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Should You ‘Friend’ Your Way to Grad School?

Social media will continue to grow as an important tool in the applications process in the future, but boundaries and guidelines need to be established.

“Social media.” A simple two-word phrase has become the overarching story of our age and has turned the world upside down in less than 10 years.

Along with changing critical elements of our everyday lives like personal relationships and marketing, Twitter, Facebook and the like have forever altered the road to graduate school. Would-be students used to borrow heavy college review compendia from the library or spend huge amounts of money to visit campuses thousands of kilometers away. Today’s “always-on” applicants can access students, professors and admissions officials with the click of a mouse.

For many applicants, particularly those in the “dark ages” before (or in the early days of) the Internet, each school or program was like a windowless ivory tower set high on a hill: desirable, yet intimidating and inscrutable.

But now sites like collegeconfidential. com and various blogs—including those put up by the colleges’ own admissions offices by and for students—offer a once-unimaginable degree of two-way accessibility.

A strange new world
“It’s no surprise that social media has changed the landscape of college admissions,” the University of Massachusetts found in a landmark longitudinal study.

On collegeconfidential.com, students can compare their pre- and post-admissions experiences, as well as share which professors, course plans, etc. they would recommend. Blogs set up by various schools task student bloggers to write truthfully about their experiences.

Both offer a degree of anonymity, with the former allowing bloggers to share candid stories and opinions in an open forum and the latter allowing would-be students to “lurk” while learning more about their chosen schools or even to contact the bloggers directly with questions.

In addition, YouTube’s education project has given colleges an unprecedented opportunity to post about their school—from recruitment videos to Q&A sessions, class lectures and special student projects.

But perhaps more startlingly, would-be students have also used sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to keep tabs on deans, professors, admissions officials, current students and programs.

Establishing boundaries
On sites like Facebook, it can be useful to “like” a school or program’s fan page in order to get updates on recruiting events or important deadlines.

Most people will draw the line at following a school’s Facebook page or a dean’s Twitter feed to get news from the school, but some take this further by attempting to add officials and students as “friends” in order to gain a competitive edge.

By following admissions officers’ Twitter feeds, one can learn about the personal preferences that some believe will lead to an inside edge for their applications and essays. An applicant might reference a specific breed of dog in a personal essay after learning that the admissions officer loves golden retrievers, or find out which pub a dean frequents in order to “randomly” meet them.

One study found that 80 percent of college admissions staff has received friend requests from prospective students. How­ever, admissions officials and students strongly warn against friending or “Facebook stalking” unless you already know the person in real life. While it can be tempting to use social media to further your own interests, basic common sense and rules of etiquette also apply, admissions officers say.

“Regarding [Facebook] contact with admissions officers, I have always felt that this is a bad practice in any capacity,” says Jay Conhaim, a second-year medical school student at the University of Washington (UW) who lectures incoming students and undergrads about professionalism and social media.

Conhaim drew a parallel between “friending” admissions officers and other related tactics.
“It has become commonplace in the med school interview circuit to send thank-you cards to admissions officers,” he says. “Yes, it’s good to remind them that you are thankful for the opportunity to visit their school, but what you say in the interview—not how thankful you are—will get you admitted. That and so many people send thank-you cards these days, I wonder how many interviewers actually take the time to read each thank-you. While this doesn’t directly apply to social media sites, ‘friending’ admissions officers is the digital version of glittery pens and stationery.”

Fellow University of Washington medical school student Katherine Glass concurs. “I would highly advise prospective students against contacting admission committee members or deans using Facebook,” she says.

“Facebook is excellent for staying in contact with your friends, but using Facebook as a means for reaching people associated with admissions would most likely be considered unprofessional.

“Furthermore, it’s then an open invitation for scrutiny of your Facebook page. I also would recommend using an e-mail address that sounds neutral and professional, like your name. Admissions officers are likely to pass judgment, subconsciously or consciously, on a message from ladygagalover@yahoo.com or deltaphi69@hotmail.com. Using a university or workplace based e-mail is generally the way to go.”

A two-way street
At the other end of the spectrum, everyone interviewed for this article stressed the importance of cleaning up your own social media profiles before applying to colleges; your methods of researching a school or admissions officer also can be applied to you.

A recent study by top college assessment and prep firm Kaplan found that 80 percent of schools check applicants’ profiles on sites like Facebook and MySpace—and that what they find often impacts their decision, either positively or negatively.

The ethical difficulty experienced by many admissions staff seems to lie in the privacy realm: if a prospective student is posting pictures and messages on Facebook for their friends to see, is it appropriate for an admissions officer to judge the applicant based on such a narrow slice of their life?

“I avoid [looking up profiles] when I interview medical school applicants because I feel that you can generally gather whether or not a person is a suitable candidate during a 45-minute interview,” Glass says. “Body language, eye contact, social graces...are far more important than anything I might find on an applicant’s Wall, in my opinion.” But Glass says she also understands the necessity to maintain a professional image online.

“We receive lectures on social media and how it can impact your future prospects, and I have personally untagged pictures posted by friends that I feel are inappropriate; I try and limit the number of photos where I am holding infamous red party cups,” Glass says.

“I plan to carefully manage my Facebook profile to minimize the damage it could potentially do to my future residency applications.”

Cleaning your online house
Conhaim joined Facebook for fun in 2005, his sophomore year of college, under an alias named Tad. During the medical school admissions process in 2010, he found that his friends were busy combing their Facebook profiles for salacious photos and posts to remove.

“Only after getting into medical school did I learn that most admission officers don’t bother Googling applicants’ names or trying to find them on social media sites,” Conhaim says. “Not only is it too much work, but the interviewers at UW recognize the dichotomy of professional and personal lives that are necessary to maintain one’s identity. That being said, I still encourage applicants to crank up the security levels on their online identities to full. Most people have already done this, and recognize the immediate consequences of not maintaining privacy, but most don’t realize that once you enter the professional realm or get accepted, a strict privacy setting will continue to maintain the important balance I spoke of earlier.”

Conhaim says he also reminds applicants that future medical patients may be viewing their posted material in the future, even if admissions officers don’t.

“Even with strict privacy settings, if you put something on the Internet, you never know who will save it or how it will be manipulated by others,” he says. “People are always watching online, whether you know it or not; just ask the marketing directors who knew I was shopping for backpacks a few months ago. I wish I could tell them that I have already made a purchase....”

In addition to cleaning up your profiles, try adding them to your applicant toolkit as well by emphasizing your talents, interests, hobbies and activities. Admissions officers love to use Facebook to get a sense of the “whole” person, beyond what an application can reveal. However, if you create a boring or even falsified version of yourself online, it may smell of being fake—or, even worse, disqualify you when the hoax is revealed, as has been the case with many would-be students who have made the news in recent years.

Choose to build your profile around your professional and academic strengths, rather than as a photo album of embarrassing incidents. Try this adage: don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your beloved, old-fashioned grandmother to see. You also can, and should, try adjusting your levels of privacy on Facebook and the like, possibly setting everything to “friends only” if you don’t want to take the time to delete or hide your 2,000 party images. Another important task to add to a pre-application to-do list is to Google your name and try clearing up anything that might raise eyebrows.

The view from the other side of the desk
Cappex.com’s 2010 Social Media and College Admissions Benchmarking Study compiled the results of a study of 170 college admission officials. It found that the use of social media in the admissions process is on the way up, particularly the use of Facebook, and suggests that it is an excellent way for colleges to get in touch with students in a relaxed environment.

Sixty-two percent of the schools interviewed plan to increase their use of social media in the future, and nearly half of the schools said they saw social media as being “important” or “critically important” in their admissions strategy. Forty-three percent said it was “somewhat important,” and seven percent called it “not important.”

A Facebook page can help share the atmosphere of a school and increase its sense of community, in what is seen as a more “authentic” environment than a college’s Web site, interviewees said, adding that Facebook can be a faster way to reach students than standard e-mail.

“It is about accessibility and authenticity,” an unidentified survey respondent said. “Students are able to learn more about the college while also connecting with current students in a genuine and personal way.”

Eva Yen, associate director of graduate admission at Chapman University in California, says that each program at the university has its own approach to application reviews.

“As far as I know, most of our programs do not look up social media profiles,” she says, adding that some programs like Chapman’s famed film school will go onto a profile to look at a reel or portfolio if the student has indicated that their work is available there.

Yen says that Chapman University is utilizing counselor and student blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts and more. Graduate school departments at Chapman also maintain their own Twitter feeds, she says, or may have Face­book pages to help students connect prior to starting classes together.

“We recently started a couple of Facebook pages specifically for international students,” Yen says. “One is for incoming international students. The students have been very active in posting a variety of questions regarding where to live, admission letters they have received, what to expect, life at Chapman, etc. The other Facebook page is to help students find off-campus housing. Both pages seem to have a lot of activity, and questions are answered relatively quickly by the page moderators as well as other students.”

She added that the school’s many Indian students tend to use word-of-mouth the most, and find it to be the most helpful method of communication.

Admissions officials at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. say they do not look up prospective students’ social media profiles during the admissions process. Both Sarah Lang, director of admissions within the university’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, and Adina Lav, director of Graduate Marketing, Admissions and Record Management at the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, say they do use social media like Facebook and Twitter to market information sessions, research opportunities, publications and events.

“We are embarking upon a student blogging project this fall that will reflect on graduate student life first-hand,” Lang says. She also has found that Facebook has torn down some of the walls between admissions offices and students.

“We have seen that many prospective students will get information straight from the Web site without making contact with an admissions officer. I think this is less an impact to prospective students as it is a call to action for graduate admissions professionals to adapt to a new online, social culture,” Lang says.

“In general, social networks have enhanced our ability to tell our story to prospective students. Similarly, I think many prospective students are more comfortable messaging us through Facebook than sending e-mails,” Lav says.

Both Lang and Lav say that one of the most common mistakes they have seen is the use of extremely casual English by applicants in the admissions process, which may be due to the informality of social media.

Future shock?
The consensus seems to be that social media will continue to grow as an important tool in the applications process in the future, but that boundaries and guidelines need to be established.

“I don’t think that social media will be utilized for grad school admissions in the future unless a program geared toward this specific function is developed,” Conhaim says. “While social networking is an undeniably important concept, the admissions process for higher education still has a bit of romance that social media would pervert.

“If someone wants to tout their acceptance on Facebook that is their choice, but for any institution to take their dealings with an individual into the public realm, to me, would be an immense sign of disrespect. My successes or shortcomings are very personal and I should be the gatekeeper of that information.”

“New technology will always change the way business is done; the typical Office of Admission is no different,” Lang says. “We will need to adapt to the way our applicants respond best; be it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Web-based applications, or something totally new that no one’s even thought of yet.”


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.