Boston — You might imagine the Web as, well, a web, but it’s really more like a giant octopus, stretching its many tentacles here, there, and everywhere. This is an exciting thought for the 21st-century admissions officer but also a daunting one. After all, you can’t wrestle an octopus: There’s so much information (and misinformation) about colleges out there that nobody could ever keep up with it all.
“Controlling this is practically impossible,” Richard H. Shaw said here on Tuesday at the the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions, an annual conference attended by admissions officers from around the globe.
Mr. Shaw, dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford University, was describing the benefits and challenges of running an admissions operation in the Internet age. Once, colleges governed the flow of information, spooning their messages to the masses; now the masses conduct their own research, disparage colleges on College Confidential, and create Facebook pages for admitted students without waiting for institutional approval.
In this climate, colleges are constantly re-evaluating their strategies for reaching prospective students on the Web—the wild, fast-changing frontier of recruitment. Stanford offers an array of online goodies, such as videos, slide shows, and podcasts. You can now take a virtual tour of the campus on your iPhone. The challenge, Mr. Shaw said, is to engage students sufficiently without overdoing it.
Stuart Schmill agreed. As dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Schmill has resisted the impulse to embrace any and all means of communicating with teenagers. A while back his staff decided against creating a profile in the virtual world known as Second Life. Later they said no to Twitter.
And they have refused to use text messaging, a popular means of recruitment among college coaches. “Texting is a great way to do marketing if you’re interested in getting students to get attached to you,” Mr. Schmill said. “We don’t want to exploit the addictive nature of it.”
Authenticity matters a lot. Mr. Schmill’s office publishes blogs written by students who are free to express themselves, even if it’s writing “I hate MIT today.” Those unedited posts, he said, come across as more genuine—and trustworthy—than any official marketing pitch could.
MIT also maintains a student-run Facebook page for accepted students that advertises its independence from campus officials. More than one administrator has asked Mr. Schmill for permission to join the Facebook group, just to make sure that students are gettting “good information.” Mr. Schmill won’t have it. “It’s important to hold the line on that,” he said.
Still, some situations may call for a response. Now and then Mr. Schmill has dispatched a staffer to correct inaccurate information that someone had written on, say, a message board. Other institutions maintain a hands-off policy, preferring to let students sort out the facts for themselves.
Either way, admissions officers face constant reminders that they are now just contributors to a conversation they once controlled. The same technology that allows colleges to zap students with messages 24 hours a day also allows pretty much anyone to chime in about colleges. That’s how the octopus rolls.