As long as there’s been social media, there have been people sharing their accomplishments, to the delight or displeasure of their friends. But lately, perhaps no category of social-media brag has become more divisive than the college-acceptance post.
Many people cheer such posts, arguing that after four years of hard work, high-school seniors and their parents should shout the news from the rooftops. But many others loathe them, saying the not-so-humble brags add to the pressure around college admissions and inevitably leave others feeling bad.
After the unusual year students have had, many members of the last two high-school graduating classes have grown more reflective on how to share their news. This year, college acceptance has been especially competitive. After many universities waived college-entrance exams, a record number of students applied to college, leaving more students on wait lists or turned down by their top-choice schools.
Some have opted to share their good news only with close friends and not post at all; others are posting low-key Instagram stories that disappear quickly. Some friends have agreed to post on one another’s behalf, so as not to appear boastful.
Gael Aitor, a high-school senior in Anaheim, Calif., co-hosts the Teenager Therapy podcast. When he asked his fellow hosts if they wanted to open their college notification letters on-air for an episode on the admissions process, they said they preferred to do it privately.
“We are aware that some people didn’t get in to where they wanted, and we didn’t want to rub it in their faces,” said Gael, who posted an Instagram story about his University of California, Berkeley acceptance. He has decided to go to a community college because of his L.A.-based podcast obligations. “It feels a little cringeworthy to make a big deal out of your college acceptance,” he said.
Often, it’s the parents who make the biggest deal out of college acceptances and decisions. Who can blame them? They’ve been helping their kids with homework for years and guiding them through the byzantine application process—and they’re about to fork over a ton of money. There are posts featuring giant letter balloons of the college’s initials, school swag or acceptance letters laid out across teens’ beds—even cakes decorated in school colors. Many video posts on social media capture students’ emotional reactions when they learn that they got in.
Many teens told me they don’t want their parents to post news of their college acceptances, or they at least want the opportunity to post first themselves. Some said it’s embarrassing. They’d rather their parents just tell them they’re proud, rather than tell all their
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“Teens in general are more sensitive than adults, who didn’t grow up with social media, to the nuances and implications of sharing,” said Devorah Heitner, a digital parenting expert who has been interviewing teens for a forthcoming book about growing up online. “Many teens have had Instagram since seventh grade and so by senior year they’ve had time to think about what might alienate their friends. Many of them who are applying to the same schools as their friends are agreeing to text each other before sharing the news widely.”
Last year, the University of Georgia posted its decision letters online on Friday, March 13—the day Riley Gross’s high school in Hoschton, Ga., announced it would close due to Covid-19. Her mother, Stacey Gross, decided to film the moment her daughter logged into the university’s student portal. When digital fireworks lit up the screen, indicating she had been accepted, Riley and her family cried with joy.
Her mom posted the video on Facebook. “It wasn’t this huge reveal but it was a necessary bit of excitement when we thought the world was coming to an end,” Ms. Gross, said. “I doubt I would have posted it if she hadn’t gotten in. It would have been pretty devastating.”
Riley posted the video on Instagram and later on TikTok, and said she was happy to have her mom post the news. “You should be mindful of others but if you accomplish something, you have a right to be proud of yourself and you have a right to tell others,” Riley said.
While the Gross family was celebrating Riley’s acceptance, Kelsey Moore was having the opposite experience. Kelsey, a classmate of Riley’s, also had her heart set on UGA. Both of her parents had gone there and her boyfriend, Nick Kalenik, had received an early acceptance to the school. Nick set his phone to record her logging in to the school’s portal but instead of seeing fireworks, Kelsey said she saw the dreaded words, “We regret to inform you…”
Kelsey decided to post the emotional video to TikTok anyway. It went viral, garnering more than 1.4 million views. “Part of me just wanted to post it so people would know I didn’t get in and stop texting me,” she said. “Most people only post the good things that happen in their life and I wanted people to realize it’s not always good news.”
The comments she received were encouraging. Strangers thanked her for being real and shared their own college-application disappointments.
“It was really tough watching her be so vulnerable and to see her turn around and share it. At first I thought, ‘What has she done?’” said her mother, Julie Moore. “But then I thought it took a lot of self-worth and confidence to share this intimate moment with people. I was proud.”
Ms. Gross, who is a friend of Ms. Moore, said she’s sensitive to those who don’t get the same kind of good news. Still, she said, it shouldn’t stop people from announcing happy news. “I think all parents want to celebrate their kids’ accomplishments, especially this year and last year when kids have been robbed of so much,” she said.
Ms. Gross said she has noticed this year that there haven’t been as many posts about college acceptance letters. Parents have told her, “If you don’t see a post, don’t ask.”
Kelsey ended up attending Auburn University for her first year and applied for a transfer to UGA for this fall. In March—almost a year to the date that she posted the initial rejection video—she learned that her transfer had been approved.
She posted a TikTok video where she learns she finally gets to go to her dream school. It got 509 views.
How to Share Your Child’s College News (or Not)
Allow your child to post first. Teens often want to share their own news before their friends hear about it through their parents’ grapevine. Many teens are sensitive to how their friends will feel, especially if they’ve applied to the same schools, according to Ms. Heitner, the digital parenting expert.
Ask your child before posting. It’s wise to ask their permission first—and allow them to approve your post.
Be mindful of word choice. Because there is so much weight to the words “accepted” and “rejected,” Dana Dorfman, an adolescent therapist and advisory board member for the Teen Brain Trust, suggests saying your teen has been “admitted” or “not admitted” to a particular college.
Celebrate children’s other paths. Some teens (and their parents) feel left out when they see or hear other parents praising their children’s acceptances into four-year colleges. Parenting experts say it’s important to celebrate the kids who are going to community college, joining the military or entering the workforce after high school.
Take a break from social media this month. For parents or teens who feel disappointed about their college prospects, Ms. Heitner said it isn’t a bad idea to tune out social media in May, when college decision posts peak.
The Wall Street Journal is creating a special project about the one thing teens want their future selves to remember from 2020. If you know of a high-school student who would like to participate, please have them submit an entry here.
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Write to Julie Jargon at [email protected]
Corrections & Amplifications
A photo showing Riley Gross celebrating her college acceptance was taken by her mother, Stacey Gross, and posted on Instagram by a friend. An earlier version of this article said the photo was from her mother’s Facebook post. (Corrected on May 1.)
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