Teens

Application angst: Teens' social media can hurt college chances

Nov. 25, 2013 at 11:00 AM ET

Teenage girl looking at cellphone
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Could all those selfies sink your Harvard dreams? The college application process is stressful enough; now parents also have to worry about managing their teenagers' online reputation. 

Colleges are increasingly searching for applicants' names on the Internet as part of their review, according to new research from Kaplan Test Prep in which 30 percent of admissions officers say that they had Googled an applicant or visited their social networking profiles. It’s a significant increase from previous years, according to Seppy Basili, a college admissions expert at Kaplan.

However, nearly 50 percent of high school respondents said they were “not at all concerned” about online searches hurting their chances of admissions.

“There may be a generation gap here,” said Basili. “Students already expect that everything they are posting is public, while adults are still playing catch up with social media.”

With college looming on the horizon, 16-year-old Amanda Mauriello of Branford, Conn., describes her own social media presence as being “in the right state of mind” and said she never posts anything on sites like Facebook, Instagram or Vine that she wouldn’t want anyone to see down the road.

Since most applications are now submitted online, it’s easy for a reader to open a new tab while reviewing a student’s essay and do a background check simultaneously, said Debbie Kanter, an independent college consultant at North Shore College Consulting in Chicago.

The problem is, nobody really knows what happens behind closed doors, and colleges are tightlipped about how heavily they weigh online information. Often, school admissions offices don't have uniform policies for how to do so, leading to the potential for inconsistent treatment among applicants, the New York Times reports.

For 15 years, Lacy Crawford, author of Early Decision, helped teenagers hone their personal statements. And while she appreciates an admissions officer’s desire to add some online research, she cautions schools to do their due diligence and call a student’s guidance counselor if they find something particularly egregious — especially in a world where students can create fake social media accounts for their peers.

Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a national organization of private college admissions advisers, tells teens to review their postings and profiles with a critical eye. For example, Sklarow would ask student: “Do comments make you sound like a misogynist? A bully? Do hundreds and hundreds of ‘selfies’ convey narcissism?”

Some parents have been warning kids that colleges might be researching online long before schools and college counselors started talking more openly about it. 

Moll Levine, a Washington, D.C., college senior, said her parents warned her in high school to be careful about what she posted online, “because once it’s there, it’s permanent.” It's a sentiment she’s taken to heart years later as she searches for a post-graduation internship or job.

Some parents even hire an expert to assess their child’s exposure before they submit any applications.

“First, we do a deep dive audit for parents,” said Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, an online reputation management firm in Redwood City, Calif., “so we can show you all the data that tends to be findable on your child — pictures, threads, things that they’ve liked on Facebook.”

But technology isn’t a substitute for engaged parenting online, he said.

“Adults need to be connected to their kids on social media so they know if there is any outside-of-the-envelope conduct,” Fertik said. “But they also shouldn’t be over-interacting with their child on Snapchat and scaring their teen away into making a fake account, either.”

The Kaplan data on colleges' online research of teens may have a positive side. As Basili points out, applicants these days have incredibly rich resumes.

“They’ve built schools in Ecuador and created environmental programs in their own home towns,” he said. “If you’ve started a new club or you are a member of a board, it feels very human and natural for an admissions officer to want to read more about those experiences online or to Google something in a student’s essay.”

Jacoba Urist is a health and lifestyle reporter in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist

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