With all of the admonishments parents, counselors, and advice websites issue to high school students to keep their online presence professional, nobody could fault applicants for assuming that MIT admissions officers will scour their Facebook profiles. Nevertheless, the assumption would be false.
According to Chris Peterson, assistant director of MIT Admissions, his office never looks at candidates’ social media accounts, and even tries to avoid Googling applicants for undergraduate admission unless there is a need to corroborate a claim or clarify an inconsistency in the electronic application.
“Social networks are sites where students craft their self-presentation for a very specific audience, and that audience is not admissions officers,” Peterson said.
It was a reaffirmation of an approach to applicants’ online profiles that was articulated in a 2006 blog post, from which MIT hasn’t budged, another decade into the social media era.
Peterson’s own background as a privacy researcher has forced him to think about this issue in depth. He explained that the only reason a candidate would prompt an Internet search would be to verify a statement, such as a claim to having started a company or made a product. It’s a faster alternative to contacting a guidance counselor or a recommender.
But could a glance at an applicant’s Facebook profile realistically decrease his or her chances of admission at a university?
According to an annual survey published by Kaplan Test Prep that polled 350 admissions officers from “the nation’s top 500 colleges and universities,” 27 percent of admissions officers used Google and 26 percent used Facebook as a part of the applicant review process in 2012. Of those who checked Facebook, 35 percent also reported that they discovered something that negatively impacted an applicant’s chances, citing wrongdoings such as plagiarism, vulgarity, and alcohol consumption documented in photos.
When Kaplan first conducted the survey in 2008, only 10 percent of admissions officers reported that they checked candidates’ social media accounts, and the percentage has since steadily increased.
Colleges have also embraced social media as a way to attract students and encourage applications. According to the same Kaplan Test Prep survey, 87 percent of colleges used Facebook to identify target audiences and recruit students in 2012.
When Facebook was two years old, former MIT Admissions spokesman Ben Jones described MIT’s approach to applicants’ web profiles in a 2006 blog post.
“Sites like Facebook are designed to be a community … not designed to be a spying tool for Big Brother,” he wrote. “To use them as the latter is, in my opinion, not terribly ethical. We at MIT love having a completely transparent admissions process. It mirrors the openness of MIT’s culture and we feel that it helps to reduce stress. … But not all schools share this view — many feel that applicants should not be privy to what goes on in admissions office.”
Peterson guessed that most colleges don’t actively “stalk” their applicants on social media simply because of the bulk of the candidate pool.
Student athlete Cailey Talbot ’19 agreed. “If admissions officers can barely skim the essays of thousands of applicants, I don’t know how they can look up students on Facebook,” she said. “The exception would be recruited athletes — they represent the school and could jeopardize the team if they aren’t maintaining a positive image, so I understand why some coaches and admissions officers may look at their social media accounts.”
While discretion is still advisable when it comes to social media — whether you’re worried about future employers or just teachers you’ve friended — applicants can rest assured that MIT won’t be looking.