Gone are the days of traditional college admission packages, loan application processes and hiring decisions. It's no longer enough to have just a stellar SAT score, a polished resume or a flawless business plan. Social media is changing the way we communicate and the way we are perceived, both positively and negatively. Every time you post a photo, or update your status, you are contributing to your own digital footprint and personal brand. This footprint can help or hinder you, depending on how you approach your social media presence. This may seem daunting, but it shouldn't be. Think of this shift as an opportunity to further build your personal brand and call attention to your best attributes.
In a recent study published by University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, nearly 100 percent of universities in the U.S. have social media accounts. Granted, not all of them are using it on a consistent basis, but the mere fact that almost all universities in the country have some sort of social media presence tells us that the use of social media by universities is no fad. In the same study, 49 percent of universities have some sort of written policy regarding social media. This figure will only rise as more universities evolve alongside social media and begin to incorporate it into the admissions process. Many universities are now offering either coursework or majors in social media.
Not all universities use social media to eliminate applicants (although according to a 2012 Kaplan study, 35 percent of admissions officers found something on Google or on an applicant's Facebook page that negatively affected their chances of being admitted), many universities view social media as a way to learn more about a particular applicant, and to find evidence of their passions and achievements.
Here's a scenario to consider:
Applicant A and Applicant B look the same on paper. Both shine academically, boasting incredible transcripts, essays, and SAT scores. Both have an impressive list of extracurricular activities and outstanding recommendation letters. The difference is Applicant A has thousands of engaged Twitter followers and Facebook friends. You are able to get a more holistic picture of the applicant by seeing how Applicant A engages with his/her followers and tweets about the issues he/she is passionate about. Applicant B may have a social media presence (what college-age kid doesn't?), but never took the time to fully develop it and turn it into an asset by having a "neutral" (i.e., not keg stand) avatar photo, removing inappropriate language, and posting information that spotlights passions and strengths.
As the college admissions representative, you can only choose one. Who would you choose? In this case, Applicant A's smart use of social media gives him/her an edge, over an otherwise perfect Applicant B.
Universities want to recruit the students that they believe will best represent the university while in school and beyond. Students with a robust social media presence and clearly defined personal brand stand to become only more influential. These students are positioned to become leaders in their respective fields, which will reflect positively on the university.
The scenario remains the same for job applicants. When choosing between two similar applicants, hiring managers are increasingly turning to social media outlets to supplement information they are unable to glean from applications or interviews. Although it is illegal to make hiring decisions based upon information obtained from social media networks (age, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.), many companies still use them to get a sense of cultural fit within the organization.
Even if you are not a student or job seeker, your social media "credit score" can still determine whether or not you are granted a loan and what kind of rates you receive. For the moment this is on the cutting edge, but don't expect that to last for long. Several organizations are taking your social media "credibility" into consideration when making decisions. Lenddo, a company offering small loans to individuals, is based on the idea that the stronger your social ties (i.e. the more people that will vouch for you), the more likely you are to repay your debt. Your social media reputation can actually be parlayed into a life-improvement loan. Another vanguard organization is MovenBank, a financial services company that has developed a proprietary algorithm called CRED to analyze your financial stability. CRED takes into consideration your social media "street credibility" (along with other information from financial institutions) when determining what rates you will receive. If you are perceived as more influential, you are more likely to refer new customers, which will ultimately affect the company's profit. The more customers you refer through your social networks, you'll get better rates and less fees.
This is where proper social media education becomes critical in an applicant's success. Personal branding and social media education can prevent debacles that may thwart a qualified candidate from being accepted into their dream school or organization. Social media training isn't just preventative though. It's essential to maximize your efforts in these growing communication channels. After all, social media isn't really media. It's communication.
We all have personal brands and most of us have already left a digital footprint, whether we like it or not. Proper social media use highlights your strengths that may not shine through in an interview or application and gives the world a broader view of who you are. Use it wisely.
Follow Amy Jo Martin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AmyJoMartin