Want a scholarship? Watch what you post online

College applicants should check their Facebook privacy settings.

Students, beware: Scholarship providers aren’t just going by your application to learn about you. They’re also checking you out on Google and social media sites, according to a recent survey. And what they uncover—the good or the bad—could be the tie-breaker when it comes to deciding between you and another candidate.

“Students need to recognize that the colleges and scholarship providers are increasingly looking at this,” said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Fastweb.com, a scholarship site that conducted the survey.

For years, teens have been warned to be careful about what they post online for safety reasons. Now, they have a financial incentive to do so. With scarce scholarship dollars at stake and online privacy settings not foolproof, students will have to make sure they put their best foot forward online.

Kantrowitz, along with the National Scholarship Providers Association, surveyed about 75 of the organization’s members.

They 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.”

But scholarship providers aren’t trying only to dig up dirt. “They are trying to get to know the student better,” Kantrowitz said.

One-quarter of those doing searches gave a scholarship based on information gleaned online.

Several scholarship providers in Maryland say they don’t vet students on the internet.

“We’re not yet, but it can well be coming,” said Roberta Goldman, program director for the Central Scholarship Bureau in Pikesville, Md., which awards about $1 million each year in scholarships and grants.

The CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore, which gives out more than $1 million annually, also doesn’t check out students online.

“We do advise students to be mindful of what they put online about themselves,” said Deana Carr-Davis, associate program director of scholarships.

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 says.

What can students do? They can make sure their privacy settings are correctly configured. But these settings can give a false sense of security.

“Friends on Facebook have information about you, and they can pass it on to other people,” said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who specializes in internet privacy. “They don’t need your permission to share it with someone.”

Remember the Duke University student who rated her lovers in a chart that she eMailed to three friends? “One wasn’t too much of a friend and forwarded it on,” Citron said.

That eMail went viral—and not just in this country. When I Googled the incident, the top story was an article on the Duke student from a newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Sometimes students have little choice but to share their online information. Students receiving athletic scholarships sometimes are asked to provide passwords to their social media sites, Citron says.

Kantrowitz added that some scholarship providers require finalists to “friend” them on Facebook. You can always refuse—but then you’re not going to get the money.

The better course is to maintain a professional online presence so you don’t give scholarship providers—or colleges and future employers—any ammunition against you.

Kantrowitz advises students to Google their names to see if anything unflattering pops up. If possible, he said, see if you can revise the information.

Also, watch what you say online. People say things online that they never would say to someone face to face, Citron said. Students should post comments that they would be comfortable sharing with their parents and teachers, she said.

And avoid unprofessional eMail addresses. “‘Hotmama21’ is not an appropriate eMail address,” Kantrowitz said. Stick with your first and last name in the address.

Eileen Ambrose is a personal finance columnist at the Baltimore Sun. Copyright (c) 2012, The Baltimore Sun. Visit The Baltimore Sun online at www.baltimoresun.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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