Inside the world of college vlogs: Are Youtubers commodifying the ‘elite college’ experience?

Aug. 13, 2019, 4:02 p.m.

“You seem like such a wonderful person. I really want to go to Stanford now since there are people like you there!” 

This comment, left by Youtube user Helena Zhu, is just one of many on a video Katherine Waissbluth ’22 made about Stanford application essays on her channel, “The Kath Path.” The video, like others on Waissbluth’s channel, has garnered tens of thousands of views, and more than 100 comments. Many commenters, like Zhu, describe their desire to attend Stanford. 

Alongside an ever-growing mass of Stanford-related Youtube content, the number of applications to Stanford has been increasing steadily for years; in 2017 there were 38,828 applicants to the class of 2021, in 2018 there were 44,073 applicants to the class of 2022, and this year there were a record-breaking 47,450 applicants to the class of 2023. 

This increase in applicants and — as a result, rejections — is not just correlated with, but perhaps contributing to the emergence of Stanford-based YouTubers who provide further media exposure for the University. And this kind of positive feedback loop isn’t limited to Stanford alone. The same can be observed at other elite colleges.

From day-in-the-life videos and dorm room tours to orientation clips and guides on how to get into any school, the stream of college content never seems to run dry. Whether the college experience is depicted accurately or not, the proliferation of college-branded videos attracts young viewers whose perception of schools may be influenced by what they see online.

Amid the popularization of online videos, “college vlogging” has become a niche of its own. Stanford has housed multiple college YouTubers, some of whom are perceived as “brand names” among doe-eyed viewers across the country, and even the world. “The Kath Path” has joined several other Stanford-based Youtube channels, such as “Cath In College” (Catherine Goetze ’18), “Spirited Gal” (Aparna Verma ’20) and other popular YouTubers at prestigious universities, who together have garnered millions of subscribers eager to learn about “elite” university lifestyle. 

Austin Yao, a rising high school junior from North Carolina, told The Daily about his experience seeing Princeton University through the eyes of successful college Youtuber Nicholas Chae. Yao said he “began to think about Princeton differently” after watching one of Chae’s videos about the school’s economics department.

“I was already sort of interested in an economics major, but hadn’t actually done any research about it yet,” Yao said. “ … [Chae] had pictures of his notes and stuff, and I thought that was pretty cool.”

Aryaman Bana, another rising junior in high school and a friend of Yao, said watching Chae’s videos “catalyzed” his desire to go to an Ivy League school, but also blinded him from considering lesser-known alternatives. After watching countless videos about the elite college experience, Bana concluded that he was left with “this seed planted in my head that certain brand-name schools are the best, so I have to go there.”

Separating the individual from the brand

The relationship between colleges and college YouTubers is one of mutual impact. Sienna Santer, a Youtuber at Harvard, spoke about how the pressure to live up to the Harvard name affected her while producing content. In an email to The Daily, Santer wrote that “Harvard is a household name, and one of the top ten brands in the world.”

“People have such a warped and stereotyped view of what it’s actually like to go there, and so it has been difficult to have the Harvard name attached to [my channel] because I show a very different reality than what most people expect,” Santer wrote. ” … I’m social and I go out, I do well in my classes, I don’t pull all nighters, I have amazing friends and I don’t look like a stereotypical ‘Harvard student.’”

YouTuber Arpi Park ’22, on the other hand, wrote in an email to The Daily that he feels liberated by the sheer number of students attending Stanford — and the unique experience that is guaranteed by its multiplicity. 

“Stanford’s reputation is far beyond the scope of my channel, so I don’t think I could do much to affect it (good or bad),” Park wrote. “So, overall, Stanford’s name doesn’t really affect the way I portray my college experience. I never feel pressured to come off as a ‘typical Stanford student,’ which, in my opinion, doesn’t really exist anyways.”

Like many other college Youtubers, Santer, Waissbluth and Park started their channels with the intention of helping out high school students in the elusive and often inaccessible college admissions process.

“I remembered how unfair the information gap seemed to be when I was a senior in high school, and I wanted to help reduce it,” Park wrote. “A few months after that, I made more videos pretty much because I was bored. It always seemed like a fun, productive hobby … I imagine college youtube is to high schoolers what High School Musical was to me — a sort of glimpse of what their future may look like.”

Santer shares clips of her day-to-day life — such as attending social events and exercising at the gym — to demystify the college experience she believes school counselors tend to depict: stressed out students toiling to earn their degrees, barely passing difficult midterms and studying the nights away for final exams.

However, Santer admits that “social media and YouTube will always portray an idealized version of life to some extent.”

“We [Youtubers] can’t show every single part of our days, we don’t share everything with the camera, and no matter how authentic the footage is, we still have to edit it and create a final project that people will enjoy aesthetically and content-wise,” she wrote.

As more and more college YouTubers showcase seemingly uncharacteristic aspects of their lives — whether it be flying over New York in a helicopter or spending weekends guzzling beer — colleges are increasingly perceived not only as places of study, but also those of socialization, glamour and fun. Some viewers, who “demand authenticity and relatability more than anything,” according to Santer, have not been receptive to these types of changes.

“This past year I really struggled with perfectionism and not feeling like I was good enough, and as a result that transferred into some of my videos,” she wrote. “I’m such a people pleaser, and I was so scared of people rejecting me both online and around campus. A lot of those fears came true, some because I was portraying a more idealized version of my life than what I actually experienced, and I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t speaking my truth and I was getting hated on for it.”

It would be inaccurate to say all college YouTubers strive to portray an “idealized” version of their university experience. Park, for one, makes satirical videos deliberately criticizing the “game of elitism” (a term he synonymizes with college admissions), such as “Buying Your Way Into College: The Game,” “So you’re waiting for college decisions…” and “Ivy League College Tier List,” to name a few. 

“In the future, I plan on making more videos — like actually — but they won’t all be about college because I don’t really enjoy that content personally,” Park said in a vlog recapping his fall quarter

Within a year, Park’s channel has amassed more than three million views, many of which came from a six-minute video detailing the stats and extracurriculars that he believes got him accepted into Stanford. Despite his success, Park wrote in an email to The Daily that refraining from the college-genre in the future was a personal choice, and that he doesn’t see college Youtubers as inherently wrong.

“After all, if they get views, it means people want to see them … I think the college niche on Youtube is fun for a lot of people — whether they are getting excited about college, seeing what other colleges are like, or reminiscing on their own college years,” Park wrote. “Some Youtubers may try to monetize their channels through ads, application services, online courses, etc., which is fine. I’m all for trying to make money on the side (we’re college kids, after all). Personally, I just want to avoid pigeonholing myself into a certain genre that I will ultimately grow out of.” 

Bringing people together through vlogs

For rising sophomore Katherine Waissbluth, creator of “The Kath Path,” what might seem to Park as “milking” the Stanford name is instead a building point for her brand. Her channel caters primarily to those interested in the Stanford experience and potentially applying to the University.

“I believe the Stanford name has been a huge part of my success, especially starting out,” Waissbluth wrote in an email to The Daily. “It is one of the most searched universities in the world, meaning having “Stanford” in my titles allows my videos to be searched more.” 

Santer shares a similar sentiment: “I won’t lie, being a Harvard YouTuber has propelled me forward in the community very rapidly. I’ve seen a lot of unprecedented growth in my subscriber and view count that was quite shocking initially, and I think the Harvard name has a lot to do with that.”

However, Santer has found the college-vlogging experience rewarding in other ways.

“The first time someone recognized me and asked to take a picture with me I started crying! She was visiting all the way from India with her family, and the fact that this little girl halfway across the world knew my name and was touring Harvard because I had inspired her really got to me … I get so emotional when that happens, and it makes everything worth it. It’s a feeling you can’t really describe until it happens to you. It’s unreal.” 

Ultimately, Santer attributes her success only partly to the Harvard name. Though she has worried in the past that people “would only see Harvard” in her, she believes they stay tuned to her channel because of who she is as an individual.

“Reading the comments and messages from subscribers who actually love me as a person, love my editing, am inspired by my life, relate to my struggles, etc. has been amazing and reminded me that I am worth so much more than where I go to school.” Santer wrote.

Contact Ashley Kang at ashley.kang126 ‘at’

Uma was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.Ashley was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.

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