Number of college applications affected by social media triples

“We’re seeing a growing cultural ubiquity in social media use, plus a generation that’s grown up with a very fluid sense of privacy norms,” Olson said. “In the face of all these trends, the rise in discovery of digital dirty laundry is inevitable.”

Social networking faux pas posts to social media sites include criticizing teachers, bullying fellow students, posting illegal activity like underage drinking or recreational drugs use, and admitting or bragging about cheating in school.

“Students need to be able to express their individuality,” Olson said, “but the digital trail has really become a wild card in the college application process. … Students should remember that.”

Social media slip-ups also can ruin scholarship opportunities for incoming college students.

Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of, along with the National Scholarship Providers Association, surveyed 75 of the organization’s members and found that about one-quarter searched Google and social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn for information about applicants. Searches usually were conducted only on finalists.

Searchers looked for red flags, such as evidence of drug use or underage drinking, inappropriate photos, discriminatory comments, and poor attitudes. One-third of providers conducting searches denied a scholarship to a student based on their findings.

“They want students to reflect well on the organization,” Kantrowitz said. “The last thing a scholarship provider wants to hear is their student just got arrested for running a campus drug ring.”

One-quarter of those doing searches gave a scholarship based on information gleaned online. Kantrowitz expects the practice of online vetting to grow.

“Several of the providers said they didn’t currently look at the online presence of finalists, but now that they think about it, it’s not a bad idea,” he said.