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USACollegeChat Podcast

Dec 9, 2016

Today’s episode takes us into the world of technology, so that means I’m already in trouble, but fortunately not Marie. We want to highlight four ways colleges find out things about applicants, now that we live in a world of super-connectedness--which can be good and can be not so good.

1. Email Address

So, let’s start with the most obvious: an applicant’s email address. Virtually all kids have email addresses these days; indeed, kids are called on to provide them as part of the Common App—under Profile, then under Contact Details. So, tell your teenager that colleges will see his or her email address.

We know that college counselors have certainly talked to kids about this for quite some time, but it never fails that some kid still has an email address that sounds unprofessional, silly, or even offensive. Let me tell you a story about that--one that I have never forgotten, although it happened several years ago when I had the pleasure of hearing a very forthcoming college president speak frankly about this very topic to our juniors at the high school we co-founded.

He recounted a story about how he personally had offered a kid a great scholarship to come to his college and then had to send him a follow-up email. The president of the college saw the young man’s email address--which included language that, though sadly popular among many teens, is considered by many to be a racial slur. The president immediately withdrew the scholarship. He said to the young man that his college was not looking for students who were comfortable using that sort of language to identify themselves or anyone else. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way!

So, parents, look at your teenager’s email address. Double check that it is something straightforward, like his or her name Make sure it is not too cute, funny, personal, weird, or offensive to anyone of any religion, race, ethnic group, nationality, or gender. No one wants to lose a scholarship because of an email address.

And, by the way, make sure that your teenager actually checks his or her email every day from now through next April. We cannot tell you the number of high school kids we know who have gotten emails from various colleges about important matters and who didn’t see them in a timely manner. This totally irresponsible behavior will be even worse if your teenager makes up a new email address for college applications and really uses another one for all of his or her personal business. 

2. Facebook

Let’s turn to Facebook, something else that college counselors have undoubtedly been talking to kids about for some time as well. What we are sure they have said couldn’t be more obvious, at least to an adult. Simply put: Tell your teenager not to put stuff on Facebook that he or she does not want every adult he or she knows to see.

Personally, I have not done the whole Facebook thing for very long, so I had no idea what my own kids posted. But, when my daughter was a teenager, I was comforted by the fact that the associate minister at our church followed Polly on Facebook. I figured that Polly would think twice before posting something that a minister would see.

Today, Marie and I are Facebook friends with a number of the high school students who attended the high school we co-founded. Sometimes, I love what they have posted; other times, I wince. But, to be fair, that is also my reaction to a lot of what my adult friends post.

Just say this to your teenager: Until you receive acceptances or rejections from all of the colleges you are applying to, be especially careful what you post on Facebook. Imagine that every college admissions officer might see what you are posting. For example, don’t post photos of you at parties in various stages of revelry. And, to be safe, use the most restrictive privacy setting so that only your “friends” can see what you post. It just makes sense.

3. ZeeMee

Let’s turn to ZeeMee. If you have been looking at the Common App supplements for various colleges, you might have seen a question like this:

Binghamton University has partnered with ZeeMee, a free service that allows students to showcase themselves using an online profile page. To submit your profile to Binghamton University, paste your ZeeMee link here.

If you don’t know what we are talking about, you should go read about it on ZeeMee’s website. What you will see first is this language: “Get seen. Get connected. THE app for your college journey. Use images and videos to show your story. Colleges see the real you. Sign up. It’s free.” There is also a short video that is quite informative. And, by the way, the ZeeMee story also allows for text to be included.

According to the website, over 200 colleges already ask applicants for a ZeeMee link. While not required, at least by the colleges I have seen, one has to wonder whether not having a ZeeMee link will eventually be something that hurts an applicant’s chances of getting accepted. Maybe it already does, even if only subconsciously on the part of a college admissions officer, who probably enjoys seeing what an applicant looks like and now has a mental image that must make that applicant more real than just an online or printed application. You can watch a video on the ZeeMee website of college admissions officers saying just this sort of thing.

Wisely, ZeeMee has presentations and lessons for high school counselors to use to help kids get their ZeeMee stories ready for prime time. We imagine that the occasional English teacher might also be able to get some mileage out of these resources.

So, how do we feel about ZeeMee? We aren’t sure, to tell you the truth. It seems clear that a good ZeeMee story could be effective in making an applicant’s case to a college. It seems unclear, at this point, whether a ZeeMee story could be the deciding factor in an admissions decision.

We worry a bit that some kids will be able to get a lot more help than others in putting together a ZeeMee story--just as some kids will be able to get a lot more help than others in writing their application essays or studying for the college admissions tests. That could be because some kids can afford to buy more help or because some kids go to high schools that are better equipped to provide more help. It’s great that ZeeMee itself is free for kids, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily level the playing field for high school students.

So, should your kid have a ZeeMee link to his or her personal story in images and video and text? Probably so. Hopefully, this will be one good use of technology and one that doesn’t discriminate unfairly among its users.

4. LinkedIn

Finally, let’s look at LinkedIn, where many of you parents probably have your own profile. Just as with Facebook, Marie and I are connected to many of our former students on LinkedIn. I am happy to say that they seem quite mature in their LinkedIn posts. But they are college students, not high school students.

Natasha Singer, in an excellent article in The New York Times about a month ago, wrote about a LinkedIn profile as “the new item on the college admission checklist.” Ms. Singer wrote this:

Public schools from San Francisco to New York City are teaching online conduct skills as part of a nationwide digital citizenship push to prepare students for colleges and careers. Teenagers who set up LinkedIn profiles in the hope of enhancing their college prospects represent the vanguard of this trend.

But the phenomenon of ambitious high school students on LinkedIn also demonstrates how social networks are playing a role in the escalation of the college admissions arms race. For students in high-pressure schools who already start packaging themselves for college in ninth grade, LinkedIn could add yet another burden to what might be called the careerization of childhood. (quoted from the article)

We hear you, people who are concerned. “The escalation of the college admissions arms race”--we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It’s a bit like the way we feel about ZeeMee--maybe worse. Ms. Singer continues on that topic:

Professionalized teenage résumés could also further intensify disparities in college applications.

"Kids from privileged families tend to do more … both offline and online--joining school clubs, writing for their school newspaper, getting tutoring so their grades go up, doing SAT preparation," says Vicky Rideout, a researcher who studies how teenagers use technology. Using LinkedIn on college applications, she says, "is yet another way for there to be a disparity between the haves and the have-nots." (quoted from the article)

Honestly, we did not want one more way to “unlevel” the playing field, and we are hoping that colleges give some thought to that, though we are doubtful that they will.

And here is something else Ms. Singer addresses in the article, and this takes us back to our earlier Facebook comments:

For high school students, LinkedIn is partly a defense mechanism against college admissions officers who snoop on applicants’ public Facebook and Twitter activities--without disclosing how that may affect an applicant’s chance of acceptance.

A recent study from Kaplan Test Prep of about 400 college admissions officers reported that 40 percent said they had visited applicants’ social media pages, a fourfold increase since 2008.

Officials at Vassar College and other institutions that deliberately do not search out applicants’ social media profiles suggested that colleges disclose their admissions practices.

"We prefer to evaluate a candidate based on the items that candidate has prepared and submitted to us,’ said Art D. Rodriguez, Vassar’s dean of admission and financial aid. He added, ‘While we understand that some colleges and universities do look into candidates’ online profiles, we believe those schools should be transparent about the procedure and alert applicants to it." (quoted from the article)

We would like to say, “Good for you, Mr. Rodriguez and Vassar College.” 

And here’s some information about LinkedIn and high school students that I didn’t know:

To attract high school students, LinkedIn in 2013 dropped its minimum age requirement for members in the United States to 14 from 18. Since then, the site has had a significant increase in high school users, said Suzi Owens, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. The company declined to specify how many high school students used the network.

Although LinkedIn has default privacy settings for users under 18--like automatically displaying only their first names and last initials, rather than their full names--students can change the settings. (quoted from the article)

So, I know that technology is great and that it can solve many problems. But I am wondering whether there was a problem here that needed to be solved. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine what high school students would have to say in a LinkedIn profile--though I guess it is the same stuff they would put on a résumé, if they were looking for an internship or a part-time job. And we have certainly done our fair share of editing résumés for high school kids looking for internships.

For me, the jury is still out on whether a LinkedIn profile needs to be “the new item on the college admission checklist.” But, parents, if your kid has one, you better believe that we think you should check it out.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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