Admissions Offices Turn to Social Media to Connect with Prospective Students

Mar 25, 2010

Be careful what you put online: Studies show that college admissions offices are turning to social media sites to connect with, and evaluate, prospective students. This is the second article in a two-part series on college admissions and new media.

Social Networking

Yesterday we explored the growing popularity of the video application essay. Today we're looking at another technology that's bringing the college admissions process into the 21st century: Social media.

In 2007, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth released a report on the use of social media by 4-year colleges and universities. A year later they revisited the subject, creating the first longitudinal study exploring the use of blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis and social networking sites by college admissions offices. The second study supported their early conclusions: colleges and universities have embraced these tools as a way to recruit and research prospective students.

Admissions Offices Familiarity with Types of Social Media

Figure 1 from Social Media and College Admissions, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

In order to get an in-depth picture of higher education's relationship to social media, the UMass studies looked at admissions offices' familiarity with, attitudes toward and usage of these tools. They found that, of the different types of media presented, respondents were most familiar with social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Furthermore, admissions officers were keeping up with these sites' rapid rise in popularity. In 2007, only 55% claimed to be 'very familiar' with social networking, but by 2008 a full 63% replied that they were 'very familiar.' They were also very familiar with blogs and message boards, moderately familiar with podcasting and video blogging and least familiar with wikis.

More interesting to prospective students, of course, is which of these tools admissions offices actually use. Once again, social networking sites experienced a meteoric rise from 2007, when only 29% of admissions offices reported using them in an official capacity, to 2008, when an impressive 61% did. Other tools that increased significantly in popularity from 2007 to 2008 included advice blogs and video blogs. And these increases seem to be more than just a passing fad: 89% of admissions departments reported that social media is at least 'somewhat important' to their future strategies.

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'Friending' Your Future School

More recent studies have shown that Facebook has become the most popular networking sites for college admissions offices. Earlier this month, released their 2010 Social Media and College Admissions Study, offering a snapshot of social media use in college admissions today. Sixty-six percent of respondents reported using Facebook regularly in the admissions process. In addition to connecting with prospective students in their own environment, Facebook fan pages allow schools to quickly answer questions from students and parents in a public forum so that others can benefit from the response. The Cappex study also found that colleges use Facebook to engage current students by posting news and events, and strengthen relationships with alumni.

Cappex reports that college search sites and Twitter are also fairly common this year, with 41% of admissions departments reporting using each tool at least once a week. Schools like the College of Charleston have even started using Twitter for micro-interviews. In the Twitter-restricted 140 characters or less, applicants tweet the admissions department with a succinct explanation of why they're perfect for the school. If the officer likes their tweet, they follow up with a direct message conversation that gets more in-depth with the student.

Twitter Tweet

These findings support the fears of many parents and high school counselors: What kids put online can affect their future prospects. Although the proportion of admissions departments in the UMass study that reported using search engines and social networking sites to research potential students went down slightly from 2007 to 2008, the researchers point out that the drop was within the margin of error and may not actually point to changing trends - admissions officers still seem to be getting on Google and Facebook to find out more about their applicants. That compromising picture your friend posted of you at a party? Chances are, a college admissions officer (or future employer) is going to find it.

Students can take some comfort in the fact that no school reported using social media to research every single student. Most focused on students who were candidates for scholarships or high-demand programs with very limited space. Nevertheless, it seems more and more important for young students to understand that their online lives are public, not private, and can have serious consequences.

Recruitment Tools Used by College Admissions Departments

From Establishing a Benchmark for Social Media Use in College Admissions, page 2,

The Cappex study focused more on colleges use of social media for recruitment. Although it plays a significant role in many schools' recruitment strategies - 70% reported that Facebook and college search websites are a 'medium or high priority' - it's still not as popular as college fairs, phone outreach and student search email and mailings. But the role of social networking in admissions may continue to grow: 62% of respondents said they plan to dedicate more resources to social media in 2010 than they did in 2009.

The amount of resources required to keep up with social media is the biggest drawback for most schools. Admissions officers acknowledge that social media must be maintained with fresh content to be effective, and that requires both a lot of time and creativity. Although some schools report using student workers and interns to post to Facebook and maintain other online presences, most rely on admissions officers or the marketing department, whose time and attention is at a premium.

The need for more active attention gets to the heart of one of the challenges UMass found when they examined whether colleges were using social media effectively. As they looked at the implementation of admissions blogs, researchers found that schools were still learning about the importance of interaction. As any high school student can tell you, a blog that wants to keep its audience must be frequently updated and allow for interactive conversation through commenting. In 2007, 37% of schools with blogs were not accepting comments. That number decreased a fair amount in 2008, along with an increase in RSS feeds and email subscriptions, suggesting that schools are learning about the importance of the give and take. But as the Cappex study shows, they continue to struggle with the logistics of managing that interaction.

Student Surfing the Web

Another concern raised by some schools in the Cappex study was the potential for controversial postings on public forums like a Facebook fan page. Admissions offices must maintain careful control of their school's public faces, and that can be difficult with social media. The need to constantly monitor their online presence adds to the time burden for many admissions departments.

Nevertheless, most admissions offices feel that they're getting significant benefits from social media. It allows them to form meaningful, engaging connections with young students in their 'natural' environments. The immediacy of the interactions gives them a more personal feel, and schools can reach a broader audience with less effort.

And, of course, students are enjoying the validation of the hours they spend online. It's not wasting time, it's networking with prospective colleges! Students such as Storm Wycke, who recently enrolled at Drew University, say that the connections they formed via Facebook actually helped them decide where to go to school. So whether you're just beginning your college search, or are trying to decide which acceptance letter is the one for you, forget those bulky college catalogs - Facebook and Twitter may be your best resources.

Tip: Want to keep up with college admissions offices online? Check out this list of the 50 Greatest Blogs for Admissions Advice.

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