Part 2: College Admissions Through The Social Media Looking Glass

by Marianne Richmond on April 16, 2009

In my last post on the topic of social media and the college admissions process I noted that in part 2 I would discuss what social media in the admissions process means to the applicany and thought there might be a part 3. So part 2 will be about social media and the application process; part 3 will focus on social media in the accepted/rejected phase.


At the time I was thinking that my primary research would be the in-house panel, a statistically insignificant sample size of one. I would supplement this with digital secondary sources, which of course are frequently also based upon a sample size of one. There is a lot being written about social media in college admissions, i.e. it is being used a lot.

My question is, how are the applicants using social media. There were for instance issues raised on blogs regarding the outbound marketing efforts of colleges. I observed that my in-house sample was inundated with slick expensive direct mail letters and brochures from a vast array of colleges immediately following the release of his SAT scores. They complemented him. They encouraged him. They enticed. They assured him that based upon his achievements (aka SAT scores) he was just the kind of student that they were looking for and their academic programs, scenic location, gourmet meals and maid service were particularly appropriate for him.

Now technically, the schools have permission to recruit in this manner…there is a check box associated with the PSAT process granting generic consent to the College Board to release the scores to colleges who may then subsequently add you to their mailing list. Colleges also purchase lists based upon additional criteria than test scores from other sources who through various means acquire student “opt-in”. They also hire vendors to write and produce their DM campaigns. University of Massachusetts at Amherst sophmore Zac Bissonnette writing for the Daily Beast terms this practice a charade, even a “bait and switch” by colleges to lure applicants in order to increase their application numbers so that they can reject more students which subsequently lowers their acceptance rate and by default increases their US News rankings.

But wait, these Gen Y dudes and dudettes don’t really care about advertising they care about the opinions of their network of friends.They trust their friends. And can you blame them? These recruiting packages are eerily similar to the “You’ve Been Pre-Approved” invitation from your friendly credit card company. “You’ve been pre-approved kind of.…but after we look at all of our criteria we can disapprove your pre-approved self just like it says in the fine print at the bottom of the page that has the large type headline announcing your pre-approval status.

Only as noted in the Bissonnette post, very few schools stress or even mention that the recruiting packages is not meant to convey that admissions is guaranteed or even likely. At our house the packages that came from “hard colleges” were viewed as a kind of affirmation. The schools considered “unconsiderable” went straight to the trash as if their presence were telltale affirmations of stupidity. However, most of them were never read as best as I can tell. And all of them found there way to the trash can.

So, I can see the point that those taking exception to the practice of aggressively pursuing students to convince them to apply and then rejecting them make. If taken at the “face value” that “you have been pre-approved” it can be disconcerting to get rejected.  This practice was responded to by Reed College Dean of Admissions Paul Marthers. However, I didn’t see that in my sample size of one…as mentioned, they were viewed as “ad copy”; appropriately it seems to me.

So, I will assume that the  outbound recruiting ad campaign (direct mail) plays some significant role at this stage other than at our house…this assumes that colleges have data to support its use.   Outbound DM is to be distinguished (at least in my post) from the recruiter school visits and college fairs….these outbound efforts definitely count in the app selection process, but many of the fairs use DM to recruit attendees and the school recruiter visits have many variables that I wouldn’t even begin to be able to un-bundle.

So, back to the initial level of decision making, where to apply and “where to’s” companion, what kind of application (early action, early decision, regular by the deadline)? For my own son the path for choosing the actual schools to apply to began with a questionnaire that assessed a myriad of issues from interest to m-o-n-e-y interests provided by his school college counselor at the end of his junior year. His answers in combination with his PSAT scores beget a hierarchical list: likely, probable, and reach.

Regardless of receiving the so called recruiting letters from colleges because of his PSAT scores, it was really the actual SAT scores themselves that guided his path to application submission. Despite all the attention that prospective students get from colleges that can make them feel that they are being invited to dance rather than being invited to apply, their test scores and their GPA drive the application process; and their applications obviously determines their acceptance. At least in my sample size of one.

So…..once the SAT scores “lock in”, one’s likelihood of admission to specific colleges  becomes more clear and the app list making can commence. In our case, my son’s school has a data base of alums, their GPAs, test scores and where they were admitted. This is the micro version of what is available at the College Board site so that was used for comparison to the larger pool of those enrolled at various colleges.

From these two sources, the semi final likely, probable, stretch list was composed; US News college rankings and accompanying descriptions also played a role. Finally, peer opinions, suggestions and recommendations.

So did social media play a significant role at the list making stage/application submission stage?  A two part question: social media used by the schools and social media outside of the schools. I think the latter has the the edge.

Many schools have admission blogs some with “hired gun” student bloggers. There are some “official” college Facebook pages and school produced YouTube videos like this one from William and Mary that would be useful in the admissions process. However, I think at this phase of the process, social media would be used more for information purposes versus relationship urposes. From a student’s perspective, how engaged would you want to become with a community that you may not be asked to become a part?

As mentioned, the GenY applicants trust their networks and are wary of advertising. OK, we all are more trusting of our friends and families and less and less trusting of advertising or corporate sources of information. There are blogs written by those who have been through the college application process that provide help on application writing such as Prashant Kaw’s excellent  Statement of Purpose Blog. The New York Times recently started a college admissions blog called The Choice which is mostly written by Jacques Steinberg but also uses highschool students going through the admission process and other NYT education wiriters. And every good blog topic deserves a carnival, this one is hosted by the Squared Peg blog.

My son relentlessy used College Prowler, a peer review site which says it has more than 59 thousand student reviews, and a Facebook application, and  a blog with a Facebook group. Lots of social media features and lots of authenticity, trustworthiness and passion.

To be continued….


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