When Kelsang Dolma began sending in her college applications, the first thing she did was lock down her Twitter account.
“I was applying to about 10 schools and I knew that every bit of information could be crucial,” said Dolma, now a junior at Yale University. “My Twitter by no means was offensive, but I worried that any little joke could be a deal breaker. Most of the schools I applied to had razor thin admission rates, so I wanted to be safe rather than sorry.”
Dolmas story turned out safe. Others have turned out sorry.
Online profiles are now just another part of a student’s background like a GPA or extra-curricular activities. College admissions officers routinely check social media, with 35 percent of those surveyed by Kaplan Test Prep saying they have checked applicants’ social media postings. Of those, 42 percent said that what they found had a negative impact on the student’s application.
Consequences can be severe. Recently, revoked the acceptance letters of 10 students after discovering they had posted offensive memes to a Facebook group chat. The event and others like it have struck fear into the hearts of students and parents alikeand for good reason.
Scrubbing social media accountsor preemptively making sure their online presences cant be trackedhas become a common move for students entering their senior year of high school in 2017. Plenty of teens have had social media accounts since middle school and are terrified that an errant post or tagged photo from years ago could come back to haunt them.
Unfortunately, there are still lots of students who don’t take necessary precautions when it comes to policing their own online presence.
“One of the things this Harvard example highlights is that a lot of kids do things online that can come back to bite them. It’s important to realize that it happens on a much more regular level,”said Patrick Ambron, CEO at BrandYourself, an online reputation management firm that works with students.
The Harvard memes were an example that went beyond the usual teenage shenanigans, but it doesn’t even take something that shocking to cause problems.
“Most kids aren’t posting dramatically controversial stuff, but it can still negatively affect them,” Ambron said.
The digital footprint
It’s hard to grow up online these days and not leave behind something, anything, that might prove suspect in the eyes of a college admissions officer. That’s where BrandYourself comes in.
The company recently launched a new “” product aimed at high schoolers’ worried parents. Billed as “the perfect graduation gift,” the service promises to surface and remove risky online references to sex, alcohol, drugs, politics, religion, and more for $99, according to .
“Most kids aren’t posting dramatically controversial stuff, but it can still negatively affect them.”
To get started, students grant the BrandYourself system access to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The software then scours thousands of old posts and uses a machine learning algorithm to pull up the ones that may be deemed problematic. Students and their parents can then evaluate the old posts and choose whether or not to delete the content.
The program will also identify troubling search results for a student’s name and provide an overall reputation score, which indicates how likely it is that a student’s results will negatively affect their career or college prospects.
“More and more colleges and employers are using this type of technology to screen applicants,” Ambron said. “We are the first ones to give it back to the consumer.”
A senior by any other name
BrandYourself’s makeover product is new, but students have spent years been using home-grown methods to avoid admissions officers. For many, adopting a senior name is the first step they take to shield their real identity.
“Senior names,” which many students adopt at the end of summer or the beginning of senior year, are aliases used on Facebook throughout their senior year, and sometimes beyond. These aliases are theoretically meant to hide a student’s real identity from admissions officers or summer internship hiring managers who search for their offline name. They’re also just for fun.
When Emmett Chen-Ran, a current freshman at Yale University was entering his senior year of high school, he changed his name on Facebook to “Ecr Allen Poe,” an alias he has used on Facebook ever since. “My school and a lot of other high schools I’ve seen had a tradition of seniors changing their Facebook names to be parodies or plays on their real names,” he said.
“For me personally it’s actually a matter of online security/professionalism. I’ve never had my full name attached to any online social media accounts, because I prefer to keep my online informal behavior disconnected from my online formal presence,” he said.
Cam Victor, a freshman at Tulane, switched her name over to “CamRon Swanson” when she was applying to college. She said that Facebook senior names were a tradition at her school and many students take pride in coming up with the most creative plays on their traditional names.
Other teenagers, like “Mimi” (not her real name), a current senior in high school on Long Island, change their names to more realistic-sounding aliases in hopes of throwing off any adults who come looking. Her senior name was Ashley Mimikkyu, a name she says she made up in middle school and has used online so that she can’t be traced.
“It’s definitely inappropriate and would get me kicked out of college.”
While senior names are a great first step, other high schoolers take more extensive measures to protect their identity like deleting old accounts or creating duplicate “ghost” profiles that they use to share questionable material online.
Lots of teens these days , secondary Instagram accounts where they share more personal material with a smaller, tightly monitored group of friends. Mimi said that she has completely separate Facebook and Instagram accounts tied to a throwaway gmail address using an anonymous screen name, and she uses these accounts to post things she wouldn’t want adults to see.
“If you look at my Facebook, the one I’m messaging you with on, you can tell that it’s definitely inappropriate and would get me kicked out of college,” she said over Facebook Messenger from her ghost account.
Think before you tweet
Alyssa McDevitt, a rising junior at York College of Pennsylvania is acutely aware of the impact online behavior can have on offline life.
She said that in middle school her mother forwarded her a chain email about all the ways someone can cyber stalk you online after she was concerned that her daughter was sharing too much personal information on the internet.
The email listed things stalkers can do to find children, like check the background of Facebook photos for school logos, dig up personal information such as people’s home addresses via Google results, and so on.
“I know she was worried,” said McDevitt, “but I read that and was like, ‘Oh! This is great. This is how I can find stuff out about people on the internet.'”
She now runs a freelance consulting service that helps her peers keep track of their online reputations before applying to summer jobs or internships. , McDevitt will run a “full report on someone’s internet footprint.”
“You can find out a lot about a person from their Google results and social media,” McDevitt says. “Every piece of information you find on someone is like a another puzzle piece that leads to another part of who they are.”
“Anything you post online is there forever, even if you delete it.”
For those students looking to clean up their online presence who don’t want to shell out money, she has some advice.
“Tagged photos are definitely one of those things that people underestimate,” she said, “If someone else takes a pic, you’re not going to remember them taking it and putting it online.” Make sure tagged photos are hidden on Facebook, Instagram, and any other social platforms, she advises.
Searching through all the hundreds of old things you’ve posted on various apps can also be tedious. McDevitt suggests students sign up for a service like , which pulls in your entire social media history and shows you exactly what you posted daily to each platform in past years.
“You might forget those old tweets or old Facebook posts,” she said, “and there might be some really edgy and bad stuff from four years ago that you posted. if you see it in TimeHop you can delete it or make it private.”
But even despite taking all these precautions, the better option is to just use good judgement.
“Anything you post online is there forever, even if you delete it,” McDevitt says. “I always tell people that.”
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