Every other week, the Journal of College Admission will highlight a current article or other Journal-related findings. In this post, we hear more from Jean Kelso Sandlin, the author of “The Blog Dress Rehearsal: College Identity, Anxiety and Compatibility” (Downloads: Member / Non-member). She focuses on prospective college students’ experiences of reading student-written blogs on admission websites. The findings explain how the students used the blogs to shape their identities, assuage anxieties about college and consider college compatibility.
What made you think of looking at blogs from a student success angle, rather than a recruitment angle?
I’m actually interested in both angles. While researching the recruitment angle, I came upon a study by Kelleher and Miller (2006) that piqued my interest. They compared perceptions of people who read corporate web pages and those who read corporate blogs. They found the blog readers perceived a more “human” voice than web page readers and that those perceptions impacted relational outcomes, such as trust and commitment. Trust and commitment can really change the nature of interactions. Since there’s a lot of evidence that identity development is impacted through social interactions, I thought it was important to ask if these recruitment blogs, with their ability to be perceived as more “human” than standard web pages, impacted student perceptions and their relational outcomes with educational institutions. The “human voice” that Kelleher and Miller referred to was similar to the role “authenticity” played in my study. If students perceived the blog as authentic, then they were more open to interact, and that social interaction had the potential to impact their identity development, reduce anxiety and inform their college choice.
Did any student comments surprise you?
Yes. I really expected much more skepticism on the part of the students when reading blogs in which the message of the blogger was very closely aligned to the institution’s admission messages. But the difference in how students perceived the message was more related to their perception of the blog as authentic and less related to its alignment with the institution’s messages.
Why can high school students identify so greatly with college student bloggers they've never met?
Remember, they didn’t identify with every blogger. Just as you and I are more open to interactions with people we view as “genuine” or “authentic,” these prospective college students opened up when they perceived the blogger to be authentic. Only those bloggers the students perceived as authentic led them to internalize the blog and have more meaningful interactions with it.
How can colleges find authentic/effective student bloggers?
It’s not so much about finding the right bloggers as it is about setting the right expectations for the bloggers. It’s important to share with the bloggers the importance of accurately depicting their campuses, so when prospective students “try on” the institution, they are forming realistic expectations. That’s key, and it’s also the key to ethical recruitment. Once the bloggers understand those expectations, then the signifiers of blog authenticity from the study can serve as a guide on how to present the information in their blog so prospective students will be more likely to perceive it as authentic. For example, some bloggers may think they have to use a more formal tone since they are working for admission, but prospective students expect college students to be informal and conversational. My best advice is to instruct your bloggers to share their stories about college life as if they were talking to a friend or family member.
Now, post-publication, is there anything you'd like to add?
Identity development is impacted through social interactions, so any time you change the nature of an interaction to make it more authentic, there’s potential to shape students’ identities. New social media tools that foster more authentic interactions are being created every day, and pose a great opportunity and a great responsibility for those who use them to recruit students. Although this study focused on interactions with blogs, interactions with other forms of social media may also impact identity development. It’s an area ripe for study.
Dr. Jean Kelso Sandlin, assistant professor of communication at California Lutheran University, teaches public relations and advertising. She has more than 20 years professional experience creating and directing campaigns in various sectors, including education, government and healthcare. Her research interests include authenticity, social media, digital storytelling, and pedagogy.