Social Media Amps Up College Decision Pressures

An illustration of a hand holding a cell phone with an email notification that reads "Your Application: Click here to learn your fate ..."
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
An illustration of a hand holding a cell phone with an email notification that reads "Your Application: Click here to learn your fate ..."
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Social Media Amps Up College Decision Pressures

Nick Joy has a routine when he opens his email these days.

“I close my eyes and then I open my eyes, just in case there’s like an email from a college,” the senior at The Chicago High School for the Arts told his classmates on a recent afternoon. “I’m like ‘Oh my God! Is this it?’”

A group of seniors are sitting in a circle, checking in with each other about college at the request of their teacher, Sophie Goalson. When she notices students are especially stressed, she creates space for them to share their thoughts and feelings about the college application process.  

At this point, all of them have applied to college, a process where they put themselves on the line with heartfelt personal essays and hard-earned grades. Now, they’re starting to hear back from schools — and students say it’s creating a lot of anxiety and self-doubt.

“There is [this] whole pressure of, ‘You need to have everything figured out right now,’ and if you don’t, well, you’re not going to succeed,” senior Stephanie Galicia said.

This pressure isn’t new, of course. But today’s students and parents are dealing with new and modern challenges, as was made clear by the recent college admissions scandal where wealthy parents allegedly bribed and cheated to get their children into top schools.

But for many students, from those looking at top universities to those considering community college, social media and technology have fundamentally changed the way students hear from schools and share news with friends. It’s a new arena to navigate as they make this big life choice.

“Everything is on Instagram,” Joy said. “I scroll through my feed and I see people posting pictures and screenshots of acceptances. It’s overwhelming.”

No more big envelopes

Today, schools mostly send college decision letters via email. Joy even got word he was accepted to a school via text message. This means decisions land in student’s inboxes at all hours, including during the school day or when they’re out with their friends.

Whitney Young senior Joe Radinsky was standing on an L train platform when he found out his early application to the University of Chicago wasn’t accepted. He’d been waiting the whole day for that email and it was a blow to his ego.

“I sort of deflated, and for the next two days I was like ‘what did I do wrong?’” Radinsky said, who is still waiting for final word from the University of Chicago. “What about me isn’t enough?”

Some students have made plans in case of this possibility. His classmate, Audrey Howaniec tries to avoid opening these emails in public.

“I like to wait until I get home so I'm not around all my peers,” she said. She even makes sure her parents aren’t around. “I’ll open it by myself, actually.”

Howaniec remembers when the University of Michigan decisions arrived during seventh period. Everyone was opening their emails at once — except her.

Her classmate, Keith Calloway, didn’t even get an email notifying him when Yale released their decisions. The school sent out a Tweet instead. He tried to hold off until he got home, but couldn’t wait. He logged on to the school’s online portal while sitting in the back of his classroom and found out he was accepted. He left class to call his family.

But news travels fast.

“As I was walking out, I saw my friends and some of them overheard me on the phone,” Holloway said. “By the time I hung up the phone they had already sent it to other people that I’d gotten into Yale.”

People started congratulating him before he could share the news.

Sharing and oversharing on social media

With the help of social media, students share news on platforms like Instagram and SnapChat as it happens, including college decisions.

Radinsky said it took some time for him to adjust to all the college news on his social media channels. It was hard not to take the updates personally.

“When I see other people posting other people’s acceptances I had a gut reaction, and I'm not super proud to say this, of like, ‘Yikes, what did I do wrong?’” he said.

Some students will post things like “10 out of 10” to show they got into all the colleges they applied to. Others only share their acceptances on private SnapChat channels or “finstas,” which stands for fake Instagram or a second more private Instagram account only to be shared with close friends.

Radinsky found out some of his friends were also not immediately accepted to the University of Chicago after they shared it privately. It made him feel a little better knowing friends going through the same thing. Now when he sees people post college news on social media, he has a different reaction.

“I’ve been able to grow from my first, ‘What is this?!’ reaction to ‘Yes, good for you, that’s amazing,’” he said.

Researchers who study social media and teens said it’s important to remember not all students are affected by seeing news like this on social media in the same way. But adults should do more listening to figure out how to support individual students effectively.

And kids should take more time to process the news before logging online and sharing.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.