Universities Turn to Tumblr to Reach Prospective Students

How Tumblr is becoming a popular tool for engaging applicants and documenting student life at colleges and universities.

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Back when planking was sweeping the Internet, encouraging people everywhere to photograph themselves lying flat in odd places, students at the University of Chicago were cooking up a meme of their own. Crouching down bowlegged, raising their arms like claws and sticking out their tongues, they were phoenixing — posing like the phoenix in the university’s official seal.

“We did it all over campus, and then prospective students sent in pictures of themselves doing it,” says junior Lauren Kelly-Jones. “People saw me on campus and were like, ‘Oh, you’re that girl who was doing the phoenixing thing.’”

Kelly-Jones was an inaugural phoenixer. Photos of her striking the pose appeared on the UChicago College Admissions Tumblr, which she helped launch and contributes to as an intern in the admissions office. The department is no stranger to social media — it uses Instagram, Pinterest and Google+ Hangouts to connect with students — but Tumblr is becoming one of its most popular tools for engaging applicants and documenting student life, phoenixing and all.

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“We aren’t shy when it comes to sharing things,” says Grace Chapin, senior admissions counselor, who started her office’s Tumblr with Kelly-Jones in the summer of 2011. “It takes the edge off the college process when you know, ‘This is an academic place, but there will be people at this place that enjoy a good cat picture as much as I do.’”

Since its founding in 2007, Tumblr has became one of the top ten most visited sites in the world, and while it hasn’t reached the omnipresence of Facebook, the microblogging platform has found a loyal audience among younger folks: A fall 2012 survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that while only five percent of adults online use Tumblr (compared to Facebook’s 66 percent), that figure more than doubles for young adults online.

Emmanuel Quartey, who runs Yale University’s Tumblr and blogs about social media and higher education, says there has been “an explosion” of university Tumblrs over the past year, and admissions-specific blogs have been at the forefront.

“As universities have become more familiar with social media, it isn’t as scary to jump into this new thing,” Quartey says. “They’re reaching kids they might otherwise not reach.”

Admissions officers are attracted to Tumblr for a number of reasons. Because users can share a variety of multimedia content quickly and casually, it’s possible to update multiple times a day without flooding feeds with walls of text. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find a link to an event on campus, a pretty photo of the school and a quote from a historic commencement speech all in the same place. But Tumblr is also a place for admissions offices to speak teenagers’ language – you’re just as likely to find an animated GIF of cat welcoming an excited freshman.

Chief among the site’s features is the Ask box, a way for bloggers to ask other users questions with the option of anonymity, an option admissions officers say is crucial for encouraging interaction. Even though most universities don’t consider social media when evaluating applicants, students feel more comfortable getting in touch when they don’t have to worry about who’s on the other end.

“For kids anticipating the college process, it’s a little uncomfortable that we might be able to attach their identity to what they’re engaging with on our social screens,” says Bowen Posner, senior assistant director of admissions at Yale, which started an admissions Tumblr last summer.

Admissions offices using Tumblr might sound as invasive as a swarm of parents rushing to join the site, but Tumblr is already a big part of the online college ecosystem. High school students often create what Quartey calls college readiness blogs, digital spaces where students document their admissions experience, and many even maintain two Tumblrs: a primary, personal blog and another that chronicles every step toward matriculation.

“It’s a place for them to vent with people who get it,” Quartey says.

Some of the people who “get it” are current students. Just as high schoolers are blogging about their application experiences, university students on Tumblr are documenting life on the other side of the brochure. They make themselves available for questions by using Tumblr tags, analogous to Twitter hashtags, to label their posts with their respective colleges.

Enrolled student participation in Tumblr varies greatly from school to school. The University of Chicago has a handful of students who update theirs, while Joe Carlos, assistant director of admissions and recruitment at Morehouse College, says his department doesn’t let any students post directly. But both camps say tracking tags are one of Tumblr’s most useful features. The ability to listen in helps universities identify missing or confusing information, but it’s also a way to organically convey a school’s spirit by curating and reblogging other users’ posts. Ma’ayan Plaut, the social media coordinator for Oberlin College, runs the Oberlin College Tumblr, which isn’t an admissions-specific Tumblr, but it is a place where she pulls from different sources within Oberlin’s social media channels to show off what students do in and out of the classroom.

“It’s all about taking the pulse of what our community is thinking about or talking about,” Plaut says. “I can showcase what’s happening here way better than I can do in other places.”

Before the age of social media, applying to college was a static process: Prospective students visited campus, turned in applications, maybe did interviews, and then waited to hear for months. Now, there’s a constant connection — and constant attention — that some administrators say plays a role in students’ decision-making process.

“That’s what’s really driving the decision-making policies for prospective students going forward,” says Todd Heilman, assistant vice president of operations and CRM at St. John’s University. “They’re looking for engagement.”

Constant contact, though optional, might make the long road of the application process more stressful, but students involved don’t seem to mind one bit. Kelly-Jones, who applied from England as an international student, says it was hard for her to grasp what classrooms and dorm life would be like. Through Tumblr, she can share what she wished she knew with incoming students. Now, when they arrive on campus, they already know their way around, they already know the best restaurants – and they all know how to phoenix.

“There’s something to be said for the idea of building a community and maintaining that community,” Kelly-Jones says. “It’s comforting as an applicant.”

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