#Accepted: The changing role of social media in college admissions

More schools are looking, but they are not finding as much

More college admissions staff are looking at applicants' social media profiles, but students are getting savvier about sanitizing their online images, the New York Times reports.

Kaplan Test Prep surveyed 403 undergraduate admissions officers over the summer on how often they looked at applicants' social media profiles. The practice is becoming more common. This year, about 35% reported using social media, up 9 percentage points from 2012. However, they also reported finding less objectionable content—only 16% discovered something unseemly, compared with 35% in 2012.

Schools also report a change in standard application materials. Darryl Isom, Morehouse College's director of admissions and recruitment, says that, in previous years, students often submitted application materials with inappropriate email addresses—such as those featuring profanity—but things began to change last year.

"They are cleaning up their online profiles before they ever apply,” he explains, adding that students are now savvy enough to know that admissions staff are looking.

Why are we seeing savvier applicants?

“My hunch is that students are not publicly chronicling their lives through social media in the same way," says Seppy Basili, Kaplan’s vice president for college admissions.

Basili hypothesizes admissions counselors and parents are more proactively warning students about the dangers of sharing too much online. He also notes that the world of social networking has become more diffuse; young people spread their posts out on more numerous, niche, and private networks.

Murky ground for colleges

Not all college admissions offices take the time—or are comfortable with—tracking down applicants online. Debra Chermonte, the dean of admissions at Oberlin College, says "I don’t think we should be trolling for information that was not submitted by the students for our use in rendering the decision."

Experts also warn that considering online information during the admissions process can be risky, or even discriminatory. "That’s why admissions officers have to be very careful if they decide to look up an applicant online or review their social media profiles," argues Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specializes in online privacy.

As a possible middle ground, colleges could be transparent with applicants from the beginning that admissions staff may look up their online profiles. Paul Marthers, vice provost for enrollment management at the State University of New York system, says the school is considering posting a warning for applicants that it reserves the right to review online activity as part of the admissions process.

Marthers cites the example of an applicant who was found posting messages to an online chat room instructing others how to engage in financial-aid fraud. In that case, online activity “did factor into the admissions decision," he says (Singer, New York Times, 11/19).

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