When I was applying to college, the common practice was to hide your Facebook profile from colleges and employers. You’d simply replace your last name with your middle name (or a fake name) making it difficult for them to find you.
I was part of the last generation of college applicants, it seems, to receive wisdom about social media and college applications that sounded something like:
“Be careful what you post… be careful who can see it… in general, be wary.”
This was 2012, and a year later, LinkedIn lowered its minimum age from 18 to 14, allowing high school students onto its virtual professional networking platform. This change is part of a recent trend in college admissions. High school students are being encouraged to use social media savvy to their advantage, rather than hiding or covering their online presence.
Highlighting “the Other Stuff”
Since LinkedIn opened up the gates to under-18’s, college advice blogs and publications have marketed to teens and parents alike. They’ve begun making the case for prospective college students to create LinkedIn profiles to present themselves to colleges admissions committees in a positive light. Forbes (presciently) noted in 2013 that LinkedIn can be used to show that a candidate is “serious.” They advocate its use in highlighting additional achievements and experience that don’t fit on a college application itself.
Just last year, Teen Vogue told its readers that since the Common App doesn’t include a resume section, and most college students will have to get a LinkedIn sooner or later, setting up a profile in high school just makes sense. LinkedIn itself has taken to publishing college advice on its blog, and even a guide for LinkedIn use, specifically geared towards high-schoolers applying to college.
The Rise of Social Media Education
In 2016, the New York Times reported on this trend, and in particular on an accompanying business trend – the social media-focused advising service for college applicants. Alan Katzman founded Social Assurity, a company that provides digital education and helps college applicants build a positive social media presence, in 2013.
Part of their pitch is that college admissions officers are, more and more, looking at the online profiles of applicants – 35% according to a recent Kaplan study, and nearly 100% if the applicant directly invites admissions committees to view their pages, by providing links in their applications. Social Assurity recommends that students maintain a “healthy mix” of sites including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn to showcase different aspects of their personality and accomplishments.
Digital Citizenship, Careerization, and College Admissions
The reason these sites give for signing up for LinkedIn in high school? In essence, PR – the idea that “if you don’t tell the story, someone else will.” Rather than hiding content, minimizing digital findability, as previous generations of high schoolers were told to do, this view says you should take control of your own narrative, an act of maturity and judgement which, even by itself, is attractive to colleges.
This shift in attitudes toward social media comes at a time when admissions committees are seeking alternatives to traditional measures, like standardized tests and grades, to evaluate applicants, and attributes like integrity and citizenship matter more than ever. According to Social Assurity, “digital” citizenship is a key component of this mix. Admissionado founder Jon Frank has even written that the old strategy, making it as hard as possible to find any trace of you on the Internet, may signal more apathy than prudence to admissions committees, because, “anybody can just not try at all.”
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Along with growing media attention on this trend, there has been some debate about what kinds of larger social shifts it signals or encourages. Some point out the advantages of having a LinkedIn in the college application process may disproportionately flow to children from wealthy families. They argue that these students are more likely to have a LinkedIn-worthy arsenal of achievements and accolades, as well as be able to afford a this kind of service, than children from less privileged backgrounds.
The same New York Times article refers to this trend as a new development in the “college admissions arms race,” contributing to the “careerization of childhood.” Common Sense Media, a non-profit which reviews social media websites for parents, expresses its skepticism towards LinkedIn for high schoolers with the idea that sometimes “a kid should just…be a kid.”
But, given all these observations, if you are a high schooler applying to college, the question remains, should you have a LinkedIn? If you do, most sources offer similar advice on how to make the most of it – highlight your accomplishments, showcase your passions, and for the love of God, don’t post anything racist. So the choice is really only whether or not to participate.
The Positives of Using LinkedIn in High School
- More ways to make yourself known to the admissions committee in a process where boiling down your essence to a list of activities in a few pages of writing seems impossible.
- Increased flexibility in how you present yourself – if you suck at writing essays, but love taking pictures for you Insta, for instance.
- The chance to proactively “tell your own story” rather than fearing that your social media profiles are “telling it for you.”
The Negatives of Using LinkedIn in High School
- Potentially, feeling overwhelmed at the seemingly endless proliferation of new “requirements” for college applicants.
- Feeling commodified and disingenuous by the increasing “careerization” of childhood.
The simple answer – yes, you should get on LinkedIn. In a wider sense, start considering how you want to present yourself online and in the world. The college application process can definitely feel overwhelming, but the best way to combat this is by taking action. Even small steps towards cleaning up or increasing your online presence help.
So what’s the best way to combat feeling disingenuous or commodified? Work toward crafting your digital presence in a way that fully reflects you – the best version of you, to be sure, but hopefully, a version you can get behind. What’s more, trends like these show that digital space is only becoming more entrenched in social and community life. If you hope to help shape how these online spaces evolve, it’s never too early to add your voice.
Engaging genuinely and thoughtfully in digital spaces does more than just showcase your accomplishments and accolades. It shows admissions committees you have the good judgement and active desire to help shape the communities you belong to.