Full of nervous anticipation, nearly 30,000 high school students sat down in front of their computers this year to submit applications to Yale’s class of 2017.
A decade ago, students wrote out college applications by hand and mailed them around the country — but in today’s world, the admissions process has become almost fully digitized, and student engagement with technology is at an all-time high. Aware that some high school students may interact exclusively online with universities during their college searches, Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions expanded onto various social media platforms last year and has maintained a strong online presence ever since.
“It’s really uncharted territory,” said Mark Dunn ’07, director of outreach and recruitment for the Admissions Office. “Social media is new for all who have been involved. There’s continual overhaul and change.”
The Admissions Office currently runs its own Facebook page, Twitter account and Tumblr blog in addition to its official Yale website, offering formal admissions advice but also posting quirky insights into life at Yale. Compared to admissions offices at peer institutions such as Harvard and Princeton who do not have other outlets outside of their official university websites, the level of contact between the Yale Admissions Office and prospective students is unusually high.
“I think the online presence of a school definitely reflects what kind of school it is,” said M.J. Engel, a high school senior at Phillips Academy Andover who applied to Yale this year. “And really, just the fact that Yale was willing to venture into the social media outlets said a lot about it — that it was adaptable to change and adaptable to new technology.”
With the Admissions Office’s recent push toward social media, Yale has overtaken its peers in reaching out to prospective students via the Internet. But as front-runners in a still-new field, admissions officers are still looking into the best way to increase potential student interest and connect with their intended audience.
UNIQUE AMONG PEERS
For an office already looking to broaden its outreach in every possible way, an initial expansion into social media was a logical next step. In 2010, the Admissions Office completely overhauled its website, reconfiguring its design and content for the first time in roughly a decade. Last year, with the launch of the Twitter and Tumblr — in addition to increased engagement with the Undergraduate Admissions Facebook page — the office moved to the forefront of all other Ivy League admissions offices in terms of online engagement.
“We definitely have a more aggressive stance toward social media,” said Bowen Posner, senior assistant director of admissions.
The Admissions Office’s Tumblr, which debuted over the summer, greets prospective students with bright snippets of campus life using images such as a dressed-up bulldog and Y-shaped pumpkin carving. Updated several times a week, the Tumblr has 140 posts so far that include images of campus, videos of student activities, memes and quotes from students.
The idea for a Tumblr blog came out of a University-wide push toward social media integration that began last year, led by Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications. Dunn said admissions staff members generated outlets to reach a potential audience of thousands of high school students on a variety of social platforms. Since then, he added, the office has been “thrilled with the results.”
“Yale has a vibe that is welcoming and open-ended — we hope the vibe online is consistent with the sort of place Yale is,” said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel, adding that he views the office’s social media presence as “tapping into the creativity” of the student body and the University.
The generation of content within the social media sites is a task that falls to staff and students who work at the Admissions Office, Posner said. Though it is uncommon for universities to allow students so much control in admissions-related material, Posner and Dunn said the student staff members contribute a great amount of “creative energy and willingness to experiment.”
The majority of admissions offices at other Ivy League schools do not have a social media presence beyond a Facebook page. Princeton and Harvard, in particular, have no Facebook pages specifically designated for their admissions offices.
Katherine Santos-Coy, senior assistant director for communications and media at the Dartmouth Admissions Office, said in an email to the News that her office is interested in branching out its social media as a way to remain accessible to high school students. The Dartmouth Admissions Office does not have a Tumblr, but it has a Twitter account that is updated every few days as well as a Facebook page.
“We know that many of the students who are interested in Dartmouth can’t afford a visit, and if we give them a taste of the Dartmouth experience over the Internet, it’s a win-win,” Santos-Coy said. She added that Dartmouth does not benchmark its social media presence against other admissions offices at peer institutions.
Admissions offices at the six other Ivy League universities could not be reached for comment.
Chuck Hughes, president of college admissions consulting service Road to College and a former admissions officer at Harvard, called the Yale Admissions Office’s move toward social media a “smart business play.”
Eric Hoover, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, said he has seen conflicting opinions from various admissions officers at different schools nationwide on the topic of social media outreach.
“A lot of schools are hesitant, and others are kind of wading into it and trying to figure out ‘what’s the best use of our time,’” Hoover said. “I think the challenge is [using social media] in a way that feels genuine and not forced, just like any other form of marketing.”
BROADENING LINES OF COMMUNICATION
Past the colorful pictures and catchy videos, admissions officers say that having a presence on social media sites is ultimately about dispersing information.
Andover applicant Greg Wang said he enjoyed browsing the Admissions Office’s Facebook updates during the application process, especially for comments from other excited applicants and alumni.
“I found it interesting how much information was out there,” he said. But ultimately, he said, his first and foremost sources for college information were the official university websites.
Though the Admissions Office’s website remains the “primary source of information and point of contact” for its audience, Dunn said, social media has become a way to connect users in a quicker and oftentimes simpler way. Because students are “sophisticated communicators,” Brenzel said, the office aims to provide as much first-person access on as many platforms as possible.
“We see the social media piece as a bridge piece,” Dunn said. “It directs people toward some of the important [website] content, and also adds a dynamic, up-to-the-minute news piece. When something exciting happens, we can roll it out on social media really quickly.”
In a world where online college forums such as College Confidential “have a lot of power” in student communities, Hoover said, colleges feel like they “may as well join the conversation” and “have two feet in that world.”
Still, there are potential drawbacks. Since the takeoff of social media platforms is still relatively new, few institutions have formally discussed its place in the admissions world.
Because of the rapid turnover of content, Posner said, the Admissions Office sometimes finds it difficult to “[create] the content and [keep] the energy behind the creative process going.” Santos-Coy said a potential drawback is that the admissions offices “don’t always have control of the conversation.”
Garrett Brinker, director of undergraduate outreach and senior assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago — a school whose admissions office has experimented with various platforms such as Pinterest and live webcasts on Google Plus — said that since high school applicants spend a lot of their time on social media sites, reaching out on those platforms can really be beneficial.
“What we’re trying to do with social media is take down that wall between us and prospective students, and give them an opportunity to interact with us on a genuine basis,” Brinker said.
The Admissions Office plans to continually grow its online presence by adapting to changing trends in social media, Dunn said.
“What Yale is doing now might be different from what we’re doing in six months,” he said. “The same may be true of our peers as well.”