We have all heard some version of the story: a college admissions officer casually looks up a promising applicant on Facebook, sees a questionable photo or status that cannot be unseen, and suddenly the applicant’s fate is in jeopardy. According to a recent survey, 35 percent of college admissions officers that searched for applicants on Facebook or Google—about 25 percent of all surveyed—found material that hurt an application. Duke officers are not prohibited from searching applicants on the Internet, but they do so rarely and do not put much stock in the information they find.
We commend Duke for not making heavy use of the Internet in unearthing information about an applicant. At first glance, Facebooking an applicant might seem helpful considering admissions officers allegedly seek the most holistic understanding of an applicant beyond mere grades and SAT scores. Social networking sites could help admissions officers access a wealth of personal information about an applicant—their passions, relationships, preferences and vices—but at the cost of fairness.
The main problem with using the Internet in the college admissions process is that it is nearly impossible to standardize such usage. Generally speaking, the college admissions process strives to be fair by giving all applicants identical materials to work with: a personal statement, a transcript, letters of recommendation and so forth. But adding the Internet to that list injects a huge amount of variability and uncertainty into the admissions process. The Internet in its many complicated forms—Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and countless online publications—means that the quality and quantity of information available to an admissions officer will fluctuate wildly based on the applicant. Before college admissions officers implemented a plan to use the Internet in their process, they would have to answer a plethora of difficult questions: Which sites will they search? How deep will their search go? How will they judge what they find? And which applicants will they choose to search in the first place?
The answer to that last question, in the interest of fairness, should be all or none. The process many college admissions officers use is already haphazard: They search some applicants and not others. Since Guttentag admits himself that Duke is already overwhelmed by the sheer number of applicants—earlier this year, Duke reduced the number of times an application must be read before it can be rejected—it is unlikely they have the capacity to use the Internet fairly and even-handedly across all applicants.
We commend the goal of college admissions to update their process to suit our current generation’s increased online and social media presence. But relevance should not undermine standardization. We suggest that the Duke supplemental application include a section where applicants can list any sites that reflect something important to them. This way, applicants have equal opportunity to share their online selves. Like any other section of the college application, this one can be groomed, polished and perfected. But this is simply a byproduct of the college-crazed world we live in. What schools should not do is try to catch applicants by surprise and, in the process, undermine the fairness and standardization of the admissions process.