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How Inappropriate Social Media Behavior Can Affect Your Admissions Decision

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As one of the world’s leading universities, it’s safe to say that Harvard University is almost always in the news in one way or another. However, it’s rarer that the undergraduate admissions process at Harvard specifically makes headlines. This month, we’ve encountered one of those occasions.


The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student-run campus newspaper, recently reported that earlier this spring, ten or more applicants who had already received acceptances to Harvard College were informed that their admissions decisions had been reversed. The students involved in this incident and the circumstances surrounding it have gained it a considerable amount of media attention.


Any high school student contemplating the college application process will immediately grasp the importance of a rescinded offer of admission. As we’ve previously explored in our post Can My Offer of Admission Be Rescinded?, it’s an outcome no one wants, a major disappointment, and a waste of a lot of time and energy. Thankfully, it’s also rare, and with foresight and maturity, often preventable.


Read on for our take on what college applicants can learn from Harvard’s decision, and what you can do to avoid landing in a similar situation yourself.


What happened at Harvard?

On June 5, 2017, the Crimson reported that in mid-April of 2017, Harvard College rescinded its offers of admission to at least ten applicants who had initially been accepted for the class of 2021. These acceptances were revoked due to offensive material that the students posted in a Facebook group chat intended for members of this incoming class.


The particular group chat in question was not officially affiliated with Harvard, and was only accessible to those who had been invited to join. It grew out of a larger group chat made up of students who had been accepted to Harvard, which in turn was an unofficial offshoot of Harvard’s official Facebook page for accepted students.


As the Crimson revealed, once the existence of this group chat came to the attention of the admissions office at Harvard, participating students were contacted and asked to detail and explain what they had posted. According to an anonymous source, these students were also told that their acceptances would be reconsidered.


It’s unclear how many students were involved in the group chat altogether. However, according to the source, about a week later, at least ten students were informed that their offers of admission had in fact been revoked.


As of this writing, Harvard itself has not released any additional information about this incident, and Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokesperson, noted that “we do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.” Obviously, there are many details that remain unknown to those not directly involved.


However, we can still draw some important lessons from what is currently known. In a world where social media is a part of nearly every college applicant’s life, Harvard’s decision serves as a necessary reminder that online interactions can lead to real-world consequences in any area, including that of college admissions.


As one of the world’s leading universities, it’s safe to say that Harvard University is almost always in the news in one way or another. However, it’s rarer that the undergraduate admissions process at Harvard specifically makes headlines. This month, we’ve encountered one of those occasions.

Why did this particular incident lead to admissions decisions being rescinded?

Given the limited amount of information available at this time, we can’t say exactly why Harvard decided to respond to this incident by retracting students’ offers of admission. While we can’t get inside the heads of the Harvard officials who made the final decision, there are a few factors at play in this particular incident that stand out as reasons why Harvard may have chosen to respond the way it did.   


The material being posted was patently offensive.

According to the information that has emerged about the group chat in question, its content was clearly and unavoidably offensive, and in fact, was created to offend and shock. It made light of violence, targeted specific racial and ethnic groups, and employed sexually explicit material. It doesn’t seem to have had redeeming artistic or social value, and it certainly doesn’t represent a principled approach to sensitive issues.


This factor is particularly significant because the Harvard community is far from homogeneous. Students come to Harvard from all over the world, and represent an incredible variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and identities. In fact, Harvard prides itself on the diversity of its student body.


The students in this group chat weren’t discussing imaginary people; rather, they were making offensive jokes about real groups that include fellow members of the Harvard community. This creates a problem for Harvard as an institution. It wouldn’t be surprising if Harvard determined that students who showed troubling and disrespectful attitudes toward others would not be a positive addition to campus.


One of the great things about college is that you’ll meet people who have a huge range of different backgrounds and opinions, but one of the great challenges of college is learning to approach these differences like a mature adult. If you’ve demonstrated that you can’t be depended upon to treat others in the college community respectfully, recognize ethical boundaries, and otherwise be a responsible adult, you won’t be a good fit in that community.


It’s important to note that this is not a case in which, for example, Harvard rescinded a student’s offer of admission because that student voiced an opinion that was simply unpopular. Disagreement, debate, and dialogue are important parts of life at any academic institution, and current Harvard students hold a wide range of views.


However, obscene, violent, and openly hateful jokes targeting particular groups don’t fall within this category. Instead of fostering a healthy level of disagreement, they’re openly meant to stereotype, to disturb, and ultimately, to hurt others — none of which are things that colleges like Harvard are interested in promoting.


The material was posted in a relatively public space.

In media accounts of this case, the question has been raised of whether the group chat in question constituted a private space or a public space. Technically, the chat was a closed space; participants had to be invited to join the group, and chat content was not visible to those outside the group.


Whether or not the space was fully public, however, it was still a space that was open to a relatively large group of people, many of whom seem to have only known each other through Facebook groups for admitted Harvard applicants. That’s a lot different from a private discussion between a few trusted friends, and it’s unsurprising that Harvard eventually became aware of the group chat’s existence.


Regardless of whether this group chat was a public space in a technical sense, the students involved should have been aware that any materials posted online, especially under one’s own name, could potentially be seen by almost anyone. That they seemingly failed to consider this possibility reflects poorly on their judgement, which is something that colleges openly take into account when making admissions decisions.


The space in which the material was posted was explicitly for incoming Harvard students and used Harvard’s name.

As we’ve mentioned, the group chat involved in this incident was not officially linked to Harvard. While the students involved appear to have met through the official, Harvard-run Facebook page for the class of 2021, they created and maintained this group chat on their own.


However, the group chat was clearly intended for incoming Harvard students. It drew membership from an official Harvard group, and at least at one point, its name specifically referenced Harvard. In this sense, it definitely drew an association between itself and its members and Harvard University.


Harvard has a reputation to maintain as a world-class university with exceptional academic merit. Its student body is selected from among the most accomplished high school students in the world, and only 5.4% of applicants for the class of 2021 made the cut. When Harvard evaluates applicants, it’s looking for those who will contribute to this prestigious community and perpetuate Harvard’s extraordinary legacy.


What Harvard is definitely not seeking is those who will associate its name with obscenity, offensive content, poor judgment, and lack of maturity. Allowing students to matriculate who had already linked Harvard’s image with this type of content would reflect poorly on the school, which may have been a factor in why Harvard decided not to admit these students.


How can I avoid finding myself in a similar situation?

First off, having an offer of admission rescinded is quite rare, so it’s likely that you won’t encounter this issue yourself. Besides behavior issues, admissions offers may be rescinded due to factors like lying on your application, academic dishonesty, or a sharp decrease in academic performance, all of which are important things to avoid regardless.


When it comes to social media issues, realistically speaking, admissions offices at competitive colleges don’t have the time to carefully vet every single applicant. There usually needs to be some kind of inciting incident, like a tip from a source or a media report, before a college will devote such a large amount of time to researching individual applicants.


However, the possibility exists that colleges will reconsider admissions decisions if they become aware of unfavorable new information about you. If you read your college’s application and admissions information carefully, you’ll find some mention of the circumstances under which an offer of admission can be retracted.


Typically, the college will include among these qualifying events any incident which casts doubt upon your maturity, responsibility, character, and other factors that determine whether you’re the kind of student they’d like to have on campus. As we’ve covered before on the CollegeVine blog in posts like Ten Skills to Highlight on Your College Applications, qualities like these are absolutely part of how colleges evaluate you as an applicant.


The bottom line is that, while it’s unlikely your social media posts will end up factoring into your college application results, it’s still wise to think twice about what you share online and what your online presence says about you. You never know who will end up seeing that information, even if it’s shared in a somewhat private context.


This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid taking positions or making passionate statements online about the issues you care about. It simply means that, just like in any other part of your life, what you say and do online will shape what others think about you. Before you post, you need to consider whether your online actions reflect your true values and whether you really want to be associated with the material you’re posting. 


Most of all, remember that the Internet is part of your real life, and just like in any other part of life, your actions have consequences. What you do online is capable of affecting others and, as in this case, significantly impacting your own prospects. It’s up to you, as a budding adult, to choose a path that will keep you on track toward your college goals.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.