Preparing for College

Internet "Safety" and College Admissions

Question: I am a high school counselor who has been given the task of creating a curriculum for Internet safety. An area that I would like to address is the idea that colleges could access information about individual students via the Internet. I would also like to address how this can affect scholarship possibilities. Do colleges and universities look up possible student candidates on the Internet? My intent is to educate students on how their "MySpace" and "Facebook" accounts can affect their college plans.

While almost every college admission official will be quick to insist that their staff has neither the time nor the inclination to routinely check-out the Cyber-lives of applicants, the truth is that it does happen for some students, and thus all students need to be very cautious about their social networking activities. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last fall:

" ... One in 10 admissions officers has looked at an applicant's social-networking profile, according to a report released today by the test-prep company Kaplan Inc. Of those who peeked, 38 percent said what they saw had a negative effect on their evaluation of the student. Fewer — a quarter — said the effect was positive.

Admissions officers' decisions to look or not are mostly up to them, Kaplan said. “The vast majority of schools we surveyed said they have no official policies or guidelines in place regarding visiting applicants' social-networking Web sites — nor are they considering plans to develop them," Jeff Olson, executive director of research for Kaplan's test-prep and admissions division, said in a written statement.

The company surveyed 320 institutions among U.S. News & World Report's and Barron's top 500. It also polled admissions officers at professional schools, finding that 9 percent in business, 14 percent in medicine, and 15 percent in law looked at applicants' social-networking sites when making admissions decisions ..."

Here are some examples of when an admissions evaluator might be apt to Google a candidate to see what pops up:

-The application mentions membership in an organization or the receipt of a major award that the admissions officer doesn't recognize. In this case, he or she will most likely search for the organization or award itself, but that could end up leading to other links to this candidate, including social networking sites, blogs, etc. (I have personally found information this way in student blogs that could easily have a negative impact on admissions decisions, future employment, etc.)

-If the student is on the short list for a major scholarship or honor, and the college wants to see if there are skeletons in the closet. Even if this sort of search is not part of the formal selection protocol, a curious or ambition admission official might do some sleuthing anyway. You can imagine how embarrassing it would be for institutions or organizations to give a top honor to a student with a dicey reputation that might come back to haunt them.

-There might be some random "flag" somewhere in the application that alludes to information that isn't fully disclosed or may seem contradictory or even suspicious, so the admission officer decides to look further.

-Mere curiosity. Some admission officials -- especially the younger ones who have lived on the Internet for most of their lives -- want to use every resource available to learn more about an applicant who seems intriguing. At the Ivies and other highly selective colleges, where each applicant looks more qualified than the next, decisions are hairsplitting, so it's no wonder that admission officers may try to dig as deep as they can to distinguish one seemingly outstanding candidate from the next.

Keep in mind, too, that it's not just the college adjudicators who may be peeking at Facebook et al, but also--and perhaps more importantly--future employers may do it, as well. And, because typically there are far fewer prospects for a job or internship than there are candidates for a college class, bosses-to-be will have a shorter list to check out and could be more apt to take the time to do it.

Sometimes it's hard to sell teenagers on the idea that the future does come, but you need to remind your advisees that the real world is just around the corner. Seniors who are scooping ice cream this summer might be aiming for a coveted--and competitive--internship by the next one.

So do tell your students that, even though they shouldn't expect admission committees to be combing through Cyberspace to unearth every possible speck of dirt, they do need to be aware that the Internet is a very public place. It's fine for Facebook and MySpace pages to show that kids are having fun, that they joke and party with their friends, and their favorite pastime may not be staying at home reading War and Peace. But they also need to understand that the impression they give via the Internet can be a lasting one that could affect their opportunities for many years to come.

Good luck with your curriculum. I'm the mother of a 12-year-old, so I've been doing some Internet-safety training of my own!