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Published in Print: December 19, 2007, as Online Profiles a Factor in College Admissions

Online Profiles a Factor in College Admissions

Applicants use new Web tools to sell themselves, as some colleges scan students' social networks.

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As this year’s college-application season ratchets up to a fever pitch, more and more student applications are being supplemented by information from their online profiles—whether they know it or not.

According to a preview of unpublished research on the online activities of higher education institutions, a significant percentage of colleges and universities sometimes dig into would-be undergraduates’ social-networking profiles.

At the same time, high school students accustomed to social-networking Web sites have flocked to new online sites that let them send information about themselves to colleges in hopes of gaining an edge over fellow applicants.

“It’s only natural, given today’s students’ comfort with sharing personal information on a Facebook or MySpace,” said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based organization of more than 900 private institutions. “Students are further motivated by the fact that college admissions has never been so competitive.”

Most of the sites—Admish.com, Cappex.com, EdSoup.com, and Zinch.com, among others—are very new, and all are geared toward high schoolers who want to maximize their college chances.

Zinch, which was co-founded by a Princeton University student and launched last March, “is one of many sites that are trying to do the same thing,” said Jeannine C. Lalonde, an assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, who also maintains an admissions blog. But, she said, “it’s the one that most students seem to prefer.”

‘This Is Who I Am’

The Provo, Utah-based Zinch has more than 250,000 student members in the United States and abroad, according to Mick L. Hagen, the site’s president and co-founder, who’s taken a leave of absence from Princeton to manage the fast-growing business.

He charges colleges fees, on a sliding scale, to sign up for the service. About 400 colleges so far have done so, agreeing to review the profiles that are sent to them and respond to their authors.

Students, who sign on to the site for free, create password-protected online profiles for themselves, and can upload photos, detailed personal information, and multimedia files of academic, artistic, or athletic performances. They then specify which colleges or types of colleges among the 400 institutions they would like to receive their profiles. Colleges can then access and search among the profiles.

“It allows the high school student to basically knock on the colleges’ door and say, ‘This is who I am,’ ” said the 23-year-old Mr. Hagen, whose own college-admissions experience inspired the site.

“I was ambitious but kind of academically average—I didn’t have an amazing SAT score,” Mr. Hagen said. “Yet I knew I had some talents, and there was no way for colleges to discover who I was.”

Getting Personal

New Web sites let high school students send college admissions offices profiles, some of which smack of those on social networks like Facebook.

So he assembled a paper booklet—with a photo of himself superimposed on a picture of the Princeton campus—detailing his family life and his accomplishments, hobbies, and abilities, and he sent it to the university. And got in.

Still, Mr. Hagen concedes that he has no idea whether the package made any difference in his admission, and his site makes no promises to students that their chances will be any better just because they have a Zinch profile.

“At the end of the day, the student is still going to have to apply through the regular application process,” he noted.

But the University of Virginia’s Ms. Lalonde worries that Zinch’s emphasis on personal details—there are optional blanks for religion, sexual orientation, and favorite movies, for example—“might be giving kids the false sense that ‘my résumé can get me in,’ whereas your academics are what’s going to get you get you in.”

She also questioned admissions officers’ need for Zinch and its competitors, given the popularity of the 35-year-old Student Search Service, a relatively simple search engine owned by the New York City-based College Board. More than 1,400 colleges and universities used the service last year to search through the academic information of more than 6 million college-bound high school students.

And given the record-high level of student applicants this year, there’s the additional question of whether a central Zinch feature—the ability of colleges to fine-tune their recruiting to include such minutiae as whether a student plays a certain instrument—will pay off in the foreseeable future.

“[Zinch] is an interesting change in the admissions process,” said Daniel Creasy, an admissions officer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But, he added, “I don’t see us jumping on. We have enough students interested in Hopkins coming through the normal channels.”

Googling Students

For all the benefits students see in posting their personal information online, preliminary results of a study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in North Dartmouth, Mass., suggest that information can cut both ways.

Nora G. Barnes, the director of the campus’s Center for Marketing Research, reports in her paper, “The Game Has Changed: College Admissions Outpace Corporations in Embracing Social Media,” Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader that more than 20 percent of colleges and universities sometimes review students’ social-networking profiles, and that more than a quarter sometimes look for information on students via search engines.

“No college is Googling the name of every student who’s coming through the door, but almost all schools have a limited number of [student] slots and a limited amount of scholarship money, and like any brand, they have to protect their name,” said Ms. Barnes, whose study covered more than 450 admissions departments of public and private colleges of all sizes in 49 states.

“Nobody wants to give a very prestigious scholarship to some [student] who’s going to show up in the newspaper the next day with pictures of [the student] standing on a beer keg.”

Johns Hopkins University’s Mr. Creasy isn’t so sure about the idea. “I have heard of people at other schools doing it, though I kind of say, ‘Where do you find the time?’ ” he said.

Students shouldn’t be surprised that colleges might be looking in on what many teens regard as their own domain, said Kathryn L. Hamilton, an 18-year-old freshman at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W. Va.

Ms. Hamilton, who maintains a Facebook site, said she and her classmates in high school were all given fair warning by admissions counselors that colleges were picking up on the social-networking phenomenon.

“If [students] are going to put something online, it’s available to everyone,” Ms. Hamilton said. If you post something improper, she added, “it’s your own fault.”

Vol. 27, Issue 16, Pages 6-7

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