It's that time of year: The days are getting a little longer, we're seeing scores of professional baseball teams in their pre-season training match-ups. Here in New England there are even a few little brave crocuses poking their heads up in places where the snow has melted. Spring is on the way, and that can also only mean one thing: College admission decisions are being posted by high school students on Facebook.
Years ago when I applied to college, decisions were announced April 15. You ran out to the mailbox every day to check, just in case, and when you got into a school -- or not -- it was up to you to tell those friends and acquaintances you wanted to tell. You could be selective in sharing this news.
But today, regular decision college decisions start coming in early March. And in addition to the stresses of the ramped up competition to get in to any college, or having student athletes hearing about their "commitment" school at randomly early times, or having increasingly higher percentages of students applying early decision/early action/ED II to colleges, high school students today also are navigating ways of proclaiming their college status on Facebook. This manner of posting your college news shares it with your Facebook world. And it turns out that this adds all kinds of levels of anxiety to the process.
Social media scholar Danah Boyd's new book, It's Complicated, offers some wonderful insights on how teens use Facebook and what it means in their lives. "On a site like Facebook, it is far easier to share with all friends than to manipulate the privacy settings to limit the visibility of a particular piece of content to a narrower audience," she writes. "As a result, many participants make a different calculation than the one they would make in an unmediated situation." And as far as posting college admissions status, for many high school seniors this is content to share broadly. But doing so can also cause a number of different anxieties.
Stressor #1: Timing
Because colleges release their admission decisions at different times and Facebook is such an instantaneous form of communication, there's a discontinuity with when kids in any given high school cohort will post their college status. Those students who applied Early Decision and got in posted in December; this was stressful for their peers who applied ED and were not successful as well as for their peers who were still struggling to finish their applications to meet end of December/beginning of January deadlines. Every day in this spring admissions season some students hear (often on their phones during the school day and post immediately) and some students don't, which adds tension to an already tense time.
Stressor #2: Comparisons
Even though some recent analyses show that in the past few years the percentage of teens using Facebook has declined, it is still fairly ubiquitous, with millions of users. So for high school seniors, this means that an awful lot of their peers post their college admission status, even if a particular student does not. For the students who do not get into a particular college, it can be very painful to see other students they know who do, proclaiming their own admission to that college on Facebook.
Stressor #3: Parents
Because the highest percentage of Facebook users is now actually the age cohort of high school seniors' parents, this means that kids aren't the only ones scouring the results of college admissions lotteries evidenced by Facebook college status posts. When a parent asks a kid about his or her friend who just got into XYZ College, this can be super stressful.
There's an evolving etiquette about what students should and shouldn't do with regard to posting their college admission status on Facebook. For example, on the online magazine Her Campus, Tricia Taormina suggests that students should tell close friends, family and people who wrote letters of recommendation for them before posting on Facebook and should be mindful that friends might not have gotten into the same school and consider telling them before posting. Conversely, she recommends students not post until they are sure which school they'll attend and then not be boastful in the ways they post.
College Confidential, the go-to online source for many college-bound high schoolers, has hosted online conversations about whether or not it's ok to post college acceptances on Facebook. The consensus seems to be it's ok to post one or two, not every school to which you're accepted. And some ways of posting are more cool than others. To say, "Joined the ABC College Class of 2018 Facebook group" is okay; to say "Just got into ABC College and couldn't be more psyched!" is not.
Colleges, of course, understand that Facebook plays central roles in the lives of their key constituents. Most of them make Facebook groups for their newly admitted class. According to a survey conducted a few years ago by Varsity Outreach, in a sample of over 200 colleges, close to 90 percent were creating some kind of Facebook presence for their prospective freshmen. Some create Facebook pages, others Facebook groups for their newly admitted classes. It's clear that what colleges are trying to do is use Facebook to help them to get students to commit to a school, to begin to build "brand loyalty" to it, and to create community.
At Tufts, for example, Associate Director of Admissions Benjamin Baum says:
Facebook has been a great platform for admitted students to talk with each other (this is often how they find roommates, for instance), ask questions of each other as well as current Tufts students and admissions officers (we monitor the questions so they are answered), and get excited about the prospect of attending Tufts.
Advice about communicating on these college-sponsored Facebook groups on The Prospect.net,a website that describes itself as "part culture/lifestyle mag and part resourceful college admissions/college life website (but all parts awesome,)" ranges from urging prospective freshman to engage in conversations that interest them and to proofread any remarks before posting them, to entreaties not to comment on every thread posted and absolutely, never, ever, to "friend request every single freaking kid in the group."
Students can learn things they don't like about potential classmates from these Facebook groups for admitted students, too. One of my son's classmates reported that he was totally turned off of a school to which he'd been admitted because of the ways students posting on the class of 2018 Facebook group were describing themselves. His perception was that the majority of people either wrote things like they "liked drinking coffee and watching Netflix," or they self-described as people who "loved to party all night."
Conversely, these Facebook groups can convince a student that she or he really does belong at a particular school. Seeing posts from potential classmates who come from a variety of geographic locations can be exciting. Reading posts from prospective classmates who cleverly talk about unusual interests can make students feel great about joining a cohort that they perceive of as "special" in some way. Seeing Instagram photos of potential new friends decked out in a college's colors or wearing branded sweatshirts of their new alma mater can instantly begin to build loyalty and community.
My own son, third of four children to go through this process, has been a bit circumspect about posting his admissions status on Facebook. But he certainly has been glad to be at the point, finally, where he can.