Social media consultants and admissions officers agree that teens should not be afraid to post comments and photos online — colleges are not poring through posts to find reasons to reject students. Instead, they are looking to learn more about you, so give them something to see.
Here’s what students can do to ensure that their online footprint will enhance their college application and not undermine it.
Google yourself. Colleges operate under the assumption that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Search your name online to learn what admissions officers will see, paying special attention to the links on the first page of results.
Scan for and Remove Questionable Content. Scan through all your social media accounts and any content that comes up when searching your name in Google. If there is anything that doesn’t look good or would create a red flag for colleges, then see what you can do to fix the situation (i.e. erasing, editing, hiding).
If you’re wondering what exactly counts as “questionable,” ask yourself, “Would I be comfortable showing it to my parents and grandparents?” If you have a concern, then you probably don’t want it to be publicly viewable. Harvard rescinded 10 admissions offers in spring 2017 after prospective students made offensive jokes in a Facebook chat that students believed to be private. Another student informed admissions about the chat, and the participating students were asked to submit everything they had shared.
Get help scanning your digital footprint. It’s most common for students to ask their parents for help. Have them Google you and see what they find. Another approach is to organize a digital footprint cleanse with friends where you get together after school or on the weekend for a few hours to review each others’ digital footprints checking for improprieties. If you’re one of our students, you might also ask your coach to help.
Learn about privacy settings. This relates to the above section. Many social media users adjust the privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, but they don’t always understand what those settings do. “Students just make the assumption that if they feel something is private, or if they’ve made it private, that no one will ever be able to see it,” Jennifer Gayles (Director of Admissions at Sarah Lawrence College) says. “We know that that isn’t always the case.”
For instance, even if you set Facebook photo albums to be viewable only by you, anyone you tag in a picture can still see it. And that means they can save the photograph and then share it separately. Facebook has a “View As” feature that shows you what your profile will look like to the public or to a specific Facebook user. Another tactic is to temporarily “unfriend” one of your peers, then look up your profile from their account to learn what other users of the platform can see.
Use social media to showcase yourself to colleges and to the world. Don’t just cleanse your digital footprint. You also need to make sure to show them who you are: your strengths, your voice, your journey and your achievements. Admissions officers want applicants who are dynamic and engaged in their community so cleansing everything from your online profile is also a red flag! The best applicants have rich digital footprints indicating that they have been active in grade school and will be good contributors to the college community. If you started something like a business or club, if you’ve won awards, had your art showcased, or achieved anything else, then make sure it is reflected online. We recommend keeping a blog where you document your achievements, and especially your journey and learnings along the way. Students forget that colleges often like students who have failed boldly as much as students with great achievements, but you need to show the journey to prove that you’ve learned from said failure (or achievement) and the best way is through a blog. Well, to be honest, press coverage is even better, but that’s not easy to get (especially when you fail).
We also recommend creating a LinkedIn account, where you can present your accomplishments and experience, putting your best foot forward. LinkedIn is a great way to build your online presence because Google pushes it to the top of its search results — ahead of content you may be less eager to promote.
Check for Story Alignment. One big flag for colleges is if your college application seems inconsistent with your online profile. For example, if you say you’re deeply passionate about issues of poverty and inequality, but if you’re active on Facebook and have never posted or liked anything related to those topics, then that might raise some questions. Think about how you’re presenting yourself to colleges and then check to see if your online profiles reflect that adequately.
College applications are a great excuse to optimize your digital footprint, but it’s a great exercise in general, since people will always be checking you out online for different reasons (internships, summer programs, jobs, friends, potential boy/girlfriends, etc). Every week it feels as though there’s a different news story about someone losing their job because of these very issues relating to social media. So take a few hours and do it right.