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Students, Weblogs, And Admissions: Honest And Trustworthy?

April 17, 2007

A recent Boston Globe story on student weblogs and admissions caught my eye. Here are some excerpts:

– “She stopped showing up for most of her classes, pulled frequent all-nighters, and overslept exams. Worse, writes MIT sophomore Lulu Liu on her blog, she skipped meals, growing skinny and sick. Yet she still earned A’s and B’s.”
– “Liu writes about her college experiences in as much excruciating detail as she wishes — for $10 an hour, courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admissions office. Uncensored blogs by Liu, nine other students, and four admissions and financial aid officers are the first thing that visitors to the admissions website see.”
– “Blogging has become one of the hottest trends in college admissions. The message from student bloggers isn’t always pretty, yet college officials say the blogs are worth the risk. High school students can get unvarnished views of any colleges from Facebook, MySpace, or unsanctioned student blogs. They may be more inclined to trust a school they think is willing to show them real campus life, officials say. Plus, the technology gives colleges another tool to help applicants make the best decision, especially if they cannot afford to fly in for an overnight stay.”
– “Some of these blogs come off as cloyingly cheerful, like a college brochure in modern disguise. . . . Still, even the blogs that come off as promotional are often filled with talk of too much work, not enough sleep, and frightening weather.”
– “One-quarter of all college admissions offices offer blogs written by students or admissions personnel, according to a forthcoming study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Blogs by school officials are more common, but the undergraduate blogs appear to be catching up. Cornell, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins have undergraduates blogging for prospective students, as do smaller local schools like Olin College of Engineering, Hampshire, and Providence College. MIT, one of the pioneers of the practice, recruited its first student bloggers in 2004.”
– “Most schools choose their bloggers carefully. Some are campus tour guides, some come recommended by faculty.”
– “Several college officials said that some of their counterparts at other schools review blog entries before they are posted, yet all of those interviewed said their students post uncensored, as long as they abide by general guidelines. Most schools ask students not to swear or talk about underage drinking and drug use. ‘If you are comfortable saying it in front of your mother, it’s probably OK,’ said Cornell’s Lisa Cameron-Norfleet of her advice to the student bloggers.”
– “At MIT, the admissions website gets 15,000 page views a day. A survey of all students admitted last year found that the blogs were among the top three most useful things in helping them decide whether to apply or to accept an offer. MIT applicants should know that the academic challenges are great, but they should also know that contrary to stereotype, MIT students can have a lot of fun.”

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So these are the uncensored anecdotes of students? Are we to believe, even though the school (MIT in this case) is paying the student, that potential applicants and outsiders are getting “the real story?” Is honesty the focus? Are these weblogs to be trusted? I just don’t see why they should be.

My advice to people reading these weblogs is simply this: BUYER BEWARE. Remember, higher education is viewed by some admissions folks as a product to be sold. It’s becoming abundantly clear that university admissions and promotions officers are going through the same 1920s revolution described in Roland Marchand’s 1985 masterpiece in history, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. In that period corporations discovered the advantages of psychology and manipulation in sales and advertising. And certainly colleges are willing to help you obtain your idea of the “American Dream,” yes?

The best way to get an existing student’s angle on their school, in my opinion, is to schedule a campus visit where the potential student can stay overnight with an actual student. At least in that environment, even though the student who hosts is likely compensated, the potential student stands a better chance of seeing things at the ground level. Getting to know someone in person might result in insider information! The student host might slip up, revealing something important to the buyer. – TL

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