Consumer Reports spoke with social media consultants and admissions officers to collect advice for high school students and their parents. The experts agree that teens should not be afraid to post comments and photos online—colleges are not poring through posts to find reasons to reject students. Instead, “they are looking to learn more about you,” Ben-Shahar says, “so give them something to see.”
Here’s what students can do to ensure that their online footprint enhances a college application rather than undermining it.
Google yourself. “Colleges operate under the assumption that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” says Springer, a psychologist who has guided her own children through the admissions process. “People can change, but in the absence of any other information, the best predictor you’ve got is what somebody’s done before.” This includes information that your friends or other people may have uploaded about you. Search your name online to learn what admissions officers will see, paying special attention to the links on the first page of results.
Ben-Shahar recommends opening a LinkedIn account, where you can present your accomplishments and experience in the best light. LinkedIn is “a good way to build your online presence,” she says, because Google pushes it to the top of its search results—ahead of content you may be less eager to promote.
Learn about privacy settings. Many social media users adjust the privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, but they don’t always understand what those settings do. “Students just make the assumption that if they feel something is private, or if they’ve made it private, that no one will ever be able to see it,” Gayles says. “We know that that isn’t always the case.”
For instance, even if you set Facebook photo albums to be viewable only by you, anyone you tag in a picture can still see it. And that means they can save the photograph and then share it separately. Facebook has a “View As” feature that shows you what your profile will look like to the public or to a specific Facebook user. Another tactic is to temporarily “unfriend” one of your peers, then look up your profile from their account to learn what other users of the platform can see.
Don’t count on anonymous platforms. Periodically, a new social app that promises anonymity and ironclad privacy becomes popular—Sarahah is a recent example. Ignore those assurances and you won’t be caught off guard if there’s a change in the platform’s policies, or some hacker finds a workaround.
“If your parents were to see that content, or your grandparents, how would you feel?” Patchin asks. “If you have a concern, then you probably don’t want to be posting that.” Harvard rescinded 10 admissions offers in spring 2017 after prospective students made offensive jokes in a Facebook chat that students believed to be private. Another student informed admissions about the chat, and the participating students were asked to submit everything they had shared.
Students “have to think just beyond what they want us to see,” Gayles says.
Use social media to highlight your strengths. “Not only are you trying to make sure that stuff isn’t out there,” Springer says, “you want to make sure that the stuff that you want them to know about is conveyed.” Admissions want applicants who will fit into the undergraduate community. Gayles says one dean at Sarah Lawrence College calls this the “good roommate factor” in admissions committee meetings. Then, once you graduate, the school hopes you’ll reflect well on your alma mater. If you’ve started a small business or a club, won awards, or developed a passion for art, make sure that’s reflected online.
A free mobile app called ZeeMee can be useful for this. It lets students pick and choose components from their social media profiles to create a portfolio they can share with college admissions offices.
Network online. Students can use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to communicate with other prospective students or look for alumni events to attend. These are also great tools for finding mentors. Christine Greenhow, an associate professor of educational psychology and technology at Michigan State University, recently did a study on how juniors and seniors at urban public high schools prepare for college. “What we found is that these kids from low-income families often don’t know anyone in their immediate family who went to college,” she says.
Greenhow’s team helped students use Facebook to find informal advisers who were willing to guide them through the application process. “Social media can matter,” Greenhow says, “especially for low-income students or people who don’t have immediate social capital available to them.”
Let your parents help. Springer and other experts consulted by Consumer Reports agree that parents can take an active role in helping their children form good online habits. “Once the kids are out of your control,” they’re going to have to rely on their own judgment when they go online, she says, “and getting that right is just critical for the long term.”
Aidan Denahy concurs. “My mom is friends with me on Facebook,” he says, and he recalls her asking him to take down a picture that “remotely implied” he was at a party when he was a sophomore in high school. He says the pressure is off now that he’s already on the way to college. But, then again, it’s not too early to plan for internships and the work world. “I guess once I get into college, I’ll have to start thinking ahead,” Denahy says. “I mean if I post anything bad, my mom’s getting on my case either way.”