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Is Your Online Rep Hurting Your College Admissions Chances?

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey

Sept 1, 2006 (COLLEGEBOUND.NET) -- What you do on MySpace doesn't always stay on MySpace. At least that's the lesson high school students across the country are learning. Recent news of teachers and administrators snooping online postings of current and potential students is rampant and justifiably so, considering the consequences. When what you post in a profile results in detention, being denied college admission and in the case of new hires -- not getting that job -- it may be time to rethink your cyber space.

After all, your teachers or college admission officers -- not to mention, your parents -- may not be amused by the online photo of you giving a one-fingered salute or your answers to revealing survey questions on drug use and your relationships.

"Unfortunately, a lot of kids use [these sites] as if they were behind closed doors, hanging out with their friends, but the whole world can be peering in and watching," says Bari Norman, a former high school and college admissions counselor and now an independent college admissions consultant (www.mycollegecounselor.com).

Some students are leaving a trail of guilty pleasures in cyberspace, and all it takes is a "Google" of their name for someone to gain access to revealing personal information. Slightly more than half of teens ages 12-17 -- about 12 million -- report having created a blog or Web page that contains photos, stories and videos, according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The hot spots: MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Xanga and LiveJournal. It's no surprise then that MySpace boasts nearly 50 million members, and Facebook, which requires a valid e-mail account from a registered college or high school, more than 7.5 million members, two-thirds of whom sign on every day.

In May, Nii Ahene, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, began a Web site -- www.bruinpied.com -- to warn students that people they'd least expect may be monitoring their Web activities. Nii began the Web site after his math major UCLA friend (hence, the name "Bruin-pi-ed") struggled to land a job interview. When he Googled his friend's name, an article he had written, "How to lie your way to the top," came up as number-one in the search results. Suspected dishonesty isn't something potential employers take lightly.

"A lot of students don't think about the consequences," Nii says. "This site is geared to shed more light on this issue."

Censorship, or Just Bad Taste?

Officials at Pope John XXIII High School (Sparta, NJ) have warned students they will face suspension if caught using sites like Xanga, Livejournal and MySpace, explaining that the rule is a way to protect teens from online predators.

Starting this year in the Chicago area, Libertyville and Vernon Hills High Schools will require students to sign an agreement acknowledging that any "illegal or inappropriate behavior" posted online could be punishable by the school.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, says schools punishing students for such actions infringes on their rights. The association has been consulting a lawyer about the legality of these schools' new rule.

"If an adult were to post a photo of someone smoking a joint on one of these sites, police could not arrest that person," Koroknay-Palicz says. "However, [if] a school sees that on a student's site, that's all they need. My concern is that schools are writing their own rule books and not really following guarantees of due process and Constitutional protection." Furthermore, he adds, what students do on their own time shouldn't be the schools' concern, but that of parents, or in serious cases, law enforcement officials.

Not all schools have been successful at silencing teen bloggers. A 17-year-old New Jersey student was recently awarded a $117,500 settlement after a district court ruled the Oceanport School District violated his First Amendment rights. He had been suspended for comments he made about his school on a Web site.

Regardless, many schools are putting parents on notice, sending them flyers and holding seminars to warn them about how students may misuse social-networking Web sites.

"I think that practice is unfair because I have a right to have a MySpace, and I don't think the school should be able to meddle with what goes on outside of school," says Jake, 14, a freshman at Arapahoe High School (Littleton, CO), who uses his Web profile to stay in touch with friends, and post movie and music surveys.

Kyrie Hale, 16, doesn't see the harm. Kyrie, a junior at Lee's Summit West High School (Lee's Summit, MO), doesn't mind that teachers and administrators can view their pages.

"They can see what other kids are up to and how they really act," says Kyrie, who says she, too, uses the sites mostly to keep in contact with friends.

On the other hand, Pablo Malavenda, an associate dean of students at Purdue University (Purdue, IN) speaks frequently about the dangers of Facebook at national conferences. When students join these sites, he explains, it's like creating a poster with all the details of their life, then displaying it in the middle of their school or mall.

"Then they're shocked and frustrated that people are stopping to read it because they put it there for their friends," Malavenda says. "It's there and it's public -- if you don't want anyone else reading it, don't put it out there."

While he says his office does not conduct random searches of students' Web pages, he does say that the information found on Facebook has been helpful with disciplinary cases that are brought to his attention.

"Students are implicating themselves through pictures and comments they make," Malavenda says.

What To Watch For

Some experts say the image of college admissions staff searching for every applicant online is inaccurate. That said, Norman clarifies that sometimes college admissions' officers stumble onto something inadvertently. For example, if a student's application piques their interest, they may use the Internet to find more information on an award the student won or about a group he or she is involved with -- and then something else pops up.

Manage your Web persona with these tips:
  • If you're not sure, don't post it. Treat everything you post as if it were on the front page of The New York Times, Nii advises. The same goes for photos, he says, adding that the photo of you drinking a beer when you're underage may be difficult to explain. "Be aware that even postings you remove may be viewable later by savvy Internet users," adds Marilyn Emerson, an independent educational consultant in Chappaqua, NY.
  • Use shorter names or nicknames online. Even so, beware that your identity can be revealed even when using nicknames or false locations through your links to friends online, says Andrew Flagel, George Mason University's dean of admissions and enrollment development.
  • Use privacy settings. For example, many social networking sites offer settings that allow you to keep your site private and control viewing and posting privileges.
  • Don't give away too much about your college plans. Besides the obvious dangers of posting personal contact information, Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist in Washington, D.C., also warns students not to reveal what they plan to write about in college essays. "In a competitive admissions environment, there are only a finite number of spaces at selective colleges and universities," Goodman says. "By sharing too much personal information, you lose an advantage to that space."
  • Have an appropriate e-mail address. Norman suggests having a separate e-mail address for the college application process and another for your personal use. Use a straightforward e-mail address, such as your name. Your e-mail is on the first page of an application and provides a first impression, Norman says.
  • Google your name. If something questionable surfaces, contact the site and to try to get it removed.
  • Use your Web presence to your advantage. Use your site to market yourself, including recent awards you've won and your academic interests. Some students use Internet communities to help their student organizations recruit or communicate with members. Student athletes can promote their accomplishments and connect with fans. Malavenda recalls one student using the Web to gauge interest in forming a diabetes student group. The student was able to bring together about 60 people for the first meeting.

"Image is a very important thing," Malavenda says. "The more you can build a positive image to your peers, potential employers and other people, the better off you'll be."

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