Pre-college group chats: convenience or concern?


Sarah Scherkenbach

Out of a myriad of messaging apps, GroupMe is one of the most common for pre-college group chats.

Nilesh Patel (‘22) remembers checking his phone before crew practice one afternoon. As he walked down the stairs of the boathouse, he noticed his phone repeatedly ringing, receiving text after text after text.

The many messages came from a group chat reserved for admitted incoming freshmen of The George Washington University.

According to Patel, the 120-person group chat housed text threads that “bounced” from topic to topic. Though discussions were anchored to financial aid at first, Patel noticed the chat became unproductive soon after. With later conversations on the politics of Israel and others on how amazing cats are – all happening simultaneously – the group’s dialogue was “pretty chaotic and questionable,” according to Patel.

After all, it seemed like college was the last thing they wanted to talk about.

Known as a pre-college group chat, Patel’s George Washington chat is one of many college messaging systems that offer an opportunity for admitted, incoming first-year students to communicate with other freshmen, according to Assistant Director of College Counseling Abigail Klinckhardt.

Whether through GroupMe, Facebook, or Instagram, incoming first-years can find an abundance of social engagement possibilities in these chats, fostering connections with other students before college even begins.

While some colleges create their own first-year social platforms, most pre-college group chats are student-created and student-controlled.

Klinckhardt facilitated one of the less-common college-organized group chats when she worked at Washington University in St. Louis. Using a program called Wisr, a software created specifically for pre-college group chats, the university’s admissions office fostered student connections by leading get-to-know-you activities and managing student participation through giveaways.

“There wasn’t a ton of engagement, or as much as we were expecting,” Klinckhardt said, but she believes the atmosphere of the chat was consistently cheerful and inviting. “If there was any negativity, those students just didn’t sign up. It was all just really exciting and positive.”

For both college-facilitated chats and student-created ones, Klinckhardt believes the groups are appealing to students who want to get a head start on the social aspects of college. She said, “I think it just helps you get started and get in that headspace of meeting new people and making new friends, which can help add to the excitement [of college].”

And yet, despite the positive intentions of pre-college group chats, several incidents of foul language and humor on these chats have garnered national news coverage over the past decade. Most famously, a group of Harvard prospective students posted anti-Semitic and racist memes on their Facebook group page in 2017, seemingly promoting racially motivated crimes and mocking sexual assault.

Klinckhardt points out that these students hiding behind a screen only represent a fraction of the incoming student body, and the exposure of this misbehavior may actually be beneficial. “I’m glad that was brought to light, because those students aren’t a good fit then for [Harvard].”

And Patel isn’t at all surprised by this event, as he witnessed similar topics – including jokes about human trafficking – in his GW group chat. “I think they kinda forget there’s someone else on the other end of a group chat or a text thread.”

After witnessing members of his chat both “hating” on Israel and spreading inaccurate information about the country, Patel found the productivity of the group chat “kinda weird” and decided to leave.

Yet, for Alex Breuer (‘22), who recently committed to Georgetown University for swimming, the experience of her recruiting class’ group chat has been nothing but positive. Though only containing eight or ten people, including a few experienced upperclassmen swimmers already enrolled at the university, Breuer said the chat gave her “a better understanding” of where she fits in on the team.

She said, “I know [my teammates’] names now, and I know what they’re interested in and what their main events are. It makes me feel a little less scared of college.”

Klinckhardt agrees that athletic group chats can generate a more positive environment, since they attract “a smaller, more niche group that have a common set interest, with similar schedules and similar things that [they’re] struggling with.”

Further, in comparison to academic group chats, Breuer believes her swimming group chat is less burdened by ambition, despite being dedicated to athletics and competition. “I feel like there’s a competitiveness in academic group chats like ‘I got this on the SAT,’ whereas for us it’s like ‘I’m here to swim, and you’re also here to swim. That’s what we’re doing right now.’”

When weighing the pros and cons of pre-college group chats, one of the most frequent reasons to join is the fear that meeting people in person won’t be as accessible as making friends virtually, and perhaps socializing face-to-face seems impossible with the ongoing pandemic.

But Klinckhardt reminds incoming freshmen that once on-campus as a first-year student, college is a new experience for everyone – even after meeting or finding a roommate. “It’s probably one of the easiest times in your life to make friends. Everyone’s trying to do that.”

Despite this, Klinckhardt sees no disadvantage in joining a pre-college group chat, holding onto the possibility of an amazing experience meeting new people, while keeping in mind the possibility of not making any new friends. And even in the latter scenario, Klinckhardt sees benefits. “When it comes time to actually make connections in person, you feel a little bit more confident, you feel a little bit less alone, even if you never actually meet these people in real life.”

In spite of what he witnessed in the GW group chat, Patel frequently considers rejoining in order to find a roommate. His friends have suggested Facebook, but he believes the members “would just be moms” – which later proved true when he found GW’s six-person Facebook group. With no other option, the group chat appears to be his last hope. “Maybe I’ll decide to [join again], based on what I’ve seen.”

Until then, Patel reminisces on his pre-college group chat experiences by recognizing that the benefits may outweigh the detriments. “I didn’t meet any new people, but I know of people now that I don’t want to meet. And I should probably find a roommate outside of the school’s algorithm system, [so] it was pretty helpful.”