When Colleges Look Up Applicants on Facebook: The Unspoken New Admissions Test

High school seniors applying to college have always had to worry about GPAs, SATs and resumes and. But with the rise of social media has come a whole new set of challenges – namely what to scrub from your digital identity

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Classroom: Getty Images

Judging by its Facebook network, Hastings High School in New York has one strange senior class. A student named “FunkMaster Floikes” is somehow rubbing shoulders with Lizzie McGuire and the fictional parents from That ‘70s Show. Meanwhile Samwise Gams (a nickname of a hobbit in Lord of the Rings) is listed as a 2012 alum. At first glance, such social media profiles have all the makings of crude online pranks. But in reality, they have been strategically created by actual Hastings seniors determined to shield themselves from the prying eyes of college admissions officers. “There’s a fairly big party scene there,” says Sam “Samwise” Bogan, who is now a freshman at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. “When the college search process comes around, people start changing their Facebook name or untagging old photos that they don’t want anyone to see. It’s kind of a ritual.”

Amid decades-old worries about GPAs, resumes, extracurricular activities and campus interviews, today’s college applicants must reckon with a new high-tech dilemma: Are colleges judging me based on my online activities? With top schools closely guarding the reasoning behind admissions decisions, many high schoolers are now assuming the worst and implementing online safeguards that would have never occurred to teenagers five years ago, when Facebook was just a private network and Google was still a noun.

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It turns out students have good reason to worry. According to a recent Kaplan Test Prep survey of 350 admissions officers, more than 25 percent of school officials said they had looked up applicants on Facebook or Google. Off campus, a similar percentage of private scholarship organizations also acknowledge researching their applicants online, according to a National Scholarship Providers Association survey. Still, many admissions directors are reluctant to provide specifics in how they scour social feeds. No, many say, they don’t look up every applicant online, but yes, if they somehow come across an inappropriate tweet or Facebook post, it could factor into their decision. No, they’d never use it as the deciding factor between two similar applicants, but yes, students should be mindful of what they post.

Such ambiguity has sparked an array of conspiracy theories. Bogan speculates that colleges use the emails they gather on campus tours to later find students online, even if they’ve changed their names to cover their tracks. Other students openly claim that schools are colluding with Facebook to gain full access to applicants’ restricted online profiles. Meanwhile, some students worry that going dark on Facebook will make them seem anti-social,when colleges are actually looking for outgoing applicants.

Numerous students interviewed by TIME ultimately opted for a full social media lockdown, ahead of submitting their applications. Abigail Swift, a senior at BASIS Scottsdale in Arizona, deleted her Facebook account at the start of her junior year, just as she was beginning her college search. She says she plans to revive it in 2013, after being accepted to a university. “I don’t want what I put on my Facebook or what I don’t put on my Facebook to sway their opinion of me,” she says. “I just don’t think it’s fair for them to base acceptance on that.” Many of her classmates agree, and have already restricted privacy settings so that their names don’t appear in a public Facebook search. One student went so far as to delete photos taken during 8th grade that didn’t reflect the image she is now trying to convey to schools. As young as 16, some students are already making an effort to wipe the digital slate clean. Just in case.

Almost every student has heard a horror story. At the start of the school year, a BASIS college counselor told her class of a student whose acceptance to an elite college was revoked when he was caught badmouthing the school on Facebook. At Williams College, a student’s admission was rescinded because he posted disparaging remarks on a college discussion board. At the University of Georgia, when an admissions officer discovered an applicant’s racially charged Twitter account, he took a screenshot and added the tweets to the student’s application file. Though these are extreme examples, it’s difficult to pinpoint when a teenager’s social media habits shift from innocuous to alarming in the eyes of admissions officers. Anna Redmond, a 30-year-old former interviewer for Harvard University who blogs about college admissions, says she began regularly googling prospective students years ago (interviews with alumni are a minor component of Harvard’s admissions criteria). “You could sometimes find old blog posts where they were complaining,” she says. “Maybe there was a photo of a kid drinking a beer. I don’t think it’s personally that damning, but somebody else might.”

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With the Kaplan survey showing that only 15 percent of colleges abide by a strict social media policy when it comes to applicants,such vetting is often at the discretion of individual officials. College officials point out that time restraints would make it nearly impossible to analyze every applicant through social media. However, some admit to exploring applicants’ social media timelines to make a “high stakes” decision, like awarding a prestigious scholarship, says Nora Barnes, a marketing professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who has interviewed hundreds of schools about their social media practices. She says the actual number of schools doing online sleuthing could be higher than statistics show, with some wary of being viewed as invasive if they own up to the practice. “It’s a touchy subject in academia,” Barnes says. “It’s common knowledge that employers do it, and people seem to accept that.  But somehow higher ed is held to a higher standard.”

Nancy McDuff, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia, says an applicant’s online profile is fair game to be evaluated. “If a student mentions something in their application that isn’t well explained, and you’re looking for more information, you may check their Facebook,” she says. “They’re writing about themselves. That’s no different from what a guidance counselor may write about them when they ask for someone to write a letter of recommendation.” But other admissions directors say including an inconsistent variable like Facebook profiles into the regimented application process can be unfair to students. “We like to get the same information from every candidate,” says Christoph Guttentag, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University. “What one might find [on Facebook] would be close to random. There’s no guarantee that we would be getting the same kind of information between two applicants.”

For students who choose to change their Facebook names to ensure privacy, there can be consequences for violating the company’s official terms of use. About eight percent of the network’s 1 billion accounts are fakes or duplicates, according to summer filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Facebook can ban such users permanently when caught, and the company encourages users to report fake accounts. Some colleges might also view such tactics as unethical: “If a student changes their name on Facebook because they want to hide something, you just wonder whether they want to be at an institution that values an Honor Code,” McDuff says. Back at Hastings High School, students don’t view their actions as unethical. “One way a lot of people in my class coped with the stressful college application process was by being a little bit cynical about it,” Bogan says. “This is just a part of that. It’s kind of a coping mechanism.”

While some students rebel, others adapt. Among many high schoolers, there is a grudging acceptance that these are the new rules of engagement in the 21st-century admissions game. “Maybe it is a little unfair, but at the same time you’re being judged on what you have created for yourself in the past four years of your high school experience,” says Maxton Thoman, a freshman at the University of Alabama. “All that stuff is cumulative, and so is Facebook.” Thoman, who boosted his privacy settings and untagged photos of himself during the college admissions process, continues to keep a close eye on his digital profile at college. He knows that medical schools and later employers may one day be interested in what he’s posted online, so he considers his status updates before spouting off. He and many of his peers, rejecting the culture of oversharing, seem to understand intuitively a fact that has taken some adults years to grasp: “The Internet is written in ink, not in pencil.”

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34 comments
Bcroke
Bcroke

Unfortunately all of this hype is quite misguided. If you ask any admissions professional whether they do this or know anyone else that takes the time to do this the answer is outright NO. They actually are too busy managing traditional applications to check out students online. 

HOWEVER, every once in a while if an applicant is "too good to be a true" an admissions rep. may Google a prospective student and a social networking profile might come up. According to the survey 1 in 4 officers had reported doing it ever, this is a very small percentage of counselors who have done it once or twice and is not an epidemic which deserves this kind of attention. 

The truth of the matter is that colleges desperately want to connect and engage prospective students with tools like Facebook or Twitter, not to stalk them, but to show students how great their university experience is. I work for a company who works with over 100 colleges and universities to do this, and I can tell you for a fact this is the case. 

Of course students shouldn't be idiots on what they post online though. It's called common sense, but apparently that's not so common anymore. 

ShengSun
ShengSun

post anything you want, be yourself all the time. If the headmaster or the employer would turn you down for you being yourself, it's their problems, not yours. Great people will always prefer people being themselves, no matter how provocative it would be.

Tigergirl72
Tigergirl72

I know a lot of people, including myself, use social media, especially twitter, to vent and blow off steam.  Does this mean those who have some angry posts on their pages are less likely to get into a school or get a job just because they are experiencing human emotions?  I think that's rather unfair.  I have nothing to hide, but I think its a little bit of an invasion of privacy to go onto these social media sites in order to investigate who someone really is.  

CollegeSolutions.com
CollegeSolutions.com

Students need to remember that anything on the internet stays on the internet even if you hit delete. Even if colleges never check you out on the net future employers almost always do. Better to learn how to present yourself in public early.

CollegeSolutions.com
CollegeSolutions.com

Students need to remember that anything on the internet stays on the internet even if you hit delete. Even if colleges never check you out on the net future employers almost always do. Better to learn how to present yourself in public early.

Collegesolutions.com

ShengSun
ShengSun

If I were the headmaster, I would always prefer the students who dareto post something crazy, inappropriate and not deleting them onfacebook. They have the most precious value that lacks in everyonenowadays, courage and honesty.

JeanOcelot
JeanOcelot

Who cares? Just go the in-state flagship school and save yourself from excess student debt!

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Way too much adult authority brought to bear on kids today. I'm grateful when I was their age we pushed back against that stuff and changed institutions, in many cases for the better. Today's kids were over-parented, over-organized and over-scheduled, all in name of pleasing adults. As young adults, they are forced into compliance by implied threats to their security. Not a great training ground for people who need to challenge the many injustices in the world, is it?

morganfeldon
morganfeldon

This article just points out what is wrong with the college/university system.

When universities cram 60 students into a class with a teacher who barely speaks English, and charges $20k a year for the privilege, it's not an "institution". It's a BUSINESS and students are the CUSTOMER getting screwed.

babycheeks
babycheeks

It is noteworthy that Facebook also has become a legal issue. Insurance lawyers look for anything that might help them. I saw one injured plaintiff have a post "feeling better today and got out and walk a little. That made feel even better." beat over her head when in fact she had much pain. She simply was trying to not be a whiner and get better. They used it to make her look like a malingerer.. Most attorneys now have their client's immediately shut down all social media as part of the retainer agreement.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

You need three facebook and google accounts. A scrupulously inoffensive one in your real name, a real one for your friends under ascreen name, and a junk one for throwaway use when you want anonymity. Never, ever, link these accounts, in any way, any where.

Frediano
Frediano

What a dilemma; how to maintain status as a self-subscribing, happy provider of marketing data and yet still maintain the anonymity necessary to transition to four years of unbelievably expensive Beer Pong at some resort..    As it says under the visage of Buzz Aldrin on a recent Technology Review, "You promised me colonies on Mars, and all we got was FaceBook..."

Facebook was the most exciting IPO in recent history, a tsunami of bored capital thrown at, and it is an enterprise that employes maybe 3400 people;   at it's peak, Beth Steel employed over 330,000 people.    The class of 2012 may barely have jobs, but they all have a thousand friends who also barely have jobs.   What species does this to their young?

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