Surveillance is trending
Universities should set clear policies for the use of social media to track applicants
Kaplan Test Prep is known as a crammer’s delight — the organization, owned by The Washington Post, provides guide books and test courses for exams from the secondary to graduate level. It also does an annual survey, polling the admissions officers at 500 of the nation’s highest-ranked schools. The results of its 2012 survey were released this month and highlight the rising trend among admissions officers of scanning applicants’ online activity, often in a haphazard way. If admissions officers are interested in using social media to vet the prospective pool, they should be more upfront with their students about doing so and iron out some sort of policy.
The Kaplan survey was conducted between July and September this year. Of the 500 schools questioned, 350 replied — though not ideal, surely a 70 percent response rate means a survey has passed the credibility test. A larger body of schools would have furnished a more adequate sample size. Yet Kaplan wanted to inquire only after the top institutions, as ranked by Barron’s and U.S. News & World Report. Plus, Kaplan pulls from the same pool every year, which allows for potential comparisons.
Kaplan asked questions in three categories: “Standardized Testing Policies,” “General Admissions” and “Online and Social Networking.” The results from the last category are of the most interest.
To recruit students, these universities do take to social media, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in an overwhelming majority of cases, with Google Plus far behind. They also use these sites to check students’ backgrounds, but in a manner that lacks any rigor. In fact, 80 percent of all officers polled said they had no official policy when it comes to scrolling through social media, with 74 percent of that 80 percent having no interest in developing some sort of guidelines. This didn’t stop them from checking, however.
Twenty-seven percent of the officers have Googled applicants to find out more about them, up 7 percent from last year. And 26 percent looked up students on Facebook or another social media platform — up 10 percent from when Kaplan started doing this survey in 2008. Most startlingly, of those officers who said they checked students on Facebook or Google, 35 percent of them said they “discovered something online about an applicant that negatively impacted their application.” The answer to this same question was only 12 percent last year.
Have the students gotten so much worse in one year that admissions offices are just more likely to catch them? Instead, it is more probable that admissions panels are just looking harder.
According to Kaplan, detrimental information admissions officers found out about students online “included essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made [admissions officers] ‘wonder,’ and ‘illegal activities.’” Although many of these activities, such as plagiarism, would count against students if openly discovered, some of these criteria seem arbitrary.
Teenagers applying to college should know to be more prudent on their profiles, but they are nevertheless still teenagers. If admissions officers feel so strongly about curse words or alcohol showing up on Facebook — which is often speculative, considering many pictures are just of kids with cups holding non-specific beverages — they should let their applicants know.
The University takes a more transparent approach but would benefit from codifying a policy. In a Sept. 8 blog post, Dean Jeannine C. Lalonde, author of the University admissions blog Notes from Peabody, said when she had a Facebook profile she had no interest in tracking students. She closed down her official Facebook profile, and instead created a page. “Facebook pages obviously make it far easier for me to share content without giving me a window into a student’s private space,” she said. On the blog, Lalonde goes by Dean J, but we looked up her name using Google.