Turning the Social Media Tables: Students Use Facebook, Instagram to Choose Colleges

shutterstock_174838673Back when social media first appeared on the Internet scene, students everywhere were advised to carefully examine and “clean up” their accounts, because college admissions officers now had unprecedented access to their personal—yet very public—lives.

Now, however, students have begun to turn the tables. Because of course college websites look professional and the green manicured lawns presented on shiny pamphlets look appealing. And yes, colleges can present picturesque, carefully refined “official” social media accounts. However, they have little—if any—control over what students on campus post, and for a savvy social media high schooler, these posts can offer a gold mine of information.

In one case, Time magazine reported on a student who used Instagram to “visit” college campuses by proxy. He easily found the schools’ official account, but then discovered that by clicking on the photos’ geotagged location, he could see all pictures tagged in that area; therefore, he was able to look through accounts of students who attended that school (so long as those accounts were public) and see the school through their eyes.

“It’s like having a tour of the school by a real student who isn’t paid to show you the school and tell you the things the admissions office wants you to hear,” he said. “It’s like you’re getting a tiny slice of that college and it’s real and raw.”

Other, more word-based social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even the anonymous YikYak allow for online conversations with school officials and the students enrolled there. According to The 2014 Social Admissions Report, 67% of students who were polled said that social media conversations influenced their decision on where to enroll.

Some colleges are getting smart and realizing that there are also ways to go beyond the glossy brochure and connect with students via platforms they like better. For instance, several schools turned to YouTube. Yale made a whimsical music video “That’s Why I Chose Yale” (which, incidentally, has been viewed more than 1.5 million times); University of Rochester created an acapella rap parody “Remember oUR Name”; and Cleveland Institute of Art introduced viewers to their school through a very persuasive medium for an art school: illustration.

In spite of these shifts in the admissions landscape, social media is not the end-all be-all for students choosing where to attend college. For instance a recent survey by Chegg Enrollment Services revealed that when receiving communications from colleges on their phones, 20% of students would prefer to receive a phone call, compared with the 2% predicted by admissions officers. (Interestingly, 65% of students would prefer to be contacted by email—proving that “traditional” marketing communications are not dead . . . even if they’re now accessed via smartphones instead of desktop computers.)

The bottom line for students is this: social media offers new ways to get around traditional college marketing and get the “inside scoop” on schools before ever stepping foot on campus. And for colleges: time to start thinking beyond the glossy mailer, because your future clients already have.