When Colleges Woo Students Through Social Media: Less Viewbooks, More Facebook

Once upon a time students received acceptance letters. Now they get app notifications on their smartphones. As college applications have gone high-tech, so too has the race to recruit the best and brightest

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When Ashley Romero found out she had been accepted to the University of Georgia, it wasn’t through a letter in the mail. It wasn’t even by logging onto her computer and visiting Georgia’s admissions website. It was on her iPhone, as she and a friend were driving down the highway toward summer camp. Romero opened Georgia’s admissions app and saw in blazing green letters: “Accepted.” “I was thrilled,” she says. “My friend and I were so shocked and amazed. We started crying on the road and people looked at us like we were crazy.”

The app, which has been downloaded more than 70,000 times, is an example of the diverse digital arsenal that colleges are now using to reach—and compete for—applicants who spent all their adolescent years with smartphones and Facebook accounts. Schools are doing everything from organizing private Facebook groups for prospective students to letting applicants supplement their applications with YouTube videos in order to find the most effective social platforms to connect with young people.

“What we’re trying to do with social media is be relatable and relevant,” says Perry Hewitt, Harvard University’s chief digital officer. “In today’s communications environment, it’s not a ticket to win. It’s a ticket to play.”

Most schools agree, with more than 90% of admissions officers saying their investment in social media efforts has yielded positive results, according to a study by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. 86% of undergraduate admissions officers are planning to increase their investment in social media in the next year, and a third say that social platforms are already more effective than traditional media channels at reaching students. (Read more about how students are wiping their digital identities clean before applying to college)

While some students don’t want to be bothered on Facebook, almost 40% say colleges must engage in social media to reach students, according to a recent survey by University Research Partners. That’s why colleges are building accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, developing smartphone apps and exploring newer platforms like Pinterest, Instagram and Spotify.

It’s not as simple as launching a Facebook page and watching the quality applications roll in, though. The spontaneous nature of social media clashes with the carefully controlled marketing messages that colleges create through brochures and campus tours. Plus, engaging 17-year-olds in their most natural of habitats can be risky—like any brand, a college is only one awkward tweet away from becoming a victim of the Web’s vicious meme cycle. But at this point, schools have little choice but to interact with students online, or the conversation will happen without them on anonymous message boards like College Confidential.

With few conventions in place, each college approaches online recruiting a little differently. Some ideas are practical, such as Morehouse College’s “Morehouse Mondays,” where prospective students can use Facebook’s group chat feature to talk with everyone from financial aid officials to the school’s president in real time. Others are personal, like Marquette University’s habit of congratulating accepted students via Twitter on decision day, or Boston University’s themed Spotify playlists released for events like orientation.

All of it is an attempt to extend a school’s brand beyond the mailbox and the inbox, places where students are already overloaded with college information. “I get a lot of email and a lot of mail all the time,” says Amanda Harrington, a senior at Hastings High School in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, who’s currently exploring her college options. “It’s annoying. Most of the stuff I get in the mail is like a picture of a kid. It’s pretty useless.”

(MORE: When Colleges Look Up Applicants on Facebook: The Unspoken New Admissions Test)

When trying to get an authentic perspective on a school, Harrington says she turns to third-party sites that rate colleges and let users leave anonymous reviews. “If I’m looking for what the social dynamic of the school is like, I definitely would trust College Prowler or College Confidential more than the school’s website,” she says.

The popularity of these unfiltered sites has forced colleges to adopt more open, honest messaging channels.  “This generation of students questions every source,” says Daniel Creasy, the former associate director of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University. “You give them a pretty viewbook, they like the pictures, but they don’t believe you’re telling them the truth.”

At Johns Hopkins, Creasy launched a blogging initiative at the start of 2006 with 10 students who wrote about their college experiences. Now the school boasts 25 student bloggers and the format is a common offering on admissions departments’ websites.

“There needs to be an authenticity to the story,” says Creasy, who did not review students’ posts before they were published. “What better way to have your students tell that story than through social media, where you can present not just one perspective, like you can do on a tour, but multitudes of perspectives?”

Though the aim of an admissions blog is clear, the Johns Hopkins student blog posts are not all sales pitches. Students have discussed the anxiety caused by their college workload and the social scene that exists for underage students who don’t drink. One current blogger, Allysa Dittmar, wrote about how she coped with her mother committing suicide and used the platform to promote suicide prevention initiatives. “We want to be as honest as possible about Hopkins,” she says. “I really love the freedom. I’ve become a huge advocate for suicide awareness and prevention, and the blogs definitely helped me to voice my beliefs.”

(COVER STORY: College Is Dead. Long Live College!)

With blogs and Facebook now well-established tools for student engagement, the race is on to find the new platforms that will help admissions departments gain an online advantage. Marquette is on nearly a dozen different social platforms, including Google+ and LinkedIn. “When you see a quick Instagram photo that I’ve taken on campus, you feel like you’re there,” says Tim Cigelske, Marquette’s director of social media. “Hopefully you can picture yourself doing the same thing.”

Not all schools are convinced that going social is the way to lure in students, though. While Rice University boasts Twitter and Facebook accounts, Vice President for Enrollment Chris Muñoz says it’s not a huge focal point for his office. “Rightly or wrongly, I tend to be a little bit old fashioned in that I really believe that social media is personal,” he says.  “Visiting the campus is everything. If you’re really trying to influence a decision, that’s how it happens.”

Perhaps more importantly, the parents who are often funding a child’s education prefer to learn about a school the old-fashioned way. Still, with a quarter of college applicants applying to seven or more schools, it’s tough for many students to visit every school they apply to. That makes the virtual pitch all the more important, so expect to see more YouTube campus tours, Pinterest dorm decorating guides, and Facebook pages for admissions officers in the future. But even with colleges talking more and more, they’ll have to ensure what they’re saying rings true to potential applicants.

“We do fall prey to talking about all of our good stories and always portraying everything as positive and perfect for every student,” says Stephanie Dupaul, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University. “It’s really incumbent on schools to try and be more authentic and not try to market ourselves as all things for every student, but instead be who we really are.”

This is the second part in a series about the new ways that colleges are using social media in the admissions process. Click here for part one about the ways in which college admissions departments research high school applicants online.
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