Do Colleges Look at Social Media?

December 22, 2023

do colleges look at social media

Wondering if colleges look at the social media accounts of prospective students, and how they find them? Let’s start with a cautionary tale. In a well-publicized story that made international news, Harvard University rescinded offers of admission to more than ten students who posted obscene, sexually explicit, and racist memes in a private Facebook group. The chat forum—where the offensive memes were discovered by Harvard officials—was an offshoot of another online Facebook page for students admitted to the University’s Class of 2021.

The group, which changed names several times, was at one point titled “Offensive memes for horny bourgeois teens.” One would think that a collection of students who had traversed through the Harvard admissions gauntlet and won acceptance from a pool of candidates who all had near-perfect SAT scores and impeccable high school transcripts would be wise enough to steer clear of something posing such an obvious risk. Yet, amazingly, a number of Harvard acceptees did the exact same thing the year prior, when members of the Class of 2020 exchanged similarly themed messages on an app called GroupMe, but ultimately escaped discipline.

If prospective Harvard students can be this reckless online, imagine the dangers faced by the average college-bound student. Scary, right? Don’t worry, if you follow our simple advice, you/your teen will not have anything to fear.

Do colleges look at social media?

The majority of college admissions officers rarely, if ever, Google students’ names or rifle through their TikTok videos. For some officers, this is a moral issue; your social media should be your private space. For others, such as those at universities receiving 80,000 plus applicants, stalking forgotten Facebook pages for evidence of middle school misdeeds would be a terribly wasteful use of precious time.

While most admissions offices steer clear of online snooping, the practice has trended sharply upward over the last fifteen years. In 2008, Kaplan reported that only 10% of officers bothered looking at an applicant’s social media pages. In 2020, that number had increased to 36%. A similar number of officers report at least Googling an applicant to see if any relevant information, positive or negative, can be gleaned. A staggering 58% of those surveyed, however, reported ultimately finding something that negatively impacted their view of an applicant. And 65% of surveyed admissions officers thought that social media should be “fair game” during the application process. Translation: these numbers could continue to rise in the future.

How do colleges find your social media?

Immigration laws enacted by the Trump administration allow U.S. immigration officials to review any visiting foreigner’s social media pages going back five years. While intended to catch extremists and potential terrorist threats, not naughty college applicants, this gives insight into the nothing-is-private milieu of digital life today.

How do colleges find your social media? Well, the same way anyone can. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has innocently cyberstalked someone else at some point—a crush, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, or that weird guitar-playing English teacher who supposedly once opened for Hootie and the Blowfish…

Colleges can also find your social media when you connect with them. If you follow the official admissions Instagram page, like posts, and comment on videos, know that they may click on your profile as well.

Social Media Tip #1: Evaluate the extent of your digital footprint.

To get a sense of what admissions officers might have access to, it’s time to turn your online sleuthing skills on a more familiar target—yourself. As an exercise, Google yourself and see what comes up. Scroll into the deep recesses of your long-abandoned pages and refresh your memory about the dumb things your 9th-grade self may have posted for the entire world to view. Dig far back through your Facebook page. Were you tagged doing something inappropriate in a group photo you barely even remember taking?

You don’t have to shut down your online life—you just want to make sure that nothing in cyberspace will cause you to make a poor first impression on admission officers. This is particularly the case if you make an effort to engage with them online (see Tip #3 below) or draw attention to your social media presence in your application, such as referencing your YouTube channel with thousands of followers.

Do Colleges Check Social Media? (Continued)

If you do maintain social media accounts, be cognizant of the fact that many admissions personnel may frown upon the contents of your spring break Facebook album. (Unless, of course, you spent that time at a robotics competition in Dayton, Ohio, rather than guzzling Keystone Lights with your bros at Daytona Beach.) Even if the majority of schools never peer into your online life, there is simply no good reason to risk jeopardizing your chances of admission for the sake of maintaining that risqué Instagram page.

As a rule, avoid drugs, alcohol, sex, and explicit language. Racism, violence, bullying, and hate speech should go without saying. In addition, avoid obvious signs of wealth that could be interpreted as entitled, such as posting photos of the brand-new Tesla you received for your sixteenth birthday.

Social Media Tip #2: Check your tags.

After evaluating your digital presence, go one step further. Check your pages for what you’ve followed or been tagged in. This is because tags may also populate during social media screenings. If you see anything that worries you, simply un-like, un-follow, or un-tag.

Social Media Tip #3: Use social media to your advantage.

For high school students, using social media is not universally a bad thing when it comes to college admissions. In fact, it can be quite helpful.

Colleges and universities have expanded their own use of social networking in recent years. Many now utilize platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to connect with potential applicants. Interacting with schools through social media can show the admissions office that you are seriously considering their institution. “Following” a school can be an excellent way to demonstrate interest virtually, without the cost and effort of a campus visit (although this is still recommended as well). In addition, it can give you information about the school’s vibe and values. Such information helps you better assess fit and even tailor your college essays.

Do Colleges Look at Social Media? (Continued)

Moreover, several types of social media platforms that students may use are heavily geared toward professional networking and college admissions. These include sites like LinkedIn and ZeeMee. If you maintain profiles on either site, make sure your accounts are up-to-date. This is especially true if the college advertises their use of ZeeMee or you include a link to your profile on your application.

Ultimately, if you maintain an authentic, clean, and positive online presence, there’s no need to worry. Do not feel like you need to have an insanely curated feed or avoid being yourself. Theater kid who loves posting dance reels to TikTok? Soccer player who routinely shares game highlights? Artist who uses Instagram to display her work? Civically engaged teen who uses X to raise awareness for homelessness in her community? Normal high schooler enjoying time with friends and family? All perfectly sound, and can even positively support your application.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line: Do Colleges Look at Social Media?

During the admissions process, do not post (or maintain) anything online that you do not feel represents your best self. “Stalk” your own digital presence and make sure that nothing inappropriate, offensive, or otherwise undesirable pops up. If it does, take it down. While most students’ errors in cyber-judgment won’t land them on the front page of the New York Times, as with our Harvard example, thousands of applicants each year will quietly, and perhaps without ever being told, lose their chances at being admitted to a top-choice college because of a simple social media screening. It only takes a minimal amount of effort and common sense to ensure that you are not among them.

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