THE SOCIAL SIDE OF EDUCATION

College applicants should be cautious with social media

Some college admissions, scholarships consider posts


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Robert Adkins still remembers the student whose Facebook page showed a photo of him and his friends holding red Solo cups, apparently indulging in alcohol in a hotel room with more cups in the background.

Mr. Adkins, director of admission at Washington & Jefferson College, looked at the page to prepare for an interview.

The student didn't want to talk about why he did poorly his sophomore year. As for the picture, the student said they were on vacation, drinking Coke.

Later, Mr. Adkins received word from the school counselor that the student had been suspended for violating the alcohol policy.

Keep a good image online
Your online image can help or hurt both college admissions and scholarship consideration.
Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network Inc., wrote this advice when he was publisher of FinAid.com and Fastweb.com:
1. Use an appropriate email address, such as firstname.lastname@gmail.com. Do not use offensive or sexually suggestive email addresses.
2. Google your name and review at least the first 10 pages of search results for inappropriate material. Correct any problems, if possible.
3. Review your Facebook account, removing inappropriate and immature material and anything that may be misinterpreted. Avoid using profanity. Delete questionable posts by others on your wall. Ask an adult to review your Facebook page to help you identify any problematic material.
4. Think twice before posting anything offensive, illegal or otherwise inappropriate.

"We did not admit that young man," Mr. Adkins said.

Colleges admit many students without even a glance at their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds or a Google search of their name.

But more and more schools are looking at social media posts for at least some students. Mr. Adkins sometimes checks the Internet if he has questions or wants to get to know a student better before an interview, sometimes resulting in a more favorable interview.

Kaplan Test Prep began surveying admissions officers on the practice in 2008 when about 10 percent said they checked an applicant's Facebook page.

In the latest survey released last fall, 26 percent had visited Facebook and 27 percent had used Google.

"The trend has definitely been upward," said Christine Brown, Kaplan Test Prep executive director of K-12 and college admissions programs.

Online searches can affect scholarships as well.

In a fall 2011 survey by Fastweb.com and the National Scholarship Providers Association, about a quarter of scholarship providers checked out the candidates on the Web, using Google and social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter.

Such searches typically were done only for finalists, but most were looking for "red flags."

Ms. Brown said the Kaplan survey found no schools with a uniform admissions policy on using students' posts on social media.

"It likely varies significantly from university to university and potentially admissions officer to admissions officer," she said.

She called it "definitely a bit of a wild card in college admissions."

Social media searches of applicants are not commonly used in Western Pennsylvania.

At Carnegie Mellon University which receives about 20,000 applications a year, Michael Steidel, director of admission, said, "Our admission process is really designed to do the reading in a systematic way. If we're going to do it for some, we'd have to do it systematically for all. We can't build that into the process."

At the University of Pittsburgh, Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer, sent an email saying Pitt doesn't consider social media in admissions because of issues such as time and the feasibility of verifying the authenticity of the social media accounts.

At Slippery Rock University, Michael May, director of undergraduate recruitment and admissions, said he doesn't look at social media either.

If the school were to check social media, he said, "You become the behavior police. So then do you create a policy of what's acceptable behavior versus not acceptable behavior?"

At La Roche College, Terry Kizina, director of admissions, also said he doesn't research applicants on social media.

"We really rely on the students' essays that they supply to us as well as letters of recommendations from teachers, guidance counselors, those kinds of things ... along with the student's academics to make our admissions decisions," he said.

At Chatham University, Bill Campbell, vice president of marketing and communications, said social media posts aren't checked as part of the application process although admissions counselors have the option.

At Geneva College, Ben Smith, an admissions counselor, said he occasionally uses Facebook to communicate with an applicant as "another touch point" instead of phoning, but not to research applica nts.

Joell Minford, director of admissions at Point Park University, said social media posts are not checked routinely, although in a handful of cases at most "if someone responds to something we post on our Facebook page, it may prompt us to investigate a little bit more."

Usually, that comment is a positive one, and the university circles back with the student, she said.

Many students try to keep their social media image positive.

"We advise students often to Google themselves and see what comes up," Ms. Brown said.

Based on survey results, she said, "Students are getting more savvy about how to use privacy settings to manage what their digital footprint looks like."

Some students encourage admissions officers to look at their information on the Web as supplementary material, whether it's a website designed for a company, a talent showcased in a YouTube video or a portfolio in the SlideShow portal of the Common Application used by some schools.

At many schools, students with athletic or performing talents long have sent in videotapes, now often replaced by YouTube videos or links to websites.

George Mason University in Virginia gives students the option of making a short video, sometimes posted on YouTube.

About 500 or 600 of the 21,000 applicants submit videos. The results are as varied as the students themselves, ranging from doing extreme sports to singing a song about the school.

But even the best social media presence isn't going to obscure a poor transcript.

While the videos show creativity and interest in the school, Amy Takayama-Perez, dean of admissions at George Mason, said the best predictors of success are "the rigor of your courses and how successful you've been in the classroom.

"Even a video doesn't make up for that."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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