The newly admitted Johns Hopkins freshman discovered that he was the only member of this year's class from Arkansas. So he joined the university's Facebook site for recently enrolled students, where he mentioned often that he loves sweet tea. By the time he reached campus in late August, he had a first-night sipping date with three fellow tea lovers.
For admissions counselor Daniel Creasy, that story sums up how social media have changed the way colleges recruit, enroll and orient new students.
"Before they ever get to campus they can put their shoes into what it feels like to be a Hopkins student," said Creasy, who steers the university's use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media in admissions. "I hear from people all over campus that with every progressive year, the newest class is the most together and connected group that has ever showed up. They've already known each other for months."
Facebook and other social media sites have invaded college admissions in a big way. But the great rush to use social media also raises questions about privacy and appropriate relations between administrators and students. Desperate applicants might attempt to improve their admissions chances by "friending" counselors. Conversely, counselors might use social media profiles to search for red flags on certain candidates or to assemble information for targeted recruiting pitches. In 2008, a company created false Facebook sites for many universities in hopes of grabbing personal information for marketing purposes.
Though counselors agree that such uses aren't the norm, they don't always agree on what is appropriate and what isn't.
Admissions counselors see Facebook as a means to get information to prospective students but say it's more powerful than a virtual brochure. By attracting applicants and admitted students to fan pages, colleges hope to give them an early push toward building communities. The logic is that if students make friends with fellow prospective students and get a sense of life on campus, they're more likely to enroll when the time comes.
For a college trying to improve its image and woo top students from more established competitors, one-to-one contact over Facebook might be a smart risk. For a selective and long-established university such as Johns Hopkins, those contacts are more trouble than they're worth.
Creasy said he receives personal friend requests from applicants but does not accept and instead nudges them to join the university's fan page for prospective students. "My role is not to create a relationship at that stage," he said. "There are definitely students trying to game the system, but I think it's a small minority. Most of them are doing it as a way to get as much information as possible."
Type in the name of a university on Facebook, and dozens of pages - some official, some not - will pop up. Most Maryland colleges maintain some presence on Facebook and Twitter. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is about to unveil a new social networking site for students that will incorporate their Facebook or MySpace profiles. At Stevenson University, Wild Stang, the school mascot, has its own Facebook page and serves as chief dispenser of information for prospective students.
In a survey of 401 colleges released recently by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, 71 percent of admissions officers said they or a colleague had received friend requests from students on MySpace or Facebook. More than 30 percent of colleges said they have or are developing policies on the use of social media in admissions.
Jessica Kraus, a junior public health major at Hopkins, said some of her peers have sent friend requests to admissions counselors, but she thinks it's a bad idea.
"I think this is crossing a barrier in college admissions that shouldn't be crossed. The admissions process should remain one that stays 'official,' not necessarily secretive, but definitely one that should be based on official documents and personal statements, rather than based on Facebook profiles," she said.
In a survey of students by Noel-Levitz, a Colorado-based higher education consultant, 70 percent said colleges should create some presence on social media sites and about 50 percent said they were comfortable with admissions representatives' contacting them through social media.
Hopkins does its best social media work between the time students are admitted and the time they arrive on campus, Creasy said. That's when Hopkins builds a new community through its restricted Facebook page and through other media such as blogs from current students. If the university does its job, top students will feel comfortable choosing Hopkins over other schools like Cornell or Brown.
Social media experts equate the process to reading online customer reviews of a new camera. They say it's simply the way young consumers are used to shopping.
"They're scrutinizers," said Mark Greenfield, director of Web services at the University of Buffalo and a popular speaker on the subject. "And they trust the network, what their social connections have to say, more than any institution."
Facebook provides a sense of comfort, students agreed.
"It is a great starting point for the students looking to find out more, and for others it's just a fun way to learn more about their future classmates and university," said Mandy Stein, a Hopkins junior who helps run the university's Facebook site for admitted students. "As one of the current students who answers their questions, I've enjoyed getting a little preview of the incoming classes and remembering when I was in their shoes, entirely confused about everything college-related. It's great to help calm those worries and get them excited about their school."
Stein said she hasn't encountered privacy concerns from students.
That's hardly surprising, said Brad Ward of BlueFuego, an Indiana-based Web consultant that works with colleges. Ward encourages admissions counselors to be informal.
"You can certainly take your tie off when you're talking on Facebook," he said. "I've never seen a student say, 'Can you be more professional with me on Facebook?' "
When Ward worked as a counselor for Butler University, he sent messages to individual recruits, wishing them luck on that night's game or inviting them to on-campus events if they lived nearby.
"You will find kids who feel like you've entered into their space," he said of privacy concerns. "But then there might be nine other kids who want that kind of interaction. Right now, I err on the side of serving those nine kids rather than the one."
Counselors who worry about sharing private information can create professional-only profiles or adjust safety settings so students can't see personal materials, he said.
Colleges are still experimenting with social media, so data on their effectiveness remain scarce. Many admissions officers are simply trying to keep up, but some say they've already seen tangible benefits.
David Burge, associate dean of admissions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert in using social media, said 91 percent of admitted students who create a profile on his campus' private network end up enrolling.
Creasy noted that 1,220 of the 1,350 members of Hopkins' freshman class joined the university's Facebook page. Though it might be a coincidence, admitted students from the class enrolled at a significantly higher rate than predicted by the university's statistical models.
College officials have to accept that once they establish a Facebook destination for students, they forfeit control of what's said in the space. Students are as apt to trade dirt on poorly managed programs or boring social scenes as they are to promote a college's virtues.
"It's a double-edged sword, because you can't control the messaging," said Bob Herr, an admissions officer at Stevenson.
But admissions counselors seem to agree that Facebook is such a relentless force that they might as well create the places for students to gather.
"It's all about stimulating a conversation," Burge said. "If you can harness authentic talk about the positives and the negatives of your brand, then you'll be successful. If people say bad things, well, at least they're interested."
Facebook has become so prevalent in admissions that a San Francisco company called Inigral has created an application, Schools on Facebook, that sells for $50,000 to $100,000. The application helps colleges to create central Facebook sites where students can post pictures, track on-campus activities and ask questions. It even culls through class schedules, living arrangements and club memberships to offer each student a list of potential friends.
"Facebook is the place to get an authentic representation of what college is all about," said Inigral President Mark Triest. "I think this generation of students lives life on Facebook. For them, it's simply a natural way to seek an authentic sense of the college experience."
Forget awkward get-to-know-you mixers on freshmen residence halls. If the software takes off, students could forge friendships with dozens of like-minded peers before ever setting foot on campus.
If that sounds eerily inhuman, you probably don't have a grasp on the elaborate social lives teenagers maintain without meeting face-to-face.
"They're on Facebook to develop a sense of belonging and community," Triest said. "They're just out there saying, 'Who's like me?' "
The one thing counselors seem certain about is that we'll all take social media for granted in the near future.
"I can see a world in four or five years where a Twitter account is a basic promotional tool for applying students," Creasy said. "I fear that world a bit, but really, who knows what's going to happen in five years?"