Young woman vlogger taking selfie video for TikTok

How TikTok turned back-to-school into a reality show

Words By Kathryn Lindsay5 mins

Social media is giving users front-row seats to the college experience, documenting everything from dorm decor to making friends.

Young woman vlogger taking selfie video for TikTok

Photo by Liza Summer

There’s never been a back-to-school season like Fall 2021 before. In August, TikTok was captivated by University of Alabama’s sorority recruitment videos that turned the previously insular rush process into an Olympic-style sport, viewed by digital spectators all over the world. #BamaRush, as it was coined, began with college freshmen documenting every detail of the ritualistic rush process, from their #OOTD’s to the Greek life events they attended, and morphed into an addictive, never ending hashtag featuring TikToks from every college in the country—and people long out of college, too.

Bama Rush videos didn’t go viral because they were particularly interesting—in fact, some were seemingly mundane—but because the explosion of social media during the coronavirus pandemic means that even the most routine aspects of one’s daily life are being documented and dramatized on places like YouTube and TikTok for an engaged audience. And, since nearly half of all TikTok users in the US are between ages 10-29, back-to-school content is booming this year.

For Instance, Ryan Manderbach began his junior year at Penn State in August openly talking about his loneliness on TikTok. When the creator began spending time with a new friend, Evan, he shared the news in a playful video. Now, over 100,000 followers tune in every day to see what Ryan and Evan get up to on campus, even making them minor celebrities among students at the university.

Ryan Manderbach TikTok video with his friend Evan

College student Ryan Manderbach and his friend Evan have a TikTok video

College TikToks like Manderbach’s inspired 19-year-old Jay, who attends Ohio University, to make a TikTok video with his friends about looking to meet new people on campus. After just one hour, the video had over 3,000 views. By the second day, it had over a thousand comments.

“People from OU were telling us what halls they were in, exchanging socials, and really just bonding as a school,” Jay says over Instagram DM. “But what made it even crazier was people from out of state and other schools were doing the same thing, not only attempting to be friends with us but connecting with people in the comments.”

The back-to-school season has become its own kind of reality show on social media, with strangers becoming invested in the personal and academic lives of both influencers and everyday users whose content online happened to take off.

“Just today, multiple people in school were like, ‘I’ve seen you on my For You page,’” Olive Eng-Canty, a Parsons School of Design freshman studying fashion and posting daily college outfit videos for her 350,000 TikTok followers, says over the phone. “People come up to me in school and on the street and ask me about my videos.”

For 20-year-old Audrey Atienza, however, being a public figure on campus isn’t a new feeling. The University of Texas at Austin student has been making YouTube videos for three years for almost 100,000 subscribers, documenting virtual school during the pandemic and her experience in a sorority. Atienza uses Linktree to promote her Instagram and YouTube, as well as her partnerships with brands like Daily Harvest, which has made content creation her side hustle, alongside her schoolwork.

“I have had a lot of people come up to me and say that my videos have helped them through the process or even that my daily vlogs helped them decide to go to UT because it gave them insight to what their life would be like here,” Atienza says over email. “College is so different and can be scary at first, so I like being able to show people what it is like for those who are deciding on or preparing to come to college.”

That’s something Eng-Canty’s followers can relate to. The popular fashion creator says many of her followers are fellow college and even Parsons students, but that a not insignificant amount of her audience use her videos for their own college search.

“I got a lot of comments like, ‘How did you get into fashion school? That’s my dream to go to fashion school,’” she says. “So I think there are a lot of people living vicariously through [me].”

Aside from being a helpful tool for aspiring college-goers, or providing entertainment to people via social media, Atienza’s main reason for documenting her school experience is much more sentimental.

“I love knowing that I will be able to look back on this special time in my life through my videos,” she says.

While students are just beginning to navigate their roles as both academics and creators, school life is a genre that will dominate social media for the rest of this semester and beyond: Eng-Canty says she recently signed with an agency to figure out her longer term goals with fashion, school, and social media.

But you don’t need hundreds of thousands of followers in order to be a successful student and creator. Platforms like Linktree make it easy to showcase your various social media and direct audiences to the back-to-school content they want to see—so you can focus on college paper deadlines and looming all-nighters instead. At least in 2021, creators know their followers are right there with them.

About the author: Kathryn Lindsay is freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Read more of her work at


5 mins

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