By Dr. Shemmassian of Shemmassian Consulting

We’ve heard—and perhaps delivered—no shortage of warnings to our teens about all the ways social media mistakes can harm their reputation. From high school suspensions to losing a Harvard acceptance, there are plenty of examples of the negative consequences teens face when exercising poor judgment on the massive public platform that is the Internet.

But your child doesn’t have to delete all of their social media accounts entirely. After fifteen-plus years of advising students on how to get into their dream schools, we’ve learned that there’s a way to make these tools work for your child’s college admissions success, instead of against it.

Let’s take a step back. What makes a successful college application stand out? Some of the crucial elements, in addition to grades and scores, are your child’s personal statement and their extracurricular involvement. Those two latter elements matter enormously in what admissions officers call “holistic admissions,” meaning that they’re assessing an applicant’s overall ability to contribute to their campus, in addition to their academic preparedness.

There’s no single “correct” extracurricular profile.

This means that your teen has an opportunity to share information about what makes them special outside of their academic achievements. There’s no single “correct” extracurricular profile. We’ve seen students get into their dream schools boasting all kind of unique outside-the-classroom pursuits: making computer art, skateboarding, playing in the marching band, working an after-school restaurant job, or caring for a sibling with special needs.

Some of these extracurricular activities are easy to explain to a college admissions officer. Being drum major in the marching band, for instance, makes sense to someone who’s read applications for years. But what if your child is, say, a fan of the Great British Baking Show, and spends his afternoons painstakingly trying to ace the perfect Mary Berry’s cherry pie? Should he put away the measuring cups and try to find a more conventional activity?

Here’s where social media might be able to help your teen. The democratic power of social media means that, theoretically, anyone from anywhere can create a public online presence for themselves. And while every parent should understand the risks of that, you can also think about it as an opportunity for your child to showcase or even enhance their accomplishments.

“teen baking prodigy who appeared on a local news segment.”

For example, your future pastry chef doesn’t have to toil in anonymity or wait his turn to be picked out of the audition tape pile. He could start a baking blog, collaborate on recipes with other young baking bloggers, and brand himself to college admissions officers as the “teen baking prodigy who appeared on a local news segment.”

Or why not let your budding journalist expand beyond the school paper? With the faculty newspaper adviser’s help, a young reporter can make sure their work reaches a wider audience. We’ve heard of students reporting on an Adderall epidemic in their own school hallways and promoting the story online, ultimately taking their findings to a larger, regional paper. With that wider audience, those students can then be in conversation with legislators, regulators, and education advocates to truly effect change at their own institution.

Corners of the Internet that parents don’t always know about

A talented athlete can post her highlights to Youtube for college recruiters to view, a young entrepreneur can build and market his own small business, and an aspiring computer scientist can participate in the exciting world of open source projects by venturing into the corners of the Internet that parents don’t always know about, and then displaying her projects on her own website or GitHub.

There are a few other ways teens can use social media to their advantage when applying to college, including engaging with their dream school’s Instagram or Facebook presence to gain details for the “why us” questions they’ll have to answer in their supplemental essays. Schools will often post student profiles that could help your child visualize themselves at their dream school. Admissions officers are also often accessible on social media, and are happy to answer questions from prospective students about their school. For a generation that’s less likely to hop on the phone than on Twitter, this provides students with an opportunity to get noticed by college admissions officers before they even begin working on their applications.

Increase their odds of admission to their dream school.

All this, of course, can be accomplished with the careful oversight you’ll still want for your teen’s safety. By having a conversation with your child about responsible social media use, you’re preparing them for the real world and setting them up for success in college and beyond.

It’s true that applying to college isn’t what it used to be. It’s more competitive, more professionalized, and more intense than it was a generation or even a handful of years ago. Which might mean that the advice you received about extracurricular activities back when you applied for college would not be as effective today. But approached correctly, letting your child use social media to augment their extracurricular life, or to create one if their school has limited opportunities, can teach important lessons about responsible internet use and increase their odds of admission to their dream school.

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