General F*Ups and College Admissions: Harvard Admissions and Social Media


Snapshot: This case probharvard admissionses the ethical challenges that admissions officers at elite schools face in the age of social media. Should all of a young person's online history be open for scrutiny? How should admissions officers balance the recognition that students are in the process of development against the need to set clear standards for acceptable behavior?


Case Description: In April 2017, Harvard College admissions officers moved to revoke admissions offers from a group of at least 10 admitted students. Tipsters had alerted the admissions officers to a private Facebook group - started as an offshoot of the official Harvard Class of 2021 group - where students shared offensive memes that ranged from anti-semitic jokes to jokes about bestiality and pedophilia. Although admissions officers try to view disciplinary infractions through a developmental lens, exactly what sort of behavior puts an application in jeopardy is unclear. Moreover given the sheer volume of applications received by a school like Harvard, admissions officers simply lack the time to go over the online histories of all applicants. Instead, they are typically reactive, acting on tips sent to the admissions office by concerned individuals.

General F***ups and College Admissions probes the ethical challenges admissions officers are forced to grapple with in the age of social media. How should developmental considerations influence admissions decisions? Should the fact that information about students' online presence is only made available for some students matter in making admissions decisions? As more and more of the interactions among young people take place online, admissions officers will be increasingly forced to grapple with dilemmas just like these.

Additional Resources:

  • In Summer 2020, students at schools around the U.S. began creating "Black@[school]" and similar Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds to call out racist peers, teachers, administrators, or practices at their schools.  Some students have the explicit goal of influencing college admissions officers. "People who are about to go to college need to be held accountable for what they say," 16 year-old Anamika Arya told a New York Times journalist. Another student, 15 year-old Mariwa Gambo concured, “When you prevent them from advancing, you’re helping to stop the spread of racist lawyers or doctors or people who make it harder for the black community.” How does this article influence your thinking about the General F***ups case? Should admissions officers take these social media posts into account in making or rescinding admissions decisions?
  • Right before graduation, a high school senior in Tennessee posted a video of a classmate saying the "N-word" in a Spapchat video. Although nearly four years old by June 2020, the video sparked intense debate, highlighting long-simmering racial tension and mistrust. That debate wasn't limited, however, to their Tennessee town. Rather, the uproar quickly engulfed the  University of Tennessee too, who ultimately revoked an offer of admissions to the student in the video after facing its own turmoil over its racial climate. Read this article in the New York Times to learn more about this case and the perspectives of students, teachers, and community members who were involved.
  • And for even more on the most recent admissions cycle, take a look at this New York Times article reporting on colleges that have recently revoked admissions offers due to racist activity on social media.