, but any site that relies on your personal information. Also, be aware that their privacy policies are often changing and being updated.

- Even if you've done your part to keep your account settings private and ensured that the content on your profile is acceptable for everyone to view, you could still be a target of hackers. To prevent your friends, followers, or contacts from being spammed, keep your PC and phone protected with a strong antivirus software that comes with social networking protection to keep your profiles extra secure.


Yes, social media is a circus these days. Keep in mind that you can be a participant, but you don't have to be one of those clowns that keep coming out of that tiny car. Think of your social media accounts as lions ... and you are the lion tamer!


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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