According to a recent survey of college admissions officers, 65% of those polled think social media profiles are “fair game” in the assessment of applicants, while 36% of survey participants reported that they’ve actually checked up on applicants’ social media presence. The same survey revealed that what those officers find is more likely to hurt an applicant than to help them—58% said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students.
The consequences of what ends up on social media—like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram—can be devastating. In 2017, Harvard rescinded 10 acceptances due to concerns about sexually explicit memes and hate speech. And in December 2020, a three-second Snapchat video led a newly admitted student to withdraw from the University of Tennessee under pressure from admissions officers. Current students familiar with the Snapchat platform might find the story especially disturbing because those Snapchat videos are supposed to disappear within seconds. In this case, the video was captured by a recipient and sent to others, eventually making its way to the University of Tennessee years after it was posted.
This is, of course, an extreme example of the potential consequences of what you put on social media. But it’s not just colleges that are looking. For example, your high school may suspend you for actions that were discovered on social media, and that suspension will impact colleges’ decisions to accept you.
So what should you do? A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t put it on a billboard, it shouldn’t go on social media. Here’s a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to your internet presence.
Check your privacy settings – Most colleges aren’t going to do a lot of digging to find everything you’ve posted to social media. A good first step is to monitor your privacy settings so you have control over who can look you up, view your photos, tag you, etc. But remember that privacy settings alone won’t cover you if a third party decides to save or repost your content so its discoverable by admissions officers. In our experience, this is the most common scenario: a student screenshots something that another student posted and it makes its way to administrators. In other instances, a student gets wind of activity going on in a supposed “private group” and reports it.
Check old activity – You might have moved on from Facebook, but that doesn’t mean your presence there has disappeared. Check up on old accounts and see what’s still lingering online, like groups you joined or liked. You’ll want to remove any that give the wrong impression.
Choose your photos carefully – You should check photos you’ve posted and photos others have tagged you in to make sure you’d be comfortable having an admissions officer see them. If you find anything objectionable, delete it or ask that it be deleted. This is an opportunity to look out for your friends too!
Google yourself – Type your own name into Google and see what comes up on the first few pages. You might find some old comments on a blog that you’d rather not share, or something a friend has tagged you in that you don’t want your name attached to. Even if you can’t delete what you discover, it’s better to know what’s out there.
Post compromising photos – To use another internet cliché, if you wouldn’t show it to your grandmother, don’t post it! Unfortunately, it bears repeating that you shouldn’t post photos of yourself in various stages of undress or involved in illegal activities. Drugs, alcohol, and nudity should not feature in any photo you post or that your friends post. Make sure you’re cautious about photos other people are taking of you, and even without a photo, don’t write about any behavior that you wouldn’t want an admissions officer to know about.
Post emotional red flags – If you’re feeling a strong negative emotion, that’s a time to step back, breathe, and reflect, rather than writing something hostile on social media. Posting in a state of anger, depression, or frustration can often make the situation worse, and if you post in the heat of the moment, you might say something you regret. If you’re feeling these things, reach out with a phone call or a text to friends and family who can help!
Post hateful content – Colleges want to see that you’re going to be a positive force in their campus community. That doesn’t just mean being friendly; it means being open to new ideas and promoting inclusivity. Hateful comments, especially toward groups of people, are going to be serious cause for concern. Don’t post anything that could be construed as racist, sexist, or even politically polarized. Also remember that just because you think something is “funny” doesn’t mean that it is or that it can’t be construed otherwise.
The number of admissions officers checking profiles is increasing, and that’s a trend that’s likely to continue. The bottom line is that you’ve got to be thoughtful about your social media presence. Don’t post impulsively, and remember that nothing is ever truly private or temporary once it’s online.