Do colleges look at social media before admitting students? Yes, college and university admissions departments can check up on teens and 20-somethings via public-facing social media platforms. Whether they actually do this, however, is another question.
About 65% of admissions officers view social media as “fair game” when evaluating potential enrollees, according to a survey performed by Kaplan Test Prep in 2020. With that said, only 36% of the 313 officers surveyed said they actually took the time to browse applicants’ TikTok, Instagram and other accounts.
Here’s what to know about why colleges look at your social media, and how to tailor your feeds to help, not harm, your chances of admission.
Why some colleges look at your social media accounts
Yes, colleges can look at the public version of your social media accounts, but they don’t have some sort of secret, government-like power to access your private information. It’s much more likely that your social media behavior would only be brought to their attention if it causes a stir.
For instance, in 2017, Harvard University rescinded admission offers to 10 incoming, first-year students when they were found to be sharing hateful memes via a private Facebook group chat. And in 2019, Harvard retracted its admission offer to a noteworthy student who had made racist remarks in private chats and Google Docs two years earlier.
|Admissions officers who view social media as “fair game”
|● 2020: 65%
Barring notable online behavior, admissions officers are more concerned with factors like your grade transcripts and standardized test scores as well as your college application essay. But although schools want students who are capable of performing in the classroom, they also want people who will be a positive part of a diverse yet safe campus.
It’s not hard to figure out what types of digital infractions might harm your chances of college admission or financial aid. But here are two buckets of behavior to avoid:
Evidence of underage drinking or other illegal behavior
There’s nothing wrong with many high school party pictures. They might actually help you. For one, admissions officers want to enroll well-rounded students who have social lives.
For another, the photos might show that you’re comfortable interacting with different kinds of peers. Just ensure the images put you in a positive light and can’t be misinterpreted.
Insensitive or offensive language or content
Yes, college campuses are ripe for debate, even protest, and admissions officers won’t necessarily shy away from opinionated students who have a platform. But be wary of offending someone else’s views in the process of your social media posting. Words or pictures that disparage anyone else should be considered off-limits.
One test to avoid overstepping the line: Would you share this experience or opinion during an in-person sit-down with the admissions officer? If not, you have your answer.
To be on the safe side, also consider avoiding posts that are meant to be funny but could be misunderstood. You could be punished by perception, not reality.
|Ways to limit how colleges look at your social media
Adjust privacy settings to limit who can view your content
Anonymize your account so that colleges can’t associate it with your name
Scrub your accounts for any language, imagery or information that could put you in a poor light, including:
Ask parents and others to browse your account for anything you might have missed
When applying to colleges or graduate schools, your first thought might be to check your privacy settings on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Although that’s a safe choice, consider your social media profiles as vehicles to tell a positive story to admissions officers. In fact, according to the Kaplan survey, 42% of admissions officers who view social media profiles said that it has a positive impact on the students’ applications.
Here are five ways to improve your social media presence:
1. Match your profiles to your applications
Your college application, with well-written essays and killer letters of recommendation, should present you in the best possible light. There’s no reason why your tweets shouldn’t too. And there are ways to do that beyond posting with perfect spelling and grammar.
If you wrote a college essay about helping your younger siblings through tough times, for example, an admissions officer might look for pictures of them on your Facebook profile. Similarly, your online profiles can be good places to post photos of your successes, such as receiving academic awards or playing for your high school’s sports teams.
It might be wise to look back at your past photos on these platforms too. You could find one or two that would make an admissions officer question whether you’re the same applicant who nailed their paper application.
Bonus tip: Remember that your profile pictures are probably the first things that colleges will look for on social media. If yours is professional but appropriate for your age, you could make a strong first impression.
2. Show your interest in schools
Liking and following the social media profiles of your preferred schools is a smart move. Take it a step further by finding appropriate ways to engage with the schools on these platforms. You might comment on a school’s post, or tag the school during your college visit.
Be wary of going all out for your “reach” school on social media if you’re still being considered by others. The admissions officer of your “target” school could be put off. You also wouldn’t want to poke fun at your “safety” school.
You can also demonstrate your interest in a particular major. If you’re being considered by a university’s college of business, for example, an admissions officer might like to know that you follow top financial experts online.
3. Post about your passions
Your college essay is one way to tell schools about your deepest desires and strongest passions. But your social media profiles can also be a vehicle to show off your interest in, well, whatever it is that interests you. You might be one of the following, to name a few examples:
- Aspiring science major who tweets the latest news from NASA
- Teen journalist who is linking to their latest blog post
- Musician posting a video of their weekend concert
Relishing your favorite pastime online gives schools another view into who you are beyond your grades.
Like negative impressions, positive ones can be gleaned from your Instagram account and Facebook photo galleries. So don’t worry about having to hide them from school admissions departments.
On the flip side, be diligent about how you might appear in friends’ photos, especially on platforms that allow users to tag people without their consent. You wouldn’t want an admissions officer to find a particular image and get the wrong impression.
If you apply for college in January of your senior year of high school, it might be a couple of months before an admissions officer makes a final decision. This would be the period, between January and March, when your social media profiles might be reviewed.
If it strengthens your case for admission, use this time to be your own advocate online. Connect the dots for an admissions officer who might be on the fence. If you focused your application essay on a senior project, for example, post updates about its progress.
You might also use your profiles to document your search for college scholarships. Posting about applications and awards could show colleges that you’re serious about finding your way to campus.
If you haven’t yet applied to schools, consider including a link to, say, your LinkedIn profile in your college application. This way, you can also point admissions departments toward the social media platform of your choice.
Bonus tip: Be aware that your school might also use a social-media-like mobile app called ZeeMee that connects schools with their potential students. It could be one more way to share your story.
How to use social media to your benefit
When you read that 10 prospective Harvard students were told they were no longer welcome in the class of 2021, your gut reaction might be to shut down all your social media accounts. Less dramatically, you might opt for restricting public access to the accounts.
Depending on your situation, those might be the wisest steps to take. But consider that you’re in control of your narrative.
If you close your accounts, you lose one way to state your case to get into a particular college.
So, instead, consider turning your social media feeds into a positive thing for admissions officers to look at. It might just push you over the top and help you get accepted.
And if you plan to work while in school, consider cleaning up your Google search results and social media pages to also impress potential employers.