College Admissions Through the Social Media Looking Glass (Part 1 of 2)

by Marianne Richmond on April 6, 2009

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So, you know you are a social media mom when late one night, you Tweet your son’s college acceptance (or totally lame if you ask the son). And you also know it when your social media pals Tweet back their congratulations @danielabarbosa, @ckEpiphany, @tishgrier.  But then in the morning, you find that your yaaaay was heard by two unexpected Peeps…Carnegie Mellon offering congratulations to my son and a link to the parents’ and family page and congratulations from the Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts.

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Now I thought this was pretty cool from both my mom and my social media vantage point;  CMU is Twittering from several places and obviously monitoring the Tweets of others, offering congrats to those who Tweeted their (or their child’s) acceptances. So, not to get all bloggy or anything, but for a moment the networks were aligned.But then the moment shifted…I remembered that it was my son, img_2192not me, who was going to have to sing Kumbaya here. This was his moment not mine….

And I started reflecting on whether his networks were aligning in the glow of social media. And he doesn’t Twitter….or {knowingly} read blogs; especially mine. If he did, he would be mortified right now. He has however, along with my younger son,  integrated Facebook into the very fabric of daily life. They don’t have a social media ecosystem, they have a Facebook ecosystem.

So the question became: Is the interjection of social media into the college application/decision equation adding positive value for the participants in what can only be considered one of the most stressful processes known to family life? I began to search for answers, the new media way of course….

First of all, context.

According to the  University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research longitudinal study of the use of social media by college admissions offices, 41% of US colleges and universities have a blog. This compares to 13% of the Fortune 500 and 39% of the Inc. 500 that currently have a public blog. The admissions research was based upon phone interviews conducted during November of 2008 so these results document the college admissions social media environement  for the 2009 freshman class.

The study conducted by Eric Mattson and Nora Ganin Barnes included some interesting data regarding social media usage by the schools’ admissions offices: “Sixty-one percent of the respondents in 2007 reported they use at least one form of social media. One year later, 85% of college admissions offices are using at least one form of social media. Usage is up for every tool studied. Social networking is the most common form with 61% of admissions departments using it. Forty-eight percent are using videoblogging and 41% have a blog. Almost all of those using a blog are using other forms of social media as well.”

OK, so admissions offices are using social media alot as of 2008. And many of those that were not currently using social media  indicated that they planned to use it in the future….40% said they were planning to add blogs; media in the future (42% in 2007); 29% said they were planning to use social networking (20% in 2007).

Interestingly,  81% of admissions offices using social media regard their efforts as “successful.” I wondered what their definition of success was. This was not obvious in the research document available at the UMass site. Unanswered questions: Did they have a social media strategy? Were they tracking site visitors or using web analytic tools? Were they attributing application increases to social media? Acceptances? Were they conducting surveys among students and/or parents to understand the impact of their social media efforts?

One issue that was mentioned in the research was social media monitoring. Schools, it is stated are using social media to both recruit and research prospective students. Mattson and Barnes write, “It is clear that online behavior can have important consequences for young people and that social networking sites can, and will, be utilized by others to make decisions about them.”They found that 23% of admissions offices use search engines and 17% use social networks to “research students.”

This is something I try hard to communicate to my kids about their Facebook pages and their appearances in text and photos on the pages of their friends, but they remain impervious to my message. And there is some discussion supporting the theory here, here and here. However, I am not certain that Googling or Facebook trolling has become an integral part of the college admissions process and that applicants are being widely rejected because of this. At least at the moment.

The other side of the monitoring coin is the use of social media by colleges to monitor their own online buzz. 54% of colleges in the research said they were monitoring social media. My tweet from Carnegie Mellon would confirm that they were listening. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t the admissions office that tweeted the congratulations. It was @CarnegieMellon and @CarnegieMellCFA. And yes there is a Carnegie Mellon admissions Twitter page @CM_Admissions.

But, are college admissions offices monitoring social media beyond my own experience with CMU?  There is a lot being said about various colleges online right now. Are they listening? Have you ever heard the term “chance me” as it relates to college admissions? I read it first on the Daily Beast which devotes an entire section to college admissions. They referenced this article from the LA Times entitled “Anxious Students Look for Reassurance OnLine.” As described by the Daily Beast, the “chance me” sites are the primal scream therapy for the college admissions process. Prospective students post their “stats” to sites such as CollegeConfidential.com and MyChances.net and a “jury” of their peers responds with estimates of their chances of getting into the colleges of their choice. In addtion to this often humiliating peer rating, MyChances.net also includes a Forum.

An example of the topics: Brown v DartmouthBrown has way more laid back students (typically) than any of the other schools you got into.  Though, of course, there are cool kids everywhere.  If you like skiing, go to Dartmouth.  Surfing, maybe Stanford, though it’s a bit of a drive to the beach.   (Maybe skateboarding is more like it in Palo Alto.)  If you like drinking cappuccinos and reading the New Yorker, got to Yale.  If, however, your idea of a great evening is to kick back with a bunch of friends and play computer games, then go out for Indian food, then check out a cool party, then Brown is definitely the place for you.”

Importantly, are colleges listening to their target audience? Is their target audience prospective students? Well of course, they are the “end user.” But who are the “online (social media) influencers?” Well, other prospective students certainly; also current students, blogging alumni, Twittering alumni, Facebook groups and the very influential college guidance counselors who guide their own face to face but in the new media world may also be quoted online and exponentially expand their guidance.

Are colleges tracking what is being said about them online and reponding either directly or indirectly? Do they believe that the online conversation influences applications and decisions? This gets back to my question about strategy. They are certainly making use of  hired gun bloggers described here. Is this a defensive or offensive play; or simply an information distribution channel?

As I am sure many college applicants and their parents’ would agree, the college application process is horrid, beginning with the drama of the SAT/ACT 3111572753_71806064d8phase (tutor/no tutor?) and continuing through the letter phase, aka the agony (I don’t have any pictures of our own agony…somehow I knew that grabbing the camera as my son opened the thin envelopes was not the right parental gesture) and the ecstasy with a possible stop in no man’s land, the wait list.

And the wait list? My very own three time alma mater….thanks a lot WU! Just for the record, he’s a lot smarter than I am. Just ask him.

OK, so this is part 1. Part 2 will discuss the question of what the use of social media in the admissions process means to the applicants. There may even be a Part 3.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Teri Centner April 17, 2009 at 11:29 am

I infer from your comment about your son not reading a blog that you assume all teens avoid reading them. Perhaps it depends what the blog is about.

At MIT, the admissions officers have blogs, and so do a number of students. Kids who want to get in flock to the blogs and leave lots of comments. I never realized they were there until, as an alumna, I became an interviewer of prospective students. But the students obviously knew it!

teri 🙂

Marianne Richmond April 21, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Thanks for commenting…I didn’t mean to infer any trends based upon my sons behavior. He is a sample size of one. And I would agree, it depends upon the blog and if the content is of value. On the other hand based upon your statement “the kids who want to get in flock to the blogs and leave lots of comments” makes me wonder if leaving comments on the school blog “helps” kids get in?

Michael Gluckstern October 13, 2009 at 9:59 am

This is great information on how colleges are using social media to make college acceptance decisions. This means that students need to learn how they can use social media to market themselves to the colleges where they are applying. http://mycollegeguide.org/blog/?p=65

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