By Juaquin, College Admissions Counselor
Colleges are trying to keep up with the times, and for most that has meant using social media and technology to stand out to students for years now. But now with COVID-19 limiting in-person interaction, colleges have pivoted to virtual programming to meet the needs of students today. That means stepping up their social media game, too, in order to keep students informed and encourage them to apply.
Social media is a very standard part of the college search process. In the past, colleges have used Instagram to show off campus life and Snapchat to showcase school newspapers, or even release admission decisions. And while it is ideal for a student to have a balanced set of sources, both online and more traditional methods, in order to gain an objective and broad understanding of the schools they’re considering, these days it’s just not possible for most students to visit in-person. So in addition to virtual tours and information sessions, students should also use social media to learn more about the schools they’re interested in.
Why Social Media Matters
On average, teens spend anywhere from seven to nine hours online per day – and this was before the switch to virtual learning for many students. What are they doing? Most of that time is spent on social, with YouTube the most used app by teens, followed closely by Instagram and Snapchat. TikTok is also the fastest growing new app for teens.
Schools have been using social media to entice students to apply and enroll at their schools for years now. Because colleges are concerned with their rank, they have to manage their yield and retention rates, which are important factors in determining a college’s spot on rankings lists like US News & World Report. Colleges with a higher percentage of students matriculating and returning for sophomore year are ranked higher than those with lower yield and retention rates.
But social isn’t just a good recruiting tool for colleges because that’s where all the teens are. It’s also a great research tool for students who are forced to supplement their college research in light of limited in-person visits. The tools students employ today to research colleges are much different from the days of paper applications and slick, glossy brochures, and because of this students need to know what sources to trust – and how to evaluate the information presented to them.
First, Do Your Homework
When researching colleges, start with the basics before diving into social media. Set parameters and determine what factors matter most to you. Consider things like academics, atmosphere, cost, and location. Reflect on what you know from your high school experience. Do you have an affinity for a specific subject or course? What did you like and dislike about the classes or curriculum of your high school? Some colleges don’t have a core curriculum and allow you to cross register while others might have more structured requirements. Take charge of this process and start making broad decisions about the types of curricula and student activities that are “musts,” or even how far away from home you’ll be comfortable going.
As you start to identify universities of interest, use the college’s website for facts, such as student enrollment, departments, majors, student activities, and admission requirements. As your college search evolves, be aware of the factors that matter most to you; they will help you eliminate schools not meeting your criteria and keep the ones that do on your list.
Using Social Media to Research Schools
Just as colleges reach out to you, it is equally important that you proactively seek out information as well from a variety of sources. Social media is good place to start – one of my student athletes follows the college cross-country team on Instagram and others use the college’s website, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat to learn more about the schools they’re interested in.
Social media is valuable because it gives you a glimpse into a school’s campus culture and values every day. No two Instagram or Facebook pages are alike, so it allows students to get different views of different schools. Some colleges will allow current students to “take over” the Instagram or Snapchat account for the day so they can walk followers through a day in their life. Some have Facebook Live events where prospective students can ask questions and get insight on the school and the admissions process. Students can get campus news updates from official Twitter accounts for the school including student news publications.
Colleges are also using TikTok to give prospective students an inside look at the campus and the school. The University of Florida and Louisiana State University were some of the first to get on the app and grow their audiences, and since then a number of other institutions have followed suit.
When researching schools using social media, take notes on what you see and what you like and don’t like. Ask yourself things like:
- Do the dorms in posts look nice? If so, which one and is it representative of all the residence halls on campus? That’s something you can follow up with in your online research and conversations with current students.
- Do you see a lot of posts of students on the campus “quad,” or does the campus look more urban?
- Are you able to watch Instagram stories/reels or Snapchat posts by students? If seeing a student perspective is important to you and you can’t find it on social, seek it out elsewhere.
- What information are you getting off these accounts? Is it just sporadic posts about deadlines or do they have a steady stream of posts that give you insight into different facets of the school? If the account is relatively inactive, seek out information elsewhere.
- What’s missing from my online research that I want to find on social? Is it just more images of the campus so you can “imagine” yourself there? Is it more insight from current students? Or do you want to hear more directly from admissions officers?
Like I said, colleges are going where the teens are, and with most of these students already using these platforms, it’s easy to hit “follow” and get a steady stream of information and images related to colleges without having to seek it out yourself. But remember, you’re only getting one side of the story. Colleges are controlling what messages they are sending out, so there’s a built-in bias. The same applies to information in emails, mailers, and colleges’ websites. Whichever source you choose to research your schools, consider any bias. We’ve all seen the picturesque photos every college has on their website and social media, so when researching online you should also consult non-school affiliated websites like College Board and Unigo. I also recommend perusing non-biased paper sources like the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Colleges That Change Lives, and local publications covering campus news.
Don’t Forget to Still Visit Virtually
Visiting a prospective college is one of the most helpful resources in selecting the appropriate college and getting a “feel” for the campus. However, that’s just not possible for students right now. Luckily, most colleges are offering online visits and information sessions, and while a virtual visit isn’t quite the same – the virtual information session is key. This allows you to still get the same presentation and “facetime” that you would with an in-person information session, just via Zoom or some other platform. This actually opens up a lot of access to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to visit even in normal circumstances. This also allows you to get the information and insight that you want that maybe you didn’t find in your online and social media research of the school.
While researching colleges today might look vastly different from years before, choosing the college that’s right for you involves being aware of the type of environment that will allow you to grow and learn. The college admission process is about making decisions, and you should use a variety of tools and resources when researching colleges in order to help you investigate whether or not a college is a good-fit for you – especially now that in-person visits are limited. Remember that your research should be as diverse as possible to give you a complete picture of the college.
At IvyWise we have a team of expert counselors who are familiar with a variety of institutions in the US and abroad, and can help students effectively research and build a balanced college list of best-fit schools. Independent research, both online and off, is important to the college search process, but guidance from an expert counselor can help students to identify colleges of interest that they would not have otherwise considered. For more information on how IvyWise can help you find the best-fit schools to apply to, contact us today.