Of Course Colleges Are Reading Applicants' Facebook Posts

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 11 2013 1:40 PM

Of Course Colleges Are Reading Kids' Tweets and Facebook Posts

college admissions social media
"Now, about your social-media presence ... "

Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock.com

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that college admissions officers were increasingly checking applicants’ Facebook and MySpace pages. According to a Kaplan survey that year, 38 percent of those admissions officers said that what they found on those pages “negatively affected” their views of the applicant.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

For some reason, the New York Times decided this weekend that this trend constituted news once again, perhaps because Kaplan recently released the latest edition of its annual survey. In “They Loved Your GPA. Then They Saw Your Tweets,” the Times’ Natasha Singer dutifully pulls together an article’s worth of “expert” quotes and one-off anecdotes to scare up some fresh interest in the topic. And she does her best to make it seem troubling:

In the business realm, employers now vet the online reputations of job candidates as a matter of course. Given the impulsiveness of typical teenagers, however — not to mention the already fraught nature of college acceptances and rejections — the idea that admissions officers would covertly nose around the social media posts of prospective students seems more chilling.

On one level, this is just another rather obvious trend piece for the @NYTOnIt Twitter feed. And perhaps Singer is right that college admissions offices ought to have clearer policies on whether and how they conduct extracurricular research into applicants’ online activities.

But the notion that this practice is somehow “chilling” reveals a misunderstanding of social media on the part of the Times—and perhaps many of its adult readers—that I suspect most high schoolers today don’t share. Public Facebook posts are public. All tweets from non-private Twitter accounts are public.* There's nothing troubling about anyone—whether parents, employers, college admissions officers, or otherwise—reading these posts. Emails, phone calls, texts, and Snapchats, in contrast, ought to carry at least some expectation of privacy (NSA snooping and ridiculous 1979 court rulings aside). Teens, for the most part, understand this distinction—which is why a growing number of them maintain two Facebook accounts: a public one for the adults, and a more private one for themselves and their friends.

If college admissions officers started trying to hack into kids’ Snapchat accounts, that would be chilling. If they were using trickery to gain access to kids’ private Facebook posts, perhaps by posing as a friend, that would be creepy. But there’s no indication that they are. Rather, the Times story revolves around anecdotes like the Bowdoin College applicant who attended a campus information session and spent the whole time tweeting nasty and profane things about her fellow prospective students. Of course Bowdoin admissions officers took notice. That’s not akin to snooping on the young woman’s private diary. It’s more like noticing that she’s shouting expletives at passersby while standing in the middle of the quad.

Should that alone disqualify her from admission? Probably not—and in this case, it didn’t, since Bowdoin said her academic record wasn’t up to par anyway. But it’s hard to see how docking an applicant for boorish behavior in a public forum—whether online or off—is any more “chilling” than docking her for an awkwardly constructed essay, a lackluster interview, or coming up 40 points short on her SAT verbal score. 

*Correction, Nov. 11, 2013: This post originally stated that all tweets are public. In fact, Twitter allows private accounts, from which no tweets are public.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.