College admissions have changed dramatically in the past few years, causing more anxiety than ever for parents and teens. As acceptance rates plummet and test-optional schools surge, the competition is fierce, and teens need an edge more than ever. Stacey Ross Cohen, marketer and best-selling author of Brand Up: The Ultimate Playbook for College & Career Success in the Digital World, is offering a new perspective on how teens can stand out and pave the way for success in college, career and beyond. Here are her five tips to help college-bound students craft a positive personal brand, build a digital dossier and excel in real-world skills like networking and interviewing.
1. Develop a shiny online presence to enhance the college application. Ross Cohen believes your teen’s social media accounts deserve as much attention as their college essay, if not more. “College admission officers routinely review applicants’ online profiles to ensure that the persona presented in their college application aligns with their online presence. Your teen should begin with a cleanup, deleting inactive, off-brand profiles and removing any content containing offensive language or images of alcohol, drugs or nudity.” To get to the top of the application pile, she says teens need to uncover their superpower and be able to answer the question: Why Choose Me? Since admissions officers favor well-rounded applicants, it’s wise to highlight a wide range of interests: academic pursuits, creative endeavors, professional development, hobbies and volunteer work. “Positive character attributes like leadership, resiliency, teamwork and volunteer service should be highlighted. A headshot (high-resolution photo; minimum 300 DPI) from the shoulder level up with professional attire and a neutral background should be used across all social media platforms for consistency. If your teen feels creative, they can also include their all-time favorite quote.”
2. Invest in the right platforms. Ross Cohen says teens should focus on the social media platforms that best accentuate their strengths. “For instance, platforms like Pinterest and Instagram are ideal if they’re an artist. If they aspire to a career in broadcasting, YouTube or TikTok would be more suitable choices.” Her top choice to help teens distinguish themselves and highlight their achievements during the college admission process? LinkedIn, which Ross Cohen claims is “a must” at age 16. Ross Cohen emphasizes, “Getting a jump start on LinkedIn empowers your teen to shape their professional narrative, develop networking skills, build relationships with alumni and professionals, and lay the groundwork for their career path. LinkedIn is more than a social network; it’s the linchpin that connects aspirations with future opportunities for young individuals.” She also recommends that teens create a custom LinkedIn URL that allows others to easily find and connect with them.
3. Leverage social media to showcase interests, character and strengths rather than hiding online. Engage with dream colleges (department chairs, alumni, admissions officers) and consistently showcase character, achievements and strengths. Put your best digital foot forward online. “Assume college admissions officers and employers recruiting the best talent will mine social media accounts to find bombshells. Connecting with college admissions officers, professors, department heads and alumni is a must. Teens need to follow their dream college’s accounts and show their love by liking their content and making themselves regularly seen.” Colleges, she adds, seek applicants with strong character traits such as integrity, leadership, resilience, adaptability and initiative. “Highlight these traits through social media, essays, recommendation letters and extracurricular activities.”
4. Be A Master of First Impressions. Ross Cohen says college admissions officers spend an average of 10 minutes per application. To stand out during the admission process, your teen must be memorable. “Teens are more than just an application and essay: they need to showcase their talents and achievements through an online portfolio, personal website, video or blog.” A link to these “extras” can be embedded in the application. Teens can emphasize unconventional hobbies, personal growth, unique experiences, perspectives and cultural heritage to distinguish themselves further. “Admissions officers highly value entrepreneurial skills like problem-solving, creativity and initiative. Highlight entrepreneurial experiences to stand out. Even better, start a business during high school. Every communication touchpoint is key to becoming a standout applicant for college or a job; even your email signature line is a valuable piece of real estate to highlight achievements.” She explains that teens should make sure to include grade/high school name, address, cell phone number, a good-quality photo, hyperlinked social media icons and website hyperlink (if applicable).
5. Be Your Own News Channel. Since colleges are looking, Ross Cohen says why not post college-centric content? “Teens can share pictures from their college tour, topics related to their intended major and more.” While teens should include community activities on their application, showing this through social media is quite another thing. “For example, does your teen have photos of collecting supplies for a local homeless shelter? Are they reposting interesting articles about climate change? Teens can also share a link to a news article with thoughtful comments that show leadership, critical thinking and intelligent analysis.” And, of course, before clicking “publish,” Ross Cohen says teens should put content through the PURE Test: “Is it Positive, Unbiased, Respectful and Ethical? Remind your teen that there’s no such thing as privacy when it comes to any social channels, including one’s cell phone. Text messages can be screenshot and shared without permission or knowledge, leaving no control over where they land. Screenshots of racist and inflammatory text conversations have gone viral countless times.” So, before your teen hits “send” on that next text message, Ross Cohen says they should ask themselves: Would I be comfortable with that message scrolling across the Times Square digital billboard?
Ross Cohen adds that just because your teen has submitted their application or received an accepted offer does not mean they no longer need to exercise discretion. “This goes for posts or comments they may make within seemingly private groups,” she says. “Consider the infamous ‘Harvard 10,’ where 10 kids were accepted in 2017, and their admissions were revoked due to offensive social media behavior. Similar social media hazards play out regularly in the news. Harvard’s current acceptance rate is 3.2 percent.”
Finally, Ross Cohen says you should empower your teens to take control of their narrative and showcase their uniqueness for a head start in college and career success. “The bottom line is that teens need to skillfully articulate their value and good fit qualities to colleges they apply to. Remember, every click, post and connection can bring your teen one step closer to capturing opportunities for an amazing future.”