This past week, in a well-publicized story that made international news, Harvard University rescinded offers of admission to more than ten students who posted obscene, sexually explicit and racist memes in a private Facebook group. The chat forum where the offensive memes were discovered by Harvard officials, was an offshoot of another online Facebook page for students admitted to the University’s Class of 2021.
The group, which changed names several times, was at one point, titled “Offensive memes for horny bourgeois teens.” One would think that the a collection of students who had traversed through the Harvard admissions gauntlet and won acceptance from a pool of candidates who all had near-perfect SAT scores and impeccable high school transcripts would be wise enough to steer clear of something posing such an obvious risk. Yet, amazingly a number of Harvard acceptees did the exact same thing last year, when members of the Class of 2020 exchanged similarly-themed messages on an app called GroupMe, but ultimately escaped discipline.
If prospective Harvard students can be this reckless online, imagine the dangers faced by the average college-bound student. Scary, right? Don’t worry, if you follow our simple advice you/your teen will not have anything to fear.
How common is online snooping by admission offices?
The majority of college admissions officers rarely, if ever, Google applicants names, rifle through their Facebook accounts, carefully pore over their archived tweets, or analyze their “selfies” on Instagram for artistic value. For some officers, this is a moral issue; your social media should be your private space. For others, such as those at universities receiving 80,000 plus applicants, stalking forgotten Myspace pages for evidence of middle school misdeeds would be a terribly wasteful use of precious time.
While most admissions offices steer clear of online snooping, the practice has trended sharply upward over the last ten years. In 2008, Kaplan reported that only 10% of officers bothered looking at an applicant’s social media pages. In 2017, that number has increased to 35% and a similar number of officers report at least Googling an applicant simply to see if any relevant information, positive or negative, can be gleaned. A staggering 42% of those surveyed, however, reported ultimately finding something that negatively impacted their view of an applicant.
The extent of your digital footprint
Immigration laws recently enacted by the Trump administration allow U.S. immigration officials to review any visiting foreigner’s social media pages going back five years. While intended to catch extremists and potential terrorist threats, not naughty college applicants, this transpiring gives insight into the nothing-is-private milieu of digital life today.
Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has innocently (hopefully) cyberstalked someone else at some point—a crush, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, or that weird guitar-playing English teacher who supposedly once opened for Hootie and the Blowfish… Now it’s time to turn your online sleuthing skills on a more familiar target—yourself.
As an exercise, Google yourself and see what comes up. Scroll into the deep recesses of your long abandoned ask.fm pages and refresh your memory about the dumb things your 9th grade self may have posted for the entire world for view. Dig far back through your Facebook page. Were you tagged doing something inappropriate in a group photo you barely even remember taking?
You don’t have to shut down your online life—you just want to make sure that nothing in cyberspace will cause you to make a poor first impression on admission officers. There is nothing wrong with having a Facebook page, but be cognizant of the fact that many admissions personnel may frown upon the contents of your Spring Break 2016 Facebook album, unless, of course, you spent that time at a robotics competition in Dayton, Ohio rather than guzzling Keystone Lights with your bros at Daytona Beach. Even if the majority of schools never peer into your online life, there is simply no good reason to risk jeopardizing your chances of admission for the sake of maintaining that risqué Instagram page.
Use social media to your advantage
Using social media is not universally a bad thing when it comes to college admissions. In fact, it can be quite helpful.
Colleges and universities have expanded their own use of social networking in recent years, utilizing websites such as Facebook and Twitter to help connect with potential applicants. Interacting with schools through social media can prove informative and show the admissions office that you are seriously considering their institution. “Following” a school can be an excellent way to demonstrate interest virtually, without the cost and effort of a campus visit (although this is still recommended as well).
The bottom line
Do not post anything online (or keep anything active online during the admissions process) that you do not feel represents your best self. “Stalk” your own digital presence and make sure that nothing inappropriate, offensive, or otherwise undesirable pops up. If it does, take it down. While most students’ errors in cyber-judgment won’t land them on the front page of the New York Times, as with our Harvard example, thousands of applicants each year will quietly, and perhaps without ever being told, will lose their chances at being admitted to a top-choice college because of a simple internet search. It only takes a minimal amount of effort and common sense to ensure that you are not among them.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).