by Paul Barnwell, Teacher of English & Digital Media
This post has been updated and republished from a previous publishing
Pretend for a moment you are a college admissions officer at a prestigious institution. Facing a large stack of applications, the shuffle of papers and pecking of keyboards resonates throughout the conference room. You and your colleagues are engaged in the difficult process of paring down applicants to the chosen few, and acceptance notifications must be sent out soon. You’ve got two resumes in front of you:
Julia attends a large public high school outside of Indianapolis, ranking 11th in her graduating class of 350. She’s been on varsity cross-country for three years, volunteers at the local animal shelter, and holds a part-time job at her family’s fencing supply store. Speaking of family, she’d be a legacy admission–her parents met on campus years ago. Julia’s essay also conveys a strong command of language, and her ACT scores would put her in the 75th percentile of incoming freshman.
Like Julia, Kristen attends an academically rigorous school in Indiana. In addition to being first clarinet in the school orchestra, she started an online campaign to raise money for children who are refugees of the Syrian conflict. She has a record of excelling in a project-based learning environment, and she even spent a summer in Nicaragua at a language immersion school. Her ACT scores would place her in the 95th percentile of incoming freshman. Her variety of educational experiences and apparent curiosity is top notch.
So who do you admit?
It’s a tough call–both students have quite an impressive academic profile. If Julia didn’t have the family legacy at the school, you’re sure you’d put her on the waiting list and admit Kristen. So you decide you need a tiebreaker. Instead of flipping a coin, you open up Google. The head of admissions has recommended that social media be mined to glean more insight into candidates; perhaps their digital footprints should be judged.
It turns out Julia doesn’t have much of a digital presence. She doesn’t use Twitter or facebook–at least under her real name–but you do find some results from track and field sites with her impressive meet results. On the other hand, doing a little digging into Kristen’s online activity reveals the following: some racy “selfie” images and crude language used humorously–or so it seems–on her Twitter feed.
Who do you select now?
The simple answer is Julia. After all, Kristen has obviously not shown much restraint in thinking about how others could perceive her online. But she’s a mere 17 years old. And perhaps not having any easily found digital footprint says as much as having a large footprint, albeit one with some questionable content. Kristen is putting herself out there, warts and all, while Julia’s application is squeaky clean.
The question of whether or not colleges should use social media to judge applicants presents new challenges for both applicants and admissions boards, and there’s no simple answer.
According to Natasha Singer in the New York Times, 31 percent of college admissions officers who answered a Kaplan telephone questionnaire this year said they had visited an applicant’s social media page to learn more about them. That number will undoubtedly continue to grow. More importantly for prospective students, 30 percent of the officers said they had discovered online information that had negatively impacted an applicant.
But teens use social media for different contexts and audiences–judging what one finds while controlling for audience is almost impossible when information is made public.
Teacher blogger Bill Ferriter writes, “Because users of social tools — whether they are 19 or 49 — are often contextualizing their participation and showing different sides of themselves in different spaces, you don’t really know someone until you are following them in more than one space. And when you draw conclusions about someone — positive or negative — before having a sense for what side of themselves they are sharing in the social space where you have found them, you are probably mistaken.” So would it be fair to make a decision about Kristen’s character based on her Twitter feed?
Ferriter admits himself that if you mined his digital footprint, you’d find his social media outlets dedicated for various purposes; for instance, most of his instagram account contains photos of his daughter, versus his blog, which amplifies his professional life.
As for myself, I use facebook and Twitter for roughly the same reason: to share my own writing, engage in professional conversations, and to collect ideas. Most teenagers don’t differentiate much when it comes to social media–it’s all social, and it’s perfectly normal to broadcast emotions and experience ranging from playful and silly to angst-filled and belligerent.
When I applied to college in 1999, I didn’t have an online presence. I tried to present my “best self” to admissions officers and, fortunately for me, it worked out well. They didn’t know about some of my fairly reckless antics, including a penchant for igniting fireworks in quiet neighborhoods and bridge-jumping into the Merrimack River. Had social media been available to me, I hope I wouldn’t have broadcast my stunts to the world, but who knows? Without having much guidance to critically think about digital footprints, audience, persona, and self-disclosure, it’s no surprise to see so many teens use social media so freely.
What we must help teenagers understand is that their social media presences will be judged for better or worse. We can help teens understand the impact of misunderstandings on their college and job prospects. We can teach them ways to create a positive digital footprint.
If we do the aforementioned, then I say to college admissions officers: judge away. We do have ample–but not total–control about how we present ourselves online, and posting a plethora of questionable content should generally be regarded as a lack of judgement.
Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky. When not experimenting with urban gardening, bow-hunting, writing at his blog Mindful Stew, or watching football, he’s an active participant in Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network and the Center for Teaching Quality‘s Collaboratory
Should Colleges Judge Social Media Presence for Admissions?; image attribution flickr user slumadrid