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Social Media Literacy and the College Admissions Process

Online or Off, Colleges are Watching.

Last month, Parkland shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv tweeted that Harvard had rescinded their offer of admission after uncovering racist social media content that he had posted during his high school career, according to CNN. Kashuv’s situation has brought the spotlight back on teen social media use and their college prospects.

It’s worth noting that Kyle Kashuv wasn’t your average applicant. Kashuv – who has made a name for himself as a pro-Second Amendment activist – has been invited to the White House and interviewed on Fox News. He has over 300,000 followers on Twitter. Harvard indicated that they were made aware of Kashuv’s comments by “media reports.” In short, Kyle Kashuv is the kind of student whose online trail is a lot more public than your average high schooler’s Snapchat and Instagram accounts. 

According to a survey by Kaplan, the percentage of college admissions officers who look at social media presence is actually declining. In 2016, 40% of admissions officers surveyed reported that they monitored the social media presence of their prospective students; now, that number is down to 25%. There are a few possible reasons for the decline, but the researchers theorized that the nature of social media is becoming more anonymous for students. Apps like Snapchat are ephemeral by nature; what gets posted disappears in a matter of hours. On Instagram, students often use pseudonyms or privacy settings that prohibit admissions officers from finding their content. Finally, teens have (by and large) abandoned Facebook, one of the easiest-to-track social media platforms. 

That being said, social media and online presence is still a tricky road to navigate when you’re applying to college. The possibility of rescindment is always there: according to Edweek, “Most colleges have policies that protect their right to withdraw offers of admission if they learn of behavior that calls into question the student’s character or integrity.” College acceptance is a privilege, not a right. And you don’t have to be a celebrity to have your online presence tracked: in 2017, Harvard rescinded acceptances for ten students (or more) after discovering an R-rated Facebook group chat, in which members traded explicit memes, often with racist, antisemitic, or sexist content. That’s an extreme case, of course, but Martha Waggoner of the AP writes that “it’s not uncommon for offers of admission to be jeopardized by the emergence of damaging communications.” Nothing on the internet ever really goes away, after all, and a student whose acceptance is in question for other reasons might fall victim to their own social media mistakes, even ones from freshman or sophomore year.

Knowing all that, what should students do? A complete social-media and internet blackout doesn’t seem to be feasible in our society, and there are also benefits to being tuned in when it comes to college admissions. Last week, Newsweek reported that ignoring college emails can hurt a student’s demonstrated interest in those schools. That won’t affect admission at the most competitive schools, but it can have an impact on state schools and small liberal arts colleges, who consider demonstrated interest as a part of the admissions portfolio. 

Like so many aspects of the college admissions process, the key to managing a good social media presence seems to be awareness: realizing that everything you post might make its way to an unexpected audience. Teen Vogue summed it up in one sentence: students should “always be putting their best foot forward—no matter who[they] think is (or isn’t) watching.”

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