Number of college applications affected by social media triples


In 2008, only 10 percent of colleges checked applicants’ Facebook pages; now, one in four do.

College applicants shouldn’t shut down their various social media accounts, experts said, but they should heavily edit their online comments, photos, and videos, as thousands of applications were marred last year by scandalous Facebook and Twitter activity.

It’s no secret that college and university admissions officers run semi-frequent social media checks of prospective students, but the practice has turned increasingly dismal for students who failed, in one way or another, to exercise Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube caution.

Admissions officers who responded to a national survey this fall said the percentage of applications that had been negatively affected by social media searches had nearly tripled, from 12 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2011.

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The survey, conducted by Kaplan Test Prep, showed that what was once a seldom-used strategy for doing impromptu background checks on applicants has become somewhat standard in higher education.

In 2010, one in five college admissions officials Googled applicants, a percentage that jumped to one in four in 2011. Facebook checks stayed steady at 26 percent in 2011.

One in 10 college admissions officers did Google and Facebook searches when Kaplan first began tracking the issue in 2008.

Admissions experts said quitting social media cold turkey wouldn’t be the answer to protecting against Twitter and Facebook disaster for college hopefuls.

“I wouldn’t advise [students] to totally get rid of their social media presence,” said Jeff Olson, Kaplan Test Prep’s vice president of data science. “The best advice, I think, is to think first and tweet later, and remember that you don’t have to share every thought and experience with friends online.”

College applicants have improved in setting stricter privacy settings on Facebook, but they often leave themselves vulnerable on myriad other social networks that become part of a very public record during exchanges with friends and strangers alike.

“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 Fastweb.com, 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.

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