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Using Social Media to be a Savvy College Shopper

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The college search process should be a deeply personal experience for prospective students and their families. Whether you are a graduating high school senior, are looking to advance an already established career, or something in between, the vast number of college options from traditional on-ground institutions to online options, guarantees that there is a best fit for everyone as these two admissions experts explain:

In my January 22, 2013 post, "The Rise of the Edu-sumer,"  I presented several tips about searching for a great higher education match based on the U.S. government’s "Tips for Being a Savvy Consumer" Social media is one aspect of those suggestions that is undervalued as a tool for finding the best possible college for you as a unique individual. A survey of more than 7,000 high school students by Zinch and Inigral, "The 2012 Social Admissions Report,"  revealed that prospective students want reviews of schools from attendees and alumni and that Facebook is the most popular site that students use to make connections with other prospective and current students. But how should you best leverage the power of social media to help you find the best possible higher education match? Here is a strategy that you can use to help make your search efficient and effective.

Let Technology Do the Research for You
It is common knowledge at this point that USNEWS and Barron’s put out annual rankings of colleges and universities, and USNEWS has recently started ranking online programs. These tools only give you part of the picture about any institution you are interested in though. Once you have done some initial research about which colleges are potential good matches for you based on geographic location, demographic profile, financial aid, costs, and degree programs (See "The Rise of the Edu-sumer" for more detail on finding a great college match), you can put the power of the Internet to work for you checking out the "official, mainstream media perceptions of the institutions you are interested in as well as the behind-the-scenes story.

  • Set up new feeds and alerts: The Internet provides countless free tools for automatically searching for relevant news and information and delivering it right to your email inbox or a browser-based news reader. My personal favorite is Google Alerts, which you can configure using simple search terms such as the name of the college you are interested in. Google will do the searching for you either daily or weekly and send the results right to your Gmail inbox. You can set your alert up to send you news, blogs, videos, discussions, or even books about your schools of interest.
  • Follow official Twitter feeds: If you are not already on Twitter, now is the perfect time to start. It is easy to set up an account. Once you do, follow the admissions office, president, media relations, athletics, and any faculty members who you can find that teach in your potential areas of interest. You can easily group Twitter feeds from the same institution into lists. Here’s how.
  • Follow informal Twitter streams: Once you have located the official Twitter channels for your target institutions, it is time to dig a little deeper and explore what students and alumni are saying about their school. Try searching relevant hashtags to get connected to what people are really talking about on campus. When you find a good tag, you can save it as a list as mentioned above so you can come back to it regularly to see what’s new.
  • Watch campus events on YouTube: As the former campus videographer for Dickinson College I can personally attest to the fact that, if a school maintains a YouTube channel, there is a good chance that you can gain some real insight into campus culture by checking it out. Subscribe to the channels of schools on your list. You’ll be able to see campus events, watch interviews with faculty, members of admissions, students, and alumni, and get an overall feel for the culture and attitude of campus.
  • Sit in on a class on iTunesU: I was also Dickinson’s iTunesU  administrator and can say that, for those interested in testing the academic waters before applying to a school, any university with an iTunesU channel provides you with an opportunity to see classes and student work that will help you imagine how you fit into the academic environment.
  • Join a Facebook page: Most institutions now have an official Facebook page that you can follow. Some even allow you to ask questions related to admissions, campus culture, or financial aid. Search for your schools and follow them or join their group if possible. You’ll get insider access. Also be sure to look for prospective student pages for each of the schools you are interested in. You’ll be able to connect with your peers and possible future classmates before you even arrive on campus.
  • Sign up for college-specific networks: College Confidential is just one example of a social media site specifically dedicated to connecting prospective college students with detailed information about the schools they are interested in. You can discuss your process with others, and get information about the admissions process, financial aid, and college life. Many are free, so they are worth checking out as you start your social media college tour.

Doing these things will help you see what the schools you are interested in are actually doing. Why they are in the news –good and bad; activities and research projects that students are doing; and to get a sense for what is really happening on campus and what the students think about their school. More importantly, they will help you gain a feel for the campus culture and academic life and begin to imagine how you would fit in.