BENNINGTON -- What's the dating scene like at Bennington College? How about the bathrooms? Eating situations in town? What if I like to wear high heels and read fashion magazines, will I fit in?
All of these and hundreds of other questions posted by prospective students in recent months have found answers from Bennington College students on the admission department's blog "Tapped In." The blog, operated solely by student interns, is just a piece of the "social media ecosystem" student intern Evan Braun said the admissions department uses.
As social media have become popular among people of all ages, especially teenagers, colleges everywhere are tapping into the free access to communicate with prospective students. However, the ways in which social media is used differs from campus to campus -- including here in town where Bennington College and Southern Vermont College focus on different media to reach college bound students.
Bennington College began developing a significant social media presence within the last two years, expanding what at the time was a couple of students contributing to an occasional blog on the school's website.
"Both at Bennington and nationally the trend was and is fewer and fewer students are actually able to visit campus, fewer and fewer actually make an inquiry to the admissions office, and yet there are applicants that come in that have never made an inquiry, that have never made a visit," said Briee Della Rocca, the editor at Bennington College who oversees its social media and marketing. "When people come here, they love visiting and they love getting to talk to students ... so what we were really trying to think about is how do we create that experience of being here and getting the best of what our students offer in a virtual space."
Nearly two years ago, the admissions department hired about 10 interns to blog via what at the time was a relatively new blogging platform, Tumblr. Since then the admissions department has increased the number of student interns to about 30 during the school year -- six of whom continue the internship over the summer. Among other responsibilities such as leading campus tours, the interns interact online with prospective students.
In addition to Tumblr, admissions also uses the photo and video sharing website Flickr, video sharing sites Vimeo and YouTube and the social media site Twitter. Admissions is also in the process of starting a Facebook page specifically for prospective students.
"Every channel has a different purpose and a different strategy and a different voice. The college recognizes the same people who are on YouTube may not be on Tumblr, may not be on Twitter, or vice-versa," Della Rocca said. "We do our best to use the medium in the way that many of the people that are there already use it, and we are very conversational in the spaces that allow us to be conversational and social."
At the time admissions first began dedicating more resources to social media there was mixed reactions.
"At first there wasn't much of a user base and there wasn't really a whole lot of input from prospective students to us, so we were sort of searching for things to post," said Braun, a senior biology major who has worked in admissions three years.
The popularity of the blog has increased dramatically over the past year and now has nearly 500 followers. From August 2011, Della Rocca said "Tapped In" has averaged more than 1,000 visits per week. Of those views, 70 percent are from people who have been to the blog before. Admissions uses its Twitter account @AtBennington to tweet responses that are also on the blog for those who do not follow "Tapped In," which has 263 followers.
Receiving five to 10 questions from prospective students per day, the content written about on the blog is now almost entirely responses to questions. Not only does that gear the content toward what prospective students want to know, Braun said it also opens up a new line of communication between current students and those thinking about attending Bennington College.
"You start to really develop a rapport, and that's what I think has been really rewarding to see, just in this past year, is our personalities start to come through and that makes the blog as a whole much more personal," Braun said.
Because each intern's response appears on the same blog, and they often include personal opinions and stories, prospective students have a real opportunity to learn about the students answering their questions. It also gives prospective students the ability to get answers from students with majors that are across the board.
"During the term it's 30 different people talking about Bennington. That gives you a much better sense of the scope of people who are here and the kind of community it is," said Liam Dailey, a junior majoring in theater and music who has worked with admissions the past year.
Like student tours of campus that are unscripted, the interactions through social media are generated solely by students except for cases when students cannot answer a question such as specific inquiries about financial aid.
"That's what I like about working for admissions in general and also being able to blog, is we don't have any script and we can be honest. So if something doesn't work out at Bennington we can say that, but also explain why it doesn't work and how it affected us as students," Braun said.
The truthfulness of the interactions is what Della Rocca believes makes the conversations via social media so effective. "It doesn't feel like Liam just ran this question by an administrator, because he didn't," she said.
Another benefit of the blog is the anonymity it allows, which at a school of Bennington's size may otherwise be difficult.
"The questions are really authentic ... people can ask things like, ‘Will I fit in, because I wear this kind of thing?' Would they ask that on a tour? Probably not. Would they ask that in an application? Probably not," Della Rocca said. "It's something people think about though."
Southern Vermont College
At Southern Vermont College, the admissions department began establishing a greater focus on social media -- most specifically Facebook -- three years ago when data began to show the effectiveness.
Now with more than 900 million Facebook users worldwide, Director of Admissions Jeremy Gibbons said it makes sense for colleges to take advantage of the media that prospective students are already entrenched in.
"As the college is growing we are really trying to do everything strategically, and a part of that strategy is social media and technology," Gibbons said. "We've been using Facebook and YouTube, not as much the Twitter side of things. Part of that is because all the national data is showing Facebook is more effective."
Part of SVC's philosophy around social media is based studies done by the higher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz, which annually tracks the effectiveness of colleges using social media.
According to the 2011 report, 27 percent of college-bound high school students who had Facebook accounts visited a college's Facebook page. In 2012, that number nearly doubled to 46 percent.
Admissions at SVC is involved in two different Facebook pages -- one for attracting prospective students who are looking for information about SVC, and another for incoming students who have already enrolled in the college but have yet to begin attending. The former is overseen by Daniel Summers, the senior assistant director of admissions, who along with other staff in the office generates most of the content geared for both high school students and their parents.
In addition to reaching a high percentage of prospective students, Summers said the account also allows the college to interact with individuals who may otherwise be hard to reach.
"It helps the students that aren't on the East Coast. We have students from California, we've had one or two international students reach out to us on Facebook because that's easier for them than calling in because when they're awake we're not here," Summers said.
The other Facebook page is loaded with content submitted by current students working in admissions to help incoming students prepare for their first year on campus.
"We use it as an avenue to communicate with them as they move through that enrollment process before they actually show up on campus," Gibbons said.
Because it is student-generated content, Summers said it is more effective than if he or other members of the staff were communicating with the students fresh out of high school.
"It's a window into the school that's different than what we could offer as a school itself doing it. With students putting their own information on there, and putting their own pictures and videos and sharing things, (incoming students) get to see real time what's going on and it's an authentic view," Summers said.
The page also allows incoming students to get to know each other a little bit before meeting on campus. "They can see pictures from their roommate's summer trip before they meet their roommate in person," Summers said.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi