3 questions to a (soon-to-be) higher ed blogger: Sam Jackson, a 2007 senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, from “The Sam Jackson College Experience”

August 21st, 2006 Karine Joly 4 Comments

Sam Jackson, a 2007 senior at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter (NH), started to blog in December 2005 about his experience in searching for the best college. Last month, he launched a new blog entirely focused on the college admission process: The Sam Jackson College Experience. In a witty and fresh style, this talented teen blogger offers a rare glimpse at the mind of our elusive prospective students. Some admission officers have already noticed. I came across Sam’s blog after he wrote a post about my University Business column on admission-sponsored student blogs (ah, the magic of Technorati watches!).

1) Why did you decide to blog about this in the first place? Why did you create a new blog focused exclusively on the college admission process in July 2006?

Those first posts were about the PSAT; I regularly blogged about little happenings in my life and the PSAT had happened to be one of them, I had just gotten my scores back in December. In January, we formally began the college process at my school with our introduction to the college counseling office. The increasing volume of college-related posts on my blog was a consequence of the increasing role my college search was playing in my everyday life.

In July, I separated my personal blog from the new college blog; the college part was simply dominating the rest. I had to excise it before it metaphorically consumed my life. I didn’t post as frequently about personal topics as I did about college, so anything about my normal life would be quickly buried. Two different audiences were developing for each one, and this separation reduced the clutter for each audience, making the information more accessible.

The college admissions process is something I have a very keen interest in, and I saw no reason to keep all my thoughts and research to myself, so I just started writing about my experience. Offline, it’s the same–I tell people interesting things I happen across and mention headlines. In the process of organizing my ideas for publishing, I get a clearer picture of the subject myself, which is always welcome. In these turbulent, cynical seas of college admissions the perspective I get from this pseudo-journalistic enterprise is invaluable. I still get very emotional about what I’m writing, but this writing process does help me to be a little more reasoned in my thinking. I get a lot of friendly feedback, so I’m confident I did the right thing in sharing. It has sparked some good discussions with my friends.

2) What do you think about admission-sponsored student blogs that many institutions have launched recently? What about podcasts?

I really like the student blogs, even if they are admissions-sponsored. I have to scrutinize them quite closely since the bloggers are frequently compensated for their verbiage, but I appreciate them as a resource. I see them as a supplement to the conventional web presence of admissions offices. Some of them I greet with less skepticism than others. I’ve been looking to find as many as I can to get a taste of the selection out there and I’ve seen a real variety. Some of them feel like thinly veiled marketing attempts, and some feel like really enthusiastic students who just want to share their love of the school. I’ll sooner trust a fully independent blogger, but they’re all on my reading list.

Those recent NRCCUA and PEW polls on teen blog readership levels would seem to indicate that these blogs aren’t reaching the entire applicant pool, but I don’t know that that matters all that much. Their potential readership is very high, and if they don’t rise to meet that potential, I think most of the time it’s just a failure in their marketing and promotion or maybe specific implementation. The concept is entirely sound, and I would expect it to be feasible at just about any school. I spread those that I know about by word-of-mouth and that seems to be working fine.

High school students are running to Facebook like lemmings to a cliff ledge; if someone can log onto Facebook or Hotmail they can certainly navigate themselves to these blogs, which are tame in comparative techno-fluency. They just need to know where to look. My 13 year old sister just registered a Facebook account, since she’s going into 9th grade. She checks the blogs for bands she likes, and she’s not all that savvy. I’d hope my peers were half as competent online. I would like to see schools with student blogs pushing them more. Subtlety is key. Colleges are selling a product (themselves, education) and are marketing it to us, but we’re too aware of that marketing to just buy into whatever we’re fed.

I actually got a postcard for U Chicago’s Uncommon App blog, but that’s not a student blog–it’s more of an Adcom blog. I’d like to see even more of those, too, because people need to feel that there is more transparency from an administrative and institutional perspective. It can make a school’s otherwise indomitably distant admissions process seem a great deal warmer by attaching human faces to the process. It’s hard to accuse admissions officers of being shadowy arbiters of fate if you’re reading about how they went out for tacos the other week.

College podcasts are not really on my radar excepting those “lecture podcasts” that some professors and departments have up. Those are great. I might seek them out a little bit more if I had an iPod (!) but I don’t. They seem pretty niche for right now. Most teens I know don’t listen to all that many podcasts, anyways, unless they’re really entertaining. Just mp3s and Desperate Housewives.

Really, it all just comes back to authenticity and honesty. Colleges need to maintain a good distance, or at least the appearance of distance, to really maximize the effectiveness of blogs as a recruitment tool. If you try to convert student blogs into a blunt vehicle for promotion and recruitment, you squander their trust capital. Any honest message from the student is just going to be lost in the noise. I don’t think student bloggers should be acting like virtual tour guides, reciting a semi-scripted message for money. If happy bloggers write honestly about their experiences at school, there should be no need for marketing spin.

3) You seem to be very interested in how higher ed institutions market themselves to prospective students like you. Do you think your blogging could give you an edge with college admission officers? In other words, do you think your blog can help you with the whole college admission process?

I am very interested in how higher education markets itself to me, to my friends, to my sister. I don’t have any older siblings, and things have changed a lot since my parents were applying to college. Who am I supposed to trust–Fiske? US News? My barber? I need a clean signal and I need good intelligence. If I didn’t do my best to inform myself about the marketing practices of this entire business–higher education–I’d be doing myself a criminal disservice. I’m going to be making some decisions which will affect me for the next four years of my life at the least. Everyone does college research, picking apart their list and each school, but there’s more to it than that. The marketing is just one part of the experience, and it’s just one part of my research.

To give me an edge with admissions officers, admissions officers would first have to read my blog. And some do: I hope they keep reading it even as they become very busy this fall, because they send back some of the most interesting comments. A few have expressed their interest and appreciation in my site, fewer still from schools that I might be applying to. Maybe I’ll hit a sweet spot as readership and visibility increase, and all the officers that serve my region from all my schools will read my blog and fall in love with it and remember it, but I’m not expecting too much. If I put this on an application I wouldn’t expect someone to put down their paperwork and log on to the site to investigate and read; they have enough to read already.

It might not be the sort of sterling extracurricular overachievers dream about, but at the very least I’m learning a lot. I could write what I write without any readership at all and I’d still take a lot away from it. In that sense, I think it’s definitely helping me with the college admissions process. It helps me to focus my thoughts and it’s an excuse to do fairly abstract college admissions research. I’m worried that it may distract me from more practical college admissions concerns, but so far I’m managing it quite well, and am better informed for it. The experience is absolutely worth the time.

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