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Are College Admissions Counselors Googling My Student?

How to navigate the college admissions process in the age of Google and social media

Leah Abraham

Published on: October 04, 2016

google search college admission

Over the years, the college admissions process has shifted. Instead of relying on academic merits alone, admissions counselors are trying get a comprehensive snapshot of their candidates, and they’re using the Internet to do so.

A 2015 survey  reported by the Chicago Tribune found 67 percent of colleges research their prospective candidates on Google. A 2012 Kaplan Test Prep survey found that more than 25 percent of admissions counselors admitted to looking up applicants’ social media accounts to learn more about them.

Increasingly, students and families are using various online platforms to capture students’ achievements and involvement,  with the hope that recruiters are able to find a more nuanced version of the applicants.

Take Cirkled In, for example. This free online portfolio service assists students in keeping track of their achievements and activities, starting from elementary school. This platform allows parents and/or students to compile academic accomplishments, volunteer hours, internships, clubs and extracurricular programs in a manner that highlights a student’s “full potential.” Think of it as a LinkedIn account that’s tailored and designed for K–12 students. 

According to Cirkled In founder Reetu Gupta, services like Cirkled In, which is based in Redmond, are crucial considering the competitive nature of college admissions.

“Colleges are looking at soft skills, just like corporate America has been looking at soft skills forever. Now colleges are saying that we need to find that authentic candidate,” Gupta says. “Why are recruiters looking at Google? It’s because there are no other forums that show a student holistically. Since they’re lacking such a formal platform, they’re going to Google. And they’re using Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. When you’re sharing a Cirkled In account, you’re giving recruiters what they’re looking for.”

teen on cell phone using social media

Is there reason for families to curate the best online presentation of their students? Do college admission decisions truly hinge on a candidate’s online presence?

Yes and no. 

While the survey reported in the Chicago Tribune reports 86 percent of colleges say they Google their candidates, only 43 U.S. colleges participated in the survey. In the Kaplan survey, in which 25 percent of counselors reporting that they use social media to vet their candidates, 350 counselors were interviewed.

In many cases, schools simply have too many applicants to Google all of them. The University of Washington (UW) received almost 44,000 freshman applications, according to Jocelyn De Jong, UW senior associate director of admissions for recruitment and communication. Due to the sheer volume of applications it receives each year, the UW does not Google candidates or track social media accounts.

“Our whole process is designed to solicit the information we need to make an assessment on an applicant’s potential to be successful,” De Jong says. “We’re looking at strength of the high school curriculum, grade trends over time, the types of courses available at that particular school, whether the student is maximizing those challenging college prep courses [and] standardized test scores.”

The best way to stand out in the sea of applications is by sharing your story and your passions.

The UW also looks at a candidate’s activity journal — a self-written journal that includes extracurricular activities and programs the candidate has been involved in — and answers to essay questions to get a better understanding of an applicant’s personality and soft skills. This portion of the application allows students to share their personal story.

While the admissions procedure might seem like a numbers game, schools craft their processes to make sure each candidate gets a chance to showcase both her academics and her personality. Newly admitted UW freshman Pavithra Rao says she was able to show her authentic self in her application.

“I felt like the [UW] admissions process was fair, and they were able to get a picture of me as a well-rounded individual rather than just focusing on my academic achievements,” Rao says. “There were two writing prompts, and I was able to talk about hardships I had overcome and how they affected my career goals and changed my outlook on life.”

The best way to stand out in the sea of applications is by sharing your story and your passions, De Jong says.

“Suppose in the self-reported academic transcript that we notice that [for] one semester, the GPA dropped, and we don’t know why. You have the opportunity to say, ‘I was going through a really challenging time. My mom had cancer, or I had to care for my younger sibling,’” she says. “Our faculty at UW and I feel our policy allows for us to get to know that holistically, through the questions that we are asking. It doesn’t require us to look at [candidates’] social media accounts or Google to see what else is going on in their lives.”

For Rao, applying to college taught her that passion comes first.

“As someone who cared a lot about my grades and doing well on standardized tests, I learned that these aren’t as important as finding something you’re truly passionate about and showcasing that passion in the activities and clubs you join in high school,” she says. “When applying to competitive colleges, everyone has good grades and test scores. The key is to distinguish yourself from other applicants by doing something unique outside of the classroom.”

How can I help my child with the admission process?

The first step is to help your child thoroughly research and create a list of colleges he is interested in. Keep a list of admission requirements for each school and inquire to see if it conducts searches of candidates online. Encourage your child to ask admissions counselors what specific qualities they look for in a candidate, and see how that matches with your child’s online and offline profiles. Check to see if the counselors consider supplemental items, such as Cirkled In or LinkedIn accounts, during the application process.

While it is important to be involved in your child’s college admission process, it is important to not complete the application for him. Allow him to fill out all the paperwork and essays himself. You can look over all application material, but encourage your child to contact the admissions department himself. This is the stage at which kids start making the transition into adulthood, and allowing them to complete the arduous application process themselves will increase their ability to take care of themselves. 

How can I help your child navigate her online platforms?

Even if certain schools claim to not Google candidates, teach your child to be wary of her online image. Learning the ethics of curating your image, especially online, is an invaluable skill. The sooner your child learns to showcase a professional image, the better it is for her when she enters the workforce.

Discuss the importance of an “online image” with your child and help her double-check privacy settings on all her social media accounts. If your child would rather not have certain accounts accessible to the general public (such as prying admissions counselors), encourage her change her account to “private.”

Are resources such as Cirkled In and SlideRoom worth the time and energy?

Considering these are free platforms, it never hurts to sign up for an account. Again, this instills a practice of curating a professional online image. View these platforms as a self-assessment tool. Does the account showcase your child’s authentic self? Does it highlight her full and true potential? Does it seem to be lacking in any area? 

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