It was just after 3 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29 when Cameron Allen, a senior at Laingsburg High School in Laingsburg, Mich., received the email he was waiting for. As Allen’s parents hovered over his shoulder, he clicked on his computer mouse and instantly jumped out of his seat in excitement.

“I got in,” he shouted, looking directly at the camera he positioned to record his and his family’s reaction on TikTok, a popular video-sharing app that rose to prominence this past year.

His parents’ faces morphed from anxious to a mix of relief and excitement as they saw the confetti appear on screen, signaling an acceptance to the University of Michigan. Allen hugged his parents as “Latch” by Disclosure and Sam Smith, a popular song among TikTok creators, played in the background.

 “I started recording because my school is super rural and most of the colleges I applied to nobody else did,” Allen said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I’m doing this to show my classmates they can achieve the impossible … somebody from a small town in Michigan can get into these high-achieving schools.”

Allen’s 40-second TikTok followed the script of a typical college admission reaction video: family huddling around a nervous applicant, looks of anxiety washing away to excitement or disappointment when the decision appears on screen. As TikTok continues to climb in popularity, particularly with Generation Z users, it has become a go-to platform for sharing these moments.

When the University’s early action admissions decisions came out Friday afternoon, hundreds of high school seniors vying for a spot in the class of 2025 took to TikTok to share their results. For creators such as Julia Heilman, a senior at Clarkston High School in Clarkston, Mich., it was like a chain reaction: she saw reactions from other applicants on the platform and wanted to add hers to the growing pool.

“I thought I’d film my reaction because I didn’t have anyone home at the time and wanted to open it right away,” Heilman said. “Then, I saw other people make videos and thought, ‘This makes me happy, I might as well share it.’”

An atypical application cycle

College applicants around the world have turned to TikTok to share updates throughout this application cycle. Some users have “dueted” old videos about the admissions process — meaning they put an older video next to a newer video within one frame — as they heard back from each school they applied to. This trend of posting decision reactions on the app became popular when Tulane University began releasing early decision and early action results in November, though this type of video has been made since the early days of YouTube.

Admissions offices at schools like the University of Florida and Louisiana State University started using the platform this year to reach the next generation of applicants. Whether on TikTok or not, admissions offices across the country have spent the last year creating virtual replacements for the campus tours and college fairs lost to the ongoing pandemic in hopes of connecting with prospective students.

Following the lead of other colleges across the country, the University of Michigan instituted a test-flexible application policy in response to canceled and postponed SAT and ACT testing dates due to the pandemic. The early action deadline was pushed two weeks later than normal this year, meaning decisions did not come out until a month later than they did in prior cycles.

With a public health-adjusted school year and campus tours now virtual or self-guided, it has become more difficult for prospective students to decide if the University is right for them.

But TikTok and other social media platforms allow admitted students to find other admittees and get a better understanding of the school without physically being there, according to Olivia Phillips, a senior at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey who was accepted to the University Friday. 

The #umich2025 hashtag, which Phillips and other creators used when posting decision reactions, has accumulated more than 300,000 views on TikTok. In addition to amassing more than 20,000 views, Phillips’ video received comments from other accepted students, allowing her to virtually meet potential peers.

“I’ve already created my own little community within less than 24 hours just from social media, which has been absolutely incredible,” Phillips said. “Even though we can’t have those in-person experiences, it’s not completely lost because we’ve been able to remedy that with other methods.”

College acceptances caught on camera

When some applicants got the email notifying them that their early action results were available on Friday afternoon, they waited to open them until they could set up their camera and record the outcome. Others said they held off on making videos until after knowing they were accepted to avoid being on camera if they received bad news.

Some admittees took to TikTok to tell the world that their dreams came true, but for those who received a result they weren’t hoping for, it was to tell of a dream deferred. The University’s freshman class acceptance rate typically falls around 25%, making gaining acceptance competitive and deferrals common in the early action round. In a video announcing he got deferred, one applicant asked, “Did anyone actually get in?”

For those who were accepted, they wanted to share their acceptances with classmates, but that was difficult to do with many still learning from home. According to Jeanie Chang, a senior at Northwest High School in Germantown, Md. who made a video after being accepted to LSA, TikTok is one solution to this dilemma because it allows seniors to share their results with peers around the world.

Chang said posting admissions decisions to TikTok is less taboo than on other apps like Instagram because the algorithm of videos makes the platform feel less formal and tied to one’s personal image. In her experience, TikTok has become a virtual community where seniors can come together to celebrate one another’s victories or provide support to those who got undesired results.

 “This is one way of coping with losing out on senior year, and it’s fun to celebrate with others,” Chang said. “Even though I got rejected from other schools, I’m living vicariously through other people. It’s just fun to hype people up.”

 A genre of its own

Though TikTok has risen in popularity as a hub for sharing the highs and lows of the college admissions process, the app hasn’t dethroned other platforms used to share college-related intel. College Confidential, a messaging forum used by applicants and their families to speculate about admissions, lit up like it has in previous years as applicants began posting their results to the University-focused page.

YouTube is also still a destination for these videos as well as longer, vlog-style posts about the admissions process. Chang, who is waiting to hear from all the schools she applied to before making a final decision on where to attend, is recording her reaction to every school’s decision so she can eventually make a YouTube video about her college selection experience.

College acceptance videos have become somewhat of their own genre, specifically on YouTube, and TikTok offers another avenue for sharing these short, high-energy videos with a wide audience. Because TikTok’s algorithm system displays videos from users beyond just those who someone follows — on a feed known as the “For You Page” — admittees’ reactions spread widely. 

LSA junior Alissa Elanjian, a campus representative for TikTok, said one of the characteristics that drives people to the platform is the fact that videos can be seen by people the creator might not expect.

 “Both the positive and negative reactions people post can inspire the younger crowd — people in high school or even middle school — to consider their own futures and possibly make lifestyle changes to reach those goals,” Elanjian said. “It can also just get people thinking about it, and making a TikTok is a good way to get something in someone’s head.”

Ellen McClain, a senior at Grady High School in Atlanta, Ga., said she posted to TikTok in part to find other University acceptees. McClain knew her video could be seen by other creators who had also been accepted, she said, even if they don’t follow each other.

McClain has been successful so far: multiple creators who were also accepted commented on her video, and one messaged her on Instagram. Her video received more than 50,000 views in three days, despite her having just above 500 followers on the app.

“It’s nice to know that everyone is kind of going through the same thing, especially for other seniors, so we can all come together,” McClain said. “I’ve already seen a few other videos of people getting in and it makes me happy to see that we can all be happy about this, even with how weird this year has been.”

Though not all students who posted videos say the University is their first choice, they were relieved to be accepted. This application cycle has been more stressful than normal given the changes caused by the pandemic, Heilman said, which ultimately made getting accepted more meaningful.

Having faced a tumultuous year with an abrupt end to in-person learning in March 2020 and the cancellation of high school staples like homecoming and football games this fall, these creators said they found comfort in knowing they have a stable future to look toward.

And for a handful, the moment they captured on camera sealed the deal for their next four years. They’ll be in Ann Arbor.

Within hours of receiving her acceptance and posting to TikTok, Phillips, the senior from New Jersey, updated the biography section of her Instagram profile to reflect her commitment to the University.

Using all capital letters, with two colored heart emojis paying tribute to the University’s classic maize and blue, Phillips proudly declared she was a member of the class of 2025.

Daily Staff Reporter Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu.

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