Do admissions counselors REALLY search for applicants on social media?

Back in May I attended the SuperACAC conference in Reno, Nevada with thousands of other independent college counselors, admissions officers, high school guidance counselors and educators. A few blog posts ago I summarized a few of the key takeaways from that conference, but I wanted to elaborate on one session in more depth below. Students increasingly ask me whether admissions representatives and application readers will search for them on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media accounts. Though it is something I never did while reviewing applications for the University of Washington (nor did my colleagues), it IS becoming increasingly common.

The conference session backed up this assumption with facts. Cornerstone Reputation recently published one of the most comprehensive surveys of how a student’s online presence plays in to the admissions process. This educational research firm reached out to the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges and top 100 national universities seeking more information on how admission officers are using social media searches in the application process. 66% of liberal arts colleges responded to the survey while 44% of national universities responded.

Here is the executive summary of their findings:

“● In the 2012-2013 admissions season, 27% of admissions officers searched applicants online.
● The following year 40% of admissions officers searched applicants online, an increase by 13 percentage points, which is a 48% increase of admissions officers conducting searches in one year.
● 59% report that other admissions officers at their schools utilize online searches.
● More than half of all admissions officers surveyed have performed Google and social media searches to find information about applicants.
● 44% found content that left a negative impression on them about the applicant.
● 46% found content that positively impacted their impression of an applicant.
● 76% of schools surveyed have no formal policy on searching applicants.
● 24% of admissions officers believe that an applicant could gain an advantage in the admissions process by building a positive online presence.”

This isn’t to say that students should go out and delete their social media accounts for the duration of application season. The reality is that admissions counselors are reviewing hundreds, and often thousands of college applications. At large universities with less selective admission criteria, it is fairly unlikely that an admission counselor or application reader will Google an applicant. Sure, there are times when an extraordinary achievement or a unique extracurricular activity may merit an applicant search; however, this is the exception at less selective schools who admit the vast majority of applicants (75%+ admission rate).

However, as the Cornerstone survey reveals, this is becoming more and more common at the nation’s most competitive colleges and particularly at smaller, liberal arts colleges. This isn’t surprising as admission rates continue to plummet and the review process becomes even more tedious. For smaller liberal arts colleges, this is a great way of determining cultural fit with the institution which is generally one of the most important aspects of the review process at these schools. Admission counselors want to admit students who understand the social and academic environment at that small school and will thrive there. They want students who will make good roommates, teammates and contributors to the small community. Social media and online searches can really help admissions counselors to admit the right students for their communities.

Though it is a little late for seniors to build a strong social media presence geared towards college admissions, it is not too late to do the basics. Students should ensure that their social media presence accurately reflects who they are and what they are comfortable with a college knowing about them. Instead of deleting all records of online existence, students should simply clean up their accounts, particularly if they are applying to selective colleges.

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