Why (and How!) to Take Control of your Online Presence

How successful do you think a college applicant would be if they submitted a pristine 4.0 transcript, an impressive 2200 SAT score, and a personal statement outlining their various drunken antics with a printed photograph of the last time they blacked out from alcohol? Sound ridiculous? It turns out that thousands of college applicants are doing this every year.

Students suffer from the misconception that there is a level of anonymity on the Internet. The truth is that anyone who looks hard enough can find out almost everything that you've ever written, posted, said, or blogged. Most high schoolers relax in the fact that their parents and grandparents don't know how to surf their online profiles, and feel comfortable with posting profanity and near-naked pictures or, even worse, displaying underaged drinking or drug use.

But adults are not as clueless about web technology as most students tend to think. And college admissions officers are increasingly turning to the web to do research on their applicants. What was long just a myth designed to scare students has now become reality.

Did you know admissions officers actually read your Facebook and MySpace profiles?

While a huge, public university with tens of thousands of applicants each year likely won't search everyone's profile, even these large colleges consider Internet research to help distinguish similar candidates who are on the border between acceptance and rejection. Smaller, private schools that receive fewer applications may run a Google search on all of their applicants just to see what comes up.

Admissions officers and other college staff create and maintain MySpace and Facebook profiles specifically to research students. And even if they don't, the power of Google and its cache will reveal all the information you thought they'd never see. So while you may not be drafting a personal statement about your alcohol use, you may be effectively doing the same thing if this information is somewhere on the Internet.

But my profile is set to 'private'. Won't that keep me safe?

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as setting your profile to 'private' or deleting anything that might hurt you right before you send out your applications. Google and several other websites maintain archives of all the pages on the Internet. Not only that, but friends -- and even strangers -- can always take the information or pictures you post and put them on their own non-private profiles. Once you put something out on the Internet, you should trust that it's probably there for good.

The only way to really be safe is to take a proactive approach to controlling the results that admissions officers will see when they search for you.

How to take control of your online presence

There is a three-step process you should take to not only minimize the damage that your online presence may have caused, but also to help you in the admissions process:

  1. Undo the damage. Delete any photos, remove any personal entries, and hide any other material that an admissions officer might find objectionable. Then, configure your profile to keep everything private. MySpace, Facebook, and almost all other social networking sites have settings that let you keep everything hidden from everyone but your friends. Use them.
  2. Prevent any more damage. Monitor your online presence by making sure that your friends don't post incriminating Instant Message transcripts, embarrassing photos, or harmful anecdotes. If you must blog about your personal antics, do so under a pseudonym. Google your own name and ask that any objectionable content that you find be removed.
  3. Take control. The most important step is to start creating the online presence that you would want the admissions officers to see. Start up a blog using your real name that chronicles professional growth, volunteer responsibilities, or even just political or social commentary. Write posts as if potential employers and colleges will read them. Join college networking sites and talk generally about your future ambitions and goals. Post on other blogs about college, and offer your insights to fellow applicants who have questions. Do this enough and even if unflattering results appear in Google, they will be so deeply buried behind your more professional persona that no one will find them.

It's important to have fun with social networking sites, but do so carefully. As long as you monitor the content you put out there, keep everything private, and ensure that your fun-loving pseudonym is separate from your professional, specially engineered presence, not only will you be safe from rejection as a result of unflattering online information, but you may also boost your chances.

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Very sound advice! The one thing I would caution against though is the idea that anything negative will necessarily be "gone forever in the noise" because amazing things do suddenly turn up sometimes... maybe that site with negative posts gets a big PageRank boost and suddenly something gets exposed; whatever the explanation, it's better to try to make sure that your online persona stays clean if it could ever be traced back to you. Someone on an internet forum once challenged me to find out personal information from just his e-mail address... and I looked, found old (embarrassing) letters to the editor of local newspapers from High School which led to real names which, combined with open knowledge about employment type and schools, then led to current work and home address. I mean, if someone is digging, there is always something to be found, and that shouldn't just be ignored--caches and wayback machine and crawlers can bring stuff to the surface that you thought was long gone.

- Sam Jackson, 02/29/08 at 11:39 am

Hi, Sam. Excellent points. Few people realize that it takes very little detective skill to find all sorts of information about people on the Internet. Fortunately, the vast majority of colleges and employers won't employ the sleuthing skills necessary to uncover anything you've taken some pains to hide, but you never know.

Then again, would you really want to work for an employer who would deny you employment over a letter to the editor written in your teens?

- Brian Cavner, 03/01/08 at 10:29 am

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