This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2008 - A high school senior changes the first name on his Facebook account to a nickname to hide from college admissions officers. How to be certain of his motive? He says so in his online status message. Another student shortens her last name to an initial, and a third deletes his profile entirely.
Spooked by stories of admissions officers vetting students through online searches, college applicants are taking steps to make their social networking Web pages invisible to outsiders or devoid of potentially damaging content. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that has grabbed the attention not only of applicants and admissions officers, but also parents and high school college counselors.
“I know a lot of seniors who have changed their names on Facebook,” said Lisa Einstein, a senior at Clayton High School. “We’ve all heard stories about pictures of drinking affecting a college’s decision.”
A recent survey of selective colleges by education company Kaplan shows that 10 percent of admissions officers acknowledged visiting a student’s social networking Website as part of an application review. While a quarter of the officers who report viewing applicants’ sites said their online searches have generally improved their opinion of students, nearly 40 percent said what they saw generally had a “negative impact” on their admissions evaluation.
The majority of colleges surveyed reported not having an official policy or guidelines regarding tracking applicants’ social networking pages. Those with such a policy generally say they don’t factor these sites into the evaluation – and they say searches happen for narrowly defined reasons.
Area Colleges Claim to Snoop Sparingly
A survey of St. Louis colleges reveals the same results. None of the institutions reported that its admissions staff scans students’ Facebook pages, but none said there’s a policy that prohibits social networking searches, either.
As part of its “blind admissions policy,” Webster University doesn’t ask students to submit photographs or consider their financial need in evaluating applications, according to Polly Burtch, a Webster spokeswoman. Nothing forbids officers from scanning social networking sites, but Burtch said it’s not a practice and “we’re not going to start doing it.”
The same is true at Saint Louis University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville , according to university officials. Drew Griffin, associate director for recruitment services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis , said admissions officers don’t have the time or interest to look at Facebook and MySpace pages. “Our processing staff is three people and our officers are usually swamped as it is,” he said.
Still, that doesn’t mean admissions officers don’t pay attention to the personal information offered in applications. “We joke about students’ e-mail addresses and how funny or inappropriate they are,” Griffin said.
Jim Prag, a college counselor at Chaminade College Preparatory School, said he tells students to pay attention to seemingly innocuous details like personal e-mail addresses. But he reminds them that it’s only a small percentage of colleges that have both the interest in and resources to carefully check their personal Web pages. Many institutions, he tells them, are interested only in grade point average and standardized test scores.
“We try not to get everyone in a panic,” Prag said. “We do say that it’s a possibility, especially at the more selective institutions. The message is just be mindful that whether it’s a college application or job application down the road, you aren’t anonymous nowadays even if you think you are.”
Mary Anne Modzelewski, a former associate director of admissions at Washington University, said that while she doesn’t think social networking searches are commonplace, colleagues at selective colleges tell her that Facebook checks or Google searches are helpful if an application raises a red flag. She said Washington U. is among the selective colleges that would likely keep social networking searches as an option. (Facebook didn’t exist when she was an associate director there.) Washington U. admissions officers could not be reached for comment.
Ken Fox, college and career counselor at Ladue High School, said he agrees with Modzelewski’s assessment about when colleges conduct such searches. He meets with sophomores and juniors about the dangers of posting compromising photographs or messages on personal Web pages. He’s even heard of applicants sabotaging high school enemies by anonymously sending colleges information pointing to inappropriate content on their Facebook page.
“Colleges are trying to understand a complete story about their applicants, and in many cases they don’t need Facebook for that,” Fox said. “But for a kid on the margin, everything counts. Perhaps Facebook is an open, honest look at who a person is and how they are representing themselves to friends.”
Or, as Andy Abbott, director of college counseling at John Burroughs School, put it: “I’ve never heard an admissions officer say we check Facebook pages, but I’ve heard plenty say they know other officers who do.”
Not all admissions directors are sufficiently well-versed in the world of social networking to think of using such sites for crosschecks. But Carolyn Blair, a college counselor at Clayton High who sits on several university advisory boards, said that such unfamiliarity will become less the case as younger university employees move into positions of power.
Prag, the Chaminade college counselor, said he wants parents to understand the issues raised by their students’ online postings. Separate research from Kaplan shows that most parents of high school students think the practice of colleges looking at social networking sites when evaluating applicants is unfair.
That’s a sentiment shared by many students. Still, plenty of college applicants aren’t concerned about what’s on their Facebook pages. (Einstein said she rarely logs on and has nothing to hide.) And some note that unless college officials “friend” them (extend an invitation to join their online network) or know a person who is in their social circle, most information is unavailable to them. Modzelewski, who is now director of college counseling at the Sandia Prep school in New Mexico, said students are sophisticated about ways of avoiding unwanted eyes on their personal sites.
Blair said students often haven’t thought about who might be searching their social network sites. “I have a pretty savvy group, but it’s not on their radar,” she said.
Technology Means Change
The desire to avoid unwanted access to information on social networking sites is already being met with new alternatives to Facebook that allow users to limit viewership to members of a distinct group, such as a school class or a business. One such newcomer, called “Ning” (www.ning.com ), invites people to “create your own social network for anything.” Access is limited to defined group members, and individuals can even link their entry to their Facebook page.
Modzelewski said the potential for Facebook searches is just one way that technology has changed the admissions process. She’s heard other college officials complain about students forging letters of recommendations and signatures, for instance.
There’s also the potential for students to use “new media” to enhance their appeal as a candidate for admission. Einstein has written tunes that help her study for tests. As part of her application, she included a link to a YouTube video of her playing guitar and singing a song she wrote about the Graduate Record Examination.
“I feel like [colleges] are trying to figure out who we are, and I want to present every side of myself that wouldn’t come across otherwise in application,” she said.
Elia Powers is a freelance writer.