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Articles / Applying to College / Social Media vs. College Admissions

Social Media vs. College Admissions

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 2, 2017

The past several months have brought out the worst in many of us. The presidential election has turned friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, siblings against siblings, and even children against their parents.

The epicenter for this fallout has been concentrated in the various applications of so-called social media. That would include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and a number of other phone- and computer-related programs that allow people from anywhere to gather on a common communication platform.


If you’re wondering what all this has to do with college admissions, read on. The key to understanding social media is: What goes out over the Internet tends to stay alive forever. Even though you can “go private,” clear your history, or cancel your account, the words and images you’ve posted tend to exist forever in a netherworld that can betray you at the worst times. One of those worst times could be when you are applying to college.

I’ve written about the possible perils of social media before. A couple years back, I noted this:

“When it comes to surveying your chances for admission to college, how much attention have you paid to your social media “profile”? What do I mean by “profile”? Well, think about everything that you have put out there on the Web that has your identity attached to it. What kinds of pictures represent you on Facebook? What kinds of things have you said on Twitter? How about Google+, Frienster, LinkedIn, etc.?

If you want to see just how many social media platforms there are, take a look at the Top 52 Social Media Platforms Every Marketer Should Know. The amazing part of that page’s title is “Top 52,” which implies that there are more than 52! Also, it refers to “Every Marketer.” As a college applicant, you are a marketer too. You are marketing your profile to admissions committees.

Over the years in writing my blog posts here, I have often referred to what I call “student profile marketing.” What that means is that you are a “product” of sorts. You are (hopefully) presenting the very best aspects of yourself to the “buyer” (the colleges) so that they will consider you to be someone whom they want to acquire. Obviously, this process is not as stringently objective as buying a particular kind of cold medicine at the drugstore, but the essential principle is the same.” …


Since then, college-aspiring high school students have asked me repeatedly if admissions officers take the time to investigate applicants’ social media pages. My answer has always been, “Assume that they do.”

This sometimes has a chilling effect, since many soon-to-be applicants either don’t recall the extremes to which they may have taken their social media accounts or simply don’t care to take the time to review their history. Also, frankly, some simply just don’t care.

In doing research this past week to get a fresh perspective on this issue, I found some articles that bring the latest facts to life. The first paints a somewhat sobering picture. Why college applicants should clean up their social media ominously notes that “Over half of admissions officers check applicants’ social media, according to a new survey.” If I were a high school senior applying to college, this would get my attention. If I were a high school junior, it would sound a caution and send me into my various accounts taking a “sanity” search, assessing how I might appear to strangers looking at me from an outside perspective. One highlight from this article:

… Nearly 80% of admissions officers rank “quality of character” as an important factor in the decision making process, according to new research by The Social U, a company that analyzes social media data.

While glowing letters of recommendation may vouch for your character to some extent, your social media profile often paints a more honest picture.


“Colleges have their own brands to protect and reputations to build,” The Social U explains on its website. In an effort to ensure that only the highest quality applicants are sent an acceptance letter, 50% of admissions officers admitted to checking applicants’ social media.

Scholarship seekers and applicants with a disciplinary record may be more likely to have their social media accounts checked, says The Social U founder Julie Fisher. …

That “new research” in the Social U survey is sobering. Here is the analysis of surveyed admission officers’ responses:

– 63% search when they are alerted by an outside source to look at an applicant’s online profiles

– 41% search when an applicant has a troublesome disciplinary record

– 25% search when an applicant is applying for a scholarship, an honors program or another competitive or highly selective program, college or major

– 24% search when an applicant lists questionable accomplishments

– 19% search when they find issues with an applicant’s records or reports

– 16% search when they are looking for more information on an applicant in order to advocate for their admission

– 15% search when an applicant’s counselor recommends they look online

– 13% search when an applicant is a would-be athlete (however many coaches check potential athlete’s social media profiles during recruitment)

About 57% of admissions officers stated that either they or someone in their office discovered something about an applicant online that caused them concern about admitting an applicant. The top causes they reported caused them concern are:

– 73% said violent symbols or expression

– 69% said any form of prejudice

– 54% said evidence of partying, drugs or alcohol

– 40% said negative comments about school

– 33% said nudity or partial nudity

– 24% said profanity


There are many more revelations in this survey. You owe it to yourself to investigate it.

Again, if I were planning to apply to college, I would take a hard look at the picture I’ve painted of myself through my various accounts’ words and images, and even those of my friends and other contacts who have posted to my account(s). As far as others’ comments and pictures on your account, it could very well be a “guilt by association” situation. You could be judged in the light of those with whom you associate.

Take a look at those issues noted by over half of the admission folks surveyed that have caused them “concern” about an applicant. You should be asking yourself:

– Have I ever expressed or implied an element of any kind of prejudice?

– How about wild behavior? Have you written about or posted pictures of any wild parties you’ve attended. Cell phone cameras sometimes are almost too tempting to resist.

– Ever bad-mouthed a teacher or school official on your account? Libelous behaviors are hard to rationalize.

– What about bad language or — heaven forbid — sexting? The latter could be an immediate disqualifier, if not illegal.


These are serious issues and you need to be aware of them. For those of you seniors who are awaiting the outcome of your Regular Decision applications, which will be forthcoming in a couple months or sooner, you may want to keep the above cautions in mind when you get a decision that’s not to your liking. Ask yourself, “How did I appear to others who viewed my social media pages?” There may (repeat: may) be a link between your social media “profile” and your disappointing college decisions.

Here’s one additional resource for you to explore. It’s a radio report about the effect social media can have on college admissions. It can be found here.

In the brief article that accompanies this report, the key point tells us:

… Boelter & Lincoln social media expert Katie Klein joined Wisconsin’s Morning News with some tips of what teens should and shouldn’t be posting.

“They’re looking for images, comments, and contributions to forums that demonstrate violence or inappropriate behavior, potential drug or alcohol problems, anything that demonstrates racism,” says Klein. “Those are key areas that children should just stay away from if they’re thinking about going to college.”

“On the flip side, the colleges are looking for volunteering, they’re looking for community work, they’re looking for the positive things too. Often times, those can really make an applicant stand out.” …

So, I’ll conclude my post today on an affirmative note: If you’re going to be applying to college, when it comes to your social media presence, try to imagine that you’re sending your words and images to the admissions committees of the colleges where you will apply. They will learn a lot about you and you will know next to nothing about them. Be mindful of what they will learn.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on 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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