Survey Finds Online Scrutiny of College Applicants on the Rise

In many colleges, admissions officers are checking applicants' social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and other networks to learn about them in ways the traditional application may not reveal — and social media posts and comments can be helpful or harmful in making a judgment about a candidate.

A new release from Kaplan Test Prep reveals that making critical posts and comments online could negatively affect a high school student's admissions prospects. The study found that online scrutiny of college candidates is growing, writes Natasha Singer of The New York Times.

Researchers interviewed 381 college admissions officers, and about 31% said they had visited an applicant's Facebook or other personal social media page to learn more about them — a five-percentage-point increase from last year.

According to the survey, 30% of the admissions officers said they had discovered information online that had negatively affected an applicant's prospects.

"Students' social media and digital footprint can sometimes play a role in the admissions process," said Christine Brown, the executive director of K-12 and college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep. "It's something that is becoming more ubiquitous and less looked down upon."

Brown said that most colleges do not have formal policies about admissions officers supplementing students' files with their own online research. If colleges find seemingly troubling material online, they may not necessarily notify the applicants involved.

"To me, it's a huge problem," said Bradley S. Shear, a lawyer specializing in social media law. For one thing, Mr. Shear said, colleges might erroneously identify the account of a person with the same name as a prospective student — or even mistake an impostor's account — as belonging to the applicant, potentially leading to unfair treatment. "Often," he added, "false and misleading content online is taken as fact."

Natasha Singer writes that it isn't routine practice at colleges for admissions officers to use Google searches on applicants or to peruse their social media posts. Most college officials said that school received so many applications to review and staff members wouldn't be able to do extra research online.

A few college officials said that online investigations might lead to unfair or inconsistent treatment. According to some admissions officials, they did not formally prohibit the practice. In fact, they said, admissions officers did look at online material about applicants on an ad hoc basis.

Sometimes applicants themselves ask admissions officers to review their online portfolio such as blogs or videos they have posted.

"Last year, we watched some animation videos and we followed media stories about an applicant who was involved in a political cause," said Will Hummel, an admissions officer at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. But those were rare instances, he says, and the supplemental material didn't significantly affect the students' admissions prospects.

Some admissions officials said that they had occasionally rejected applicants or revoked their acceptances because of online materials.

In response to the changing admissions landscape, guidance counselors are training high school students in cleaning their digital identities in an effort to help them avoid self-sabotage online. In Massachusetts, juniors at Brookline High School are taught to delete alcohol-related posts or photographs and to create socially acceptable email addresses.

11 15, 2013
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