Lessons from a 250,000-strong student community

Lessons from a 250,000-strong student community

What can admissions learn from the r/ApplyingToCollege Reddit community?

Article by Michael Mander

10 November 2020

With over a quarter of a million members, r/ApplyingToCollege is home to a lot of students – who flock there to talk with one another about their concerns, share memes, and ask questions about college admissions.

If you’re not familiar with Reddit, it calls itself the “front page of the internet”. Founded in 2005 – and not changing a huge amount since then – Reddit allows any user to post and share images, links and stories which other users then “upvote” and comment on. It’s like many other social networking sites – but users tend to use nicknames rather than real names, and conversations are sorted into themed “subreddits”. 

With 330 million monthly users and 21 billion views per month, Reddit is “more influential in higher ed than you think.

r/ApplyingToCollege is one such subreddit. It was founded in 2013 as a place for students to discuss their college application process. For admissions professionals, it offers a unique insight into the mindset of college applicants. They declare their woes with college websites, they share the real disappointment of missing out on a place at their chosen school, they guide one another through the confusing world of college apps. 

A supportive community and shitpost Wednesdays

There’s a team of 9 moderators leading the subreddit community. Some of them are college students, others are college counselors. 

Mark Boerckel is the co-founder of Better College Apps, a College Admission Counseling firm based in South Carolina. He started reading the ApplyingToCollege subreddit about 5 years ago. He soon began contributing, as one of the few admissions counselors on the subreddit he was able to be a mentor to students. Later, he applied to be a moderator and was invited to join the moderation team. 

So why are so many students using the ApplyingToCollege subreddit? What are they actually asking about? “Man, there are so many things,” said Mark. “Obviously there are dozens of questions related to the details and steps of completing each section of a college application. There are also lots of questions about how the various components are evaluated or weighed against each other. Most students don’t have any meaningful experience writing expressively about themselves, so there are lots of questions about essays too.”

It’s not all about questions – though. A big part of the success of the subreddit has been its ability to give students a space to just share frustrations with the process, and laugh about the tribulations of applying to college. 

On “Shitpost Wednesdays”, the subreddit is overwhelmed with memes about the college application process, the Common App, the Ivy League schools and everything in between. 

“I think it’s hugely important for students to have a supportive community related to college admissions,” said Mark, “that’s evidenced by the rapid growth of both subscribers and visitors to the sub. When I joined, there were less than 15,000 subscribers and there are over 260,000 now.”

The teacher turned admissionsmom

As a teacher, Carolyn Caplan loved supporting students with their college applications. “ I loved teaching the personal essay,” she said, “and I also loved watching the growth of students as they grow to know themselves better than ever before. The personal journey that the admissions experience creates is an amazing opportunity for students.” 

So she enrolled on the UCLA College Counseling program and started a private practice. “I also knew it was important to me to give back and I’ve always been a huge believer in creating college access.

“My son suggested I check out Reddit for a place where kids might need advice.So back in August 2016, I found r/ApplyingToCollege on my first time ever on Reddit. I realized I could begin to give advice – especially about the essay and dealing with stress.”

Using the name admissionsmom (“because I wanted to be able to give mom kind of advice”), Carolyn began giving advice to students on the subreddit, and was accepted to be a moderator around a year later. 

Supporting first-gen students

With students from around the world descending on the subreddit, Carolyn has noticed some trends. “Many of the students we have are first-generation and low income and don’t feel like they have the support they need at home or even sometimes in their schools.

“They often don’t recognize they have a voice, and they can and should reach out and ask questions – ask the colleges’ admissions offices and ask their school counselors and teachers for advice.I spend a lot of time encouraging students to reach out to colleges or their school counselor.” 

A 2017 paper published in the Worcester Journal of Learning and Teaching echoed this finding. It explained that: “some of the unwritten rules of how the system works appeared to be missing [for first-gen students]. Such rules would normally be available in the oral transmission from other family members. In particular, the unwritten rule that ‘it is ok to ask for help’ was not registering.” 

But as much as the subreddit can support students from non-traditional learner backgrounds, students who are disengaged or lack information about college admissions might not know it exists. As Mark explained: “communities like A2C self-select for top performing, organized, engaged students. In other words, those are the types of students who generally seek out and engage a community like ours. 

“Students who don’t really know much at all about college admissions and don’t have good support are likely to never find us or other assistance. So a lot of the students who are under-supported in college admissions don’t even know about resources like this, or about any of the many initiatives colleges have in place. That’s been a problem in college admissions for decades.”

Lessons for Higher Ed

Both Mark and Carolyn agree that colleges are clearly trying to support students through the admissions process. 

But both also agree that there is room for improvement.

Colleges can seem out of touch with students. “We see this on A2C all the time,” said Mark, “in the form of marketing emails from college admissions offices that are lampooned for seeming desperate, lame, or insincere.”

There are also challenges around the way colleges advise students, explained Mark. “Because the colleges are also the ones making admissions decisions, they can’t share as candidly about how the process works or give specific and meaningful advice. Any specific advice they give would be misinterpreted as a mandate of what students must do to be admitted.”

Carolyn said: “Where I’d love to see changes made is in streamlining applications and websites, so they are more uniform for students to find information. I’d love for them all to move to test-optional, take self-reported test scores, and have no application fees, so that those basic barriers are removed. I’d love to see total clarity about the costs, so students know what their cost will be before applying. 

“However, I see all these shifts being made and I do see colleges trying to do this kind of outreach.”

Above all, coming together

The ApplyingToCollege subreddit gives students a place to chat, to rant, to get ideas and advice, and – on Wednesdays – to shitpost. 

Some of the posts are a heartbreaking insight into the stress of the application process, and the way it can reshape a student’s priorities. “I was hit by a car while biking,” wrote one, “and immediately started thinking how it could be a ‘quirky’ college essay.” 

But others show the power of coming together. Students reassure one another, and share their experiences from every stage of the admissions cycle. Students get energy and ideas from another, motivation, a place to celebrate success and commiserate bad luck. 

“The success of A2C has blown me away, and it is because of the support and genuine help they give each other,” said Carolyn. 

“That’s a transformation I’ve watched before my eyes as we’ve grown. Four years ago, the feeling on the subreddit was much more competitive and not nearly as supportive. Now, we have members who go out of their way to cheer each other up and cheer each other on.”

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