College Applicants Under the Influence of Social Media

Josh Stephens
5 min readJan 2, 2024

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Come for the LOLz, not the college advice.

I’m not exactly a dinosaur. But I’ll admit that, like most other adults, I don’t keep up with app-based pop culture trends. I’m more into movie theaters and rock stars than I am mobile videos and influencers. I’d dislocate a hip if I attempted a TikTok dance.

So, I only recently became aware of the universe of college application “advice” floating around on TikTok, YouTube, and probably other platforms I’ve never heard of. Social media has plenty of legitimate, benign uses. I love cat videos as much as the next guy does. But, this is one trend that concern me.

I would never say that college applicants should never pay attention to college advice videos. The college process is complex and dynamic, and worthwhile insights can come from unexpected places. But, on the whole, social media videos are far more likely to be misleading and even discouraging than they are hopeful and inspiring.

Here are a few reasons, in no particular order:

  • You are you. Some random kid is some random kid. That kid’s experiences and background might not — and probably does not — have anything to do with your experiences, background, personality, or interests. How and where they got into college can have nothing to do with how and where you will get into college.
  • Getting into a college does not make someone an expert on getting into that college. Kids who post college videos have gotten into college exactly once. They might have done a good job on their own applications, but that doesn’t mean that they have any special insight into the applications process or into anyone else’s applications. Moreover, people who are admitted rarely know exactly why they were admitted. (Sometimes the admissions people themselves can’t articulate why a given applicant was admitted, especially when they’re facing many equally well qualified candidates.)
  • Different people are admitted (and rejected) for different reasons. Even if a YouTube kid does have a good idea of why they were admitted. And it doesn’t mean that thousands of other kids weren’t admitted for thousands of other reasons.
  • The handful of kids who post college application videos represent a tiny fraction of the applicants admitted to a given school. There’s no way to know whether their experiences are in any way representative of the applicant pool or reflective of a given college’s preferences or decision-making process.
  • Colleges like to assemble diverse classes. They deliberately do not want students who all have similar strengths and who all present themselves the same way. So, it might be detrimental to model your application after that of someone who got in previously.
  • You have no idea if someone on YouTube is lying or not. People on social media can, and do, lie about everything. Kids who make college videos might be lying about their backgrounds. They might be lying by omission too, leaving out key details that would help viewers understand their applications holistically. They might even be lying about their acceptances, even if they are wearing the sweatshirt or waving the pennant.
  • Social media’s problems with issues like body image, political debates, misinformation about current events, and all sorts of harassment — among many others — are well known. You should be wary of toxicity in all its forms. That includes college applications, which are inherently competitive and often emotionally fraught. Watching videos, especially those with celebratory tones, are more likely to provoke anxiety than confer wisdom.
  • Privacy is precious. Posting personal details — and some videos include very personal details — for all the world to see makes themselves vulnerable to everything from ridicule to identity theft. These videos could come back to haunt them later in life, if, say, a prospective employ looks askance at an excessively candid video. And, once a personal detail posted is on the internet, it’s essentially impossible to un-post it. I do not recommend participating in this trend, even as a viewer.
  • Some videos go so far as to imply that their schools are the ticket to success or, even worse, that you’re some kind of loser if you don’t get into that school. There’s nothing wrong with school pride, but this is a terrible, unhealthy attitude. It is, essentially, a form of bragging and bullying (and it’s nonsensical coming from a person hasn’t attended a single class yet). Anyone who pushes this elitist, and woefully inaccurate, message deserves neither attention nor respect.
  • The kids in the videos are not your friends. Many of these videos have superficially friendly, even saccharine, tones. But, we have no way of knowing how sincere they are. These videos are performances. They may be more interested in clicks and likes than in giving earnest advice.
  • The best advice is interactive, or at least challenging. You can have a conversation with a college counselor, teacher, or friend. You can read a blog (like this one) and think about what it means for you. College application videos tend to be static, dispensing advice without demanding thought or circumspection.

I am not unsympathetic to the students who post these videos. They, and you, have grown up in a culture that prizes social media stardom. A little bit of attention and, sometimes, some advertising revenue can be exciting. But there’s are differences between showmanship and arrogance, entertainment and misdirection, and advice and speculation.

In the old days, mindless entertainment was considered a bad influence on kids. College videos, though, purport to be good influences on kids — and that’s bad. It’s one thing to watch “Beavis and Butt-head” and know that your brain is atrophying by the minute. It’s another to think you’re gaining crucial, benevolent advice when, in fact, your anxiety is rising. Everyday peer pressure is troubling enough. College videos amplifies it exponentially.

Social media has its place, of course. But, you have to be discerning. It’s one thing to watch a video recommending a cute outfit or telling you how to fix your mom’s coffee maker.

If you buy the outfit and it looks heinous, you put on something else. If the coffee maker falls apart, you go to Starbucks. But if you write a college application that fails to present yourself authentically, accurately, and thoughtfully because you are following advice from someone who doesn’t even know you — much less like or care about you — and you get rejected from a school, or from several schools, that you might have gotten into if you’d done the type of serious introspection that the college application process warrants and rewards then, well, you’re not going to have much recourse.

I suppose you can go back and leave an acerbic comment or hit the “dislike” button and vote down the video. But surely that’s scant compensation for a college rejection?

Image courtesy of nordskovmedia.dk, via Flickr.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 and 2021 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all five other colleges of the Ivy League.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application essay guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.