A new Kaplan Test Prep survey of 350 US college admissions officials reported that 27% of them Googled applicants (up from 20% in 2011) and 26% of them checked Facebook. Figures have risen from only one in 10 admissions officers reportedly checking applicants’ social networking pages in 2008.
Of those who checked, 35% said they found information that negatively impacted an applicant’s chance of acceptance, a significant increase from 12% in 2010. Offenses cited included essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made them “wonder,” and “illegal activities.”
Jeff Olson, Vice President of Data Science, Kaplan Test Prep, explained:
“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. In the face of all these trends, the rise in discovery of digital dirty laundry is inevitable.”
Olson noted, “With regard to college admissions, the traditional application – the essays, the letters of recommendation – represent the polished version of an applicant, while often what’s found online is a rawer version of that applicant.”
With more and more schools using prospective students’ social media profiles when considering them for admission, students have begun to set their Facebook profiles on the highest possible privacy settings. But in typical Generation Y style, students today are one step ahead of their elders in the digital world. Many of them now simply create false profiles or use an alias and then switch back to their real name after they have been accepted to their school of choice.
Still, those who have not circumvented the system or clamped down on their profile settings are left exposed not only to admissions officers, but also to hackers who might try to steal their online identity. Furthermore, social media is more than just Facebook; unless their tweets are protected, they will all be in the public domain.
Social media advice to students
While some admissions officers simply don’t have time to review the social media profiles of applicants, others do make it a regular part of the screening process, and therefore, erring on the side of caution is a wise move.
“Schools are philosophically divided on whether an applicant’s digital trail is fair game, and the majority of admissions officers do not look beyond the submitted application, but our advice to students is to think first, tweet later,” stated Olsen.
Students should also be aware that what they post online may also be visible to prospective employers looking at social media, said Ray Angle, director of University Career Services at University of North Carolina, USA.
According to a 2012 survey by Career Builder, 37% of US employers use social networks to screen potential job candidates, and 34% of hiring managers who currently research candidates via social media said they have found information that has caused them not to hire a candidate.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers, which connects college career services with employers in the US, encourages businesses not to use social media to research employees due to legal reasons, Angle said.
“It’s inappropriate to look up potential employees (using Facebook),” he said. “Just don’t post anything you wouldn’t share with your family. If you don’t want your grandmother to see it, don’t put it there.”
Student advisors should also remind prospective students that what they think is appropriate, might not be the same as what college admissions staff consider appropriate, especially when crossing cultures.
Additionally, Google delivers results from various social sites such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, so students should be aware that admissions officials are looking beyond Facebook. For more advice, Kaplan also put together a handy list of tips on how students can manage their social media footprint.
The new culture of competitive sharing
But is everything you see on Facebook or Twitter true? The authenticity of social profiles is not only a concern for admissions and recruitment officials, but also for fellow students.
As one student described, we now live in a “culture of competitive sharing,” which is skewing the reality of what some young people are experiencing.
“I thought that everyone on Facebook was having a better time than me,” says Jemma, who studies fashion journalism at the University of the Creative Arts, Epsom, UK. “A lot of people I knew had gone to universities in big cities, so my Facebook feed was constantly flooded with evidence of the great nightlife in these places. This upset me because I wasn’t being tagged in pictures enjoying myself like they were.
“People want to show the best bits of their experiences to prove to their peers that they are having a good time,” explains Jemma.
This competitive sharing can work both ways – on the one hand, if current students are showing that they are enjoying their experiences at one school, it can encourage a prospective student to consider that school. But on the other hand, it can create added pressure for a student who might not be adjusting well. Jemma explained, “University life wasn’t the walk in the park I had expected. I certainly didn’t expect the feeling of gruelling loneliness that I experienced because I found it hard to connect with the people on my course.”
“When you are feeling lonely, the one thing that can make you feel even more alone is something designed to do the opposite: a social network.”
Such observations make it even more important for international student recruiters who try to match a student’s personality and lifestyle preferences to the school he or she might attend. Moreover, with the increasing pressure to compete socially online, coupled with the rise of fake profiles, perhaps admissions counsellors will reverse the recent trend and place less emphasis on what they see in online profiles.