Former admissions officer mocked applicant essays

Nadirah Farah Foley's case raises questions about social media in admissions

· February 26, 2013, 8:24 pm

A former Penn admissions officer who had shared excerpts from applicants’ essays on her personal Facebook page is no longer employed by the University.

Near the end of 2012, Penn’s Office of Admissions was made aware of a series of online posts written by Nadirah Farah Foley — a 2011 Princeton University graduate who had been responsible for coordinating Penn admissions in Connecticut.

In the posts, which were made available through a collection of Facebook screenshots sent anonymously to Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and The Daily Pennsylvanian on Dec. 3, Foley mocked a number of student essays she had come across in her work.

In one essay, a student had written about his “long and deep” connections to the University, citing the fact that he had been circumcised at Penn Hillel years ago.

“I look forward to engaging in the academic, social and Orthodox Jewish communities on campus,” the student wrote, according to Foley’s post.

“Stop the madness,” Foley said in response to the essay on Facebook.

In another excerpt, she quoted an essay in which an applicant had described the experience of overcoming his fear of using the bathroom outdoors while camping in the wilderness.

“Another gem,” Foley wrote of the student’s topic choice.

Apart from confirming that she is no longer employed at Penn, Foley declined to comment for this article. Furda and the University also declined to comment, citing Penn’s policy of not discussing personnel issues.

Although the exact circumstances surrounding Foley’s departure remain uncertain, the Office of Admissions removed her name from its online listing of admissions officers soon after learning about the Facebook posts. As of press time, Foley’s LinkedIn page indicated that she has not been with the University since the end of 2012 — just weeks after the Facebook incident was brought to light.

She began working at Penn in 2011, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In discussing Foley’s situation at Penn, dozens of admissions counselors, officers and experts interviewed for this article agreed that the case raises a number of unsettling — and timely — questions about the impact of social media on the admissions process.

“What happened here is an interesting case study, and really among the first of its type that I’ve heard of,” said 1989 Graduate School of Education alumnus Steven Goodman, a Top Colleges educational consultant. “As admissions has jumped into the social media world with more fervor than ever before, there’s certainly the possibility of something like this happening elsewhere. I think the question of what rules we’re going to put in place to prevent this is going to be on our minds a lot more as things continue to unfold.”

‘A quick laugh after work’

“When a mom just doesn’t understand why I denied her kid.”

“When a high school counselor [recommendation] says a C student is excellent.”

“When seniors come for tours and realize all our application deadlines have passed.”

Each of these excerpts represents the description of a different internet meme on a relatively new — and increasingly popular — Tumblr page called “Admissions Problems.”

In recent years, much of the admissions-related conversation about social media has focused almost exclusively on applicants — posing the question of how, if at all, a student’s Facebook profile should help or hinder their admissions prospects.

With Foley’s posts and the Admissions Problems page in mind, however, some now believe that the social media question needs to be treated as more of a two-way street.

“If we’re telling students to be careful about what they’re posting on Facebook, I think admissions officers need to go above that and be even more scrupulous about what they’re discussing online,” said Bev Taylor, founder of college consulting firm The Ivy Coach. “I don’t know if you’re going to stop people from having a casual conversation about an essay they read, but something as open as going onto social media with that information is absolutely wrong.”

While Engineering junior Cristina Sorice, a member of the Admissions Dean’s Advisory Board, expressed similar views, she believes it is important for admissions officers to have a place where they can go to “laugh off” some of the more unique things they experience.

A current Penn admissions officer, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of concerns over job security, told the DP that she has written to Admissions Problems — which also has more than 4,000 Twitter followers — a number of times with suggested posts.

Although the officer declined to say whether any of her suggestions have made their way online, she believes the site offers a creative outlet to “vent” without violating the “sacred trust” admissions officials have with applicants.

“It’s an online community that I’ll sometimes go to for a quick laugh after work,” she said. “It’s nothing more than that for me, and I think that’s the case for most of us.”

Where to draw the line

While those interviewed agreed that Admissions Problems posts are generally appropriate because they do not discuss individual applicants, many expressed concern over Foley’s situation at Penn.

“To see that something like that would be made public in some forum bothers me,” said Tim Lear, director of college counseling at The Pingry School in Martinsville, N.J. “Kids really put themselves out there in their applications, with the expectation that what they share is going to be kept private, and any breach of that is unfortunate.”

Over the course of its reporting, the DP examined Foley’s Facebook profile — which is currently private for those who are not friends with her — since she started at Penn.

Although the essay excerpts contained in the screenshots sent to Furda were no longer available online, and therefore not independently verifiable, the DP found a number of similar posts that reflect a pattern of Foley using Facebook to share some of her more offbeat admissions experiences.

In one post, for example, Foley attached an image of a jar of honey that an applicant from Connecticut had mailed to her, calling it one of the “perks” of being an admissions officer.

In another, she wrote of a student who told her during a school visit that Penn was located “near the beach.”

Foley’s posts that quoted from applicants’ essays were also shared anonymously in a forum on College Confidential, a popular admissions website.

“This loses my respect for UPenn and for the general admissions process SOOO much,” one user wrote on College Confidential in early December.

Michael Goran, a 1976 College graduate and director of IvySelect College Consulting, said the posts are disconcerting because of the potential “chilling effect” they might have.

“If kids applying to a school like Penn think there’s a chance that this information could get disclosed publicly, then it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility for them to be less willing to write personal, revealing applications,” he said.

Although it is impossible to monitor how many admissions officers use social media to discuss their on-the-job experiences, Goodman believes that many are engaging in the practice — especially since college admissions has become an increasingly young industry.

At Penn, for instance, 10 of the 29 admissions officers listed online have received their undergraduate degrees within the past five years.

“At that age, if you’ve grown up communicating through social media, it could be tough for you to think long term and observe all of the standards of the industry you’re working in,” Lear said. “It’s a different game now, and the stakes keep getting raised.”

While social media use by young admissions officers is a relatively new challenge to grapple with, the issue of applicant privacy has long been discussed in the admissions community.

When Maria Morales-Kent, a former Penn admissions officer and director of college counseling at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif., worked at the University in the 1980s, she said the Office of Admissions made it “abundantly clear” that materials were never to be shared outside the office.

“They told us very clearly that when a student applied, they were entrusting you with their story, and it was up to you to maintain that trust,” she said.

However, President of Hernandez College Consulting Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth College admissions officer, acknowledged that she has heard of instances over the years in which details about individual applicants have “slipped through the cracks.”

“Do admissions officers sit around the committee table and talk about the applications they read and some of the silly things they might come across? Of course,” added former Brown University admissions officer Jeffrey Durso-Finley, the director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J. “But these things shouldn’t become dinner party conversation. That’s where I think it crosses a line.”

Safeguarding applicants

It was spring 2010, and Engineering junior Kai Tang was attending an event for recently admitted students from the Los Angeles area.

As he was standing with a group of fellow high school seniors, Tang recalled, a Penn admissions officer began to read a number of excerpts from students’ application essays, telling them that he was providing a glimpse into the makeup of the incoming class.

Tang had written his own essay about a humorous topic — a “speedo tan” he had gotten while playing water polo — and was surprised when the admissions officer began to read a passage from it.

“I wasn’t angry or anything, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that,” he said.

Today, Penn has a number of policies in place to protect the confidentiality of applicants like Tang — both during and after the admissions process.

Admissions officers at Penn currently receive guidance from the University’s “Principles of Responsible Conduct,” which contain a separate section on “Respect for Privacy and Confidentiality.” According to Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy, all applicant-related information that an admissions employee comes across is considered private by Penn.

In November 2012, the University published a set of social media guidelines in the Penn Almanac, reminding employees that the same privacy standards apply when it comes to posting on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

While Penn does not have a written policy focusing exclusively on admissions confidentiality, the Office of the Provost is currently reviewing a set of proposed regulations that addresses the issue of applicant data privacy.

The office said in a statement that the policy “has been under development and review for some time, significantly predating the alleged incident [with Foley] and reflecting best practices already in effect in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.”

Among other things, the policy, if implemented, would clarify the role that students who work in the admissions office should have when it comes to handling applicants’ files.

“Student workers may be involved in operational tasks in support of admissions processes and have access to personal information of applicants,” the policy reads. “In such cases, students must agree in writing to protect the privacy and security of the information they access.”

The guidelines would also make clear that, apart from using student applications as part of the selection process and as a tool to compile institutional data, those who come across applicant information are not to share it outside the admissions office.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck, who frequently sits on selection committees, believes the policy serves well to codify the current guidance that admissions officers and faculty members receive.

“In the end, the lesson here is that no system is ever 100-percent foolproof, [and] we shouldn’t avoid having safeguards in place to protect the thousands of applicants who send in admissions materials every year,” Goodman added. “This policy seems like a good start.”

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