The question comes up all the time among college and graduate school applicants: Are admissions officers looking at me online? Followed by: "Do I need to 'clean up' my Facebook profile and Twitter feeds before applying to college, and if so, how?
Might I be denied or accepted based on my online life?
The role of social media in admissions is a two-way street. Most colleges are honest about using Facebook to reach out to students for recruitment. A 2010 Kaplan survey showed 82 percent of undergraduate colleges use Facebook to recruit students, 56 percent use Twitter and 56 percent use YouTube.
For example, the Illinois Institute of Technology invites prospective students to follow the undergraduate admissions Facebook page where they can have questions answered, meet current students, etc. Loyola University says it connects with students through its Facebook pages early in their high school career.
But when it comes to checking out applicants online, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers strongly discourages it.
"They might find a perfectly good reason for denying somebody, but we can't know what it was or how the decision was made," says associate executive director Barmak Nassirian. "Also, who knows if what was online was true? Accidental facts can become the stuff of prejudicial decision making. Also, not everybody is found online."
Like or unlike?
A 2011 survey of graduate schools by Kaplan Test Prep reveals not all schools follow this recommendation. According to the survey, 88 percent of the 123 graduate programs surveyed said their admissions officers were forbidden to use social media to make admissions decisions. But of the remaining 12 percent, 29 percent said they had rejected applicants based on something they saw about them online.
When it comes to an admissions officer researching a student online, many schools will not comment or stated it was not part of their admissions process—though not always expressly forbidden.
"There is an ongoing discussion in our profession about this," says Glenn Hamilton, assistant vice president for undergraduate enrollment at Dominican University. "At Dominican, we are committed to social justice, and we uphold the value of individual privacy. We do not view applicants' social media presence during the admission process. We feel it does not give an accurate representation of the person."
North Park University says it generally does not review an applicant's social media presence. "However, there have been rare instances when, in the judgment of an admissions officer, such a check might be necessary for a specific reason, but those instances are very rare," says spokesperson John Brooks.
Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, a leading online reputation management company, is convinced colleges have been peeking at students on Facebook since the days when it was only on .edu addresses. "The anecdotal information that we collected over time is massive," he says.
If colleges use Facebook to recruit, why wouldn't they look at who responds, Fertik asserts.
Granted, Fertik has built a 120-person company around selling services that clean up and protect one's online reputation. But he notes that Reputation.com offers some free services that can assist students with internet privacy.
For example, uProtect.it encrypts Facebook messages so that they're only visible to the friends you choose to see them. You can time stamp messages and pictures so that they're permanently destroyed at a certain date.
ReputationAlert is a free solution that informs individuals where they appear online. PrivacyDefender allows individuals to better understand and set secure Facebook privacy settings, Fertik says.
For those who want a clean-up service, it starts at $99 and usually takes a few days, depending on the scope of the problem.
"Up until two years ago I used to give tips to do it yourself," Fertik says. "Now it's too complex."
Things typically deleted are postings, messages, photos and other items available to the public that contain references to alcohol, drugs, sexual or racial content, profanity, aggression, etc.
Hamilton says cleaning up one's Internet profile gets addressed during college planning sessions at high schools.
"One example that I give is having an appropriate e-mail address," he says. "Create a college admissions and financial aid e-mail account, so that the colleges can use it to communicate with you, then when you get in, close it out."
Communicating appropriately matters, too. "Texting language is not appropriate in e-mail correspondence with admissions professionals or professors," he says. "I tell them to be professional. Show us that you can write. Information can get lost in translation, or gives the impression that you are in a hurry and don't really care about getting in to college. I tell them to use good judgment with pictures and their Facebook page."
If you are unsure whether your Facebook page might be objectionable, your school counselor should be equipped to advise you on this.
Loyola's Director of Undergraduate Admission, Lori Greene, says any information applicants share via university-sponsored sites is viewed by any number of different people within a campus community including faculty, staff, administrators, current students, alumni, etc. "Students need to think about who might have access to such sites and how it may be viewed," she says.
The Kaplan survey also indicated 65 percent of admissions officers considered Facebook friend requests inappropriate coming from applicants, so it's best not to cross that line, either. Hamilton says this is a big issue among admissions officers. Remember, if you friend someone, they have access to your profile, too. It's a two way street.