How to Help Your Students Polish Their Online Presence

by
Senior Assistant Editor, Wintergreen Orchard House

College counselors can help their students use social media to become attractive candidates for admission.

Aside from those living beneath the oblivious shelter of a rock, few people have escaped the ubiquitous clutches of today’s burgeoning social media. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allow people to express themselves and network and communicate with one another in ways that were never before possible. The denizens of America’s high schools--members of a generation for whom using the Internet is second nature--are particularly susceptible to the lure of social media.

While it may seem like a harmless way for them to share stories and pictures of their teenage hijinks, students beginning the college application process should understand the potential consequences of the way they present themselves online. Without taking the proper precautions, a simple Google search on the part of an admission official could mean the difference between a big envelope and a small one. Thus, college counselors can now add to their already lengthy to-do lists the task of helping their students refine their online presence. Once successfully edited, students’ social networking profiles, blogs, and videos can serve as valuable additions to their college applications.

What to monitor

Counselors should be aware of the full spectrum of venues that may comprise a student’s presence on the Web. The heavy-hitter social networking sites Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace come to mind, but there are other places where students may need to edit or remove content they have posted. Students should review any videos they’ve posted to YouTube, personal blogs and websites should be examined, and e-mail addresses should be scrutinized through the lens of professionalism.

While most colleges and universities don’t include an investigation of an applicant’s Facebook profile or blog in their admission decision, students can never be too cautious.

“There is no one single piece that would negatively affect a student’s admission,” says Beth Wiser, Director of Admissions at the University of Vermont. “Since we don’t go actively looking for the content, it would have to be made available to us in other ways through the application process.”

If something is made available to the school, students should be sure they’ve scrubbed down every nook and cranny of their presence on the Internet. And college counselors can help them do the cleaning.

What to clean up

Social networking sites are the best place to start. While students may not wish to share their profiles, college counselors can help by enumerating for them the various faux pas they should watch for. A good rule of thumb is, “If you wouldn’t want Grandma to see it, don’t post it.” First and foremost, students should check their privacy settings and tighten security on their profiles. Beyond that, scandalous pictures, offensive comments, and profanity need to be removed. It’s also a good idea for students to review the list of pages and groups they’ve joined, things they “like” on Facebook, and things like quotes they’ve listed in their personal information. They can even go the extra mile and look for grammar and spelling errors in anything they’ve posted.

Any YouTube videos a student has uploaded should be looked at, and anything off-color should be taken down. Any videos posted on a student’s blog, website, or social networking page should also be assessed.

Students’ personal blogs and websites should be thoroughly examined. Anyone searching a student’s name could chance upon his or her musings, so it’s best to delete any and all content that doesn’t reflect a college applicant’s most positive traits.

Counselors may also want to check their students e-mail addresses. Since so much communication with schools is now conducted via e-mail, “surferdude@gmail.com” would be well advised to create a professional address to use for applications.

How to use social media positively

Once students and their counselors have worked to clean up their cyber personas, it’s time to go one step further. College applicants can harness the power of social media and use it to both learn about the schools to which they will apply and highlight themselves as attractive candidates for admission.

Schools’ Facebook pages are a good place for students to discover what their campuses have to offer and to network with current students and other applicants. Some colleges and universities also have Facebook groups for applicants and newly admitted students, such as NYU Class of 2015 and UCLA Class of 2015. Many schools have Twitter accounts that prospective students can follow to gain a more enlightened perspective on college life. There are also numerous blogs, YouTube channels, webcasts, and online chat sessions that can give applicants added insights into a school’s overall “personality.”

Students should think of their own social networking pages as extensions of themselves, and everything they post works together to create an online synopsis of who they are. College counselors can help their students shape those résumés by discussing the activities they can highlight in their profiles. Pictures from a weekend of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity make a far better impression than pictures from a weekend of poolside partying. A well-written blog demonstrating a student’s knack for social or political analysis could make a positive addition to a college application. Web-savvy students might be advised to create personal websites where they can upload portfolios of photography, art work, or writing samples. And a few schools, such as George Mason University, have even begun accepting video essays, allowing applicants to express themselves in a more unique and personal way.

How schools are using social media

Facebook alone has more than 750 million active users, and colleges and universities everywhere have taken note. A quickly increasing number of schools have begun using social media as a tool for both recruiting new students and communicating with applicants, the student body, and alumni. UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research has been conducting a study over the past few years examining the use of social media by colleges and universities. Of the schools surveyed in 2007–2008, 61% reported using at least one form of social media. By 2009–2010, that figure jumped to 95%, and in the most recent study, 100% of schools reported using social media in some form.

Through Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, blogs, webcasts, mobile apps, and instant messaging chat sessions, applicants can now use the Internet to learn more about schools than they could through mere brochures or catalogs.

Just a few of the schools now using social media to engage with prospective and current students include:

Students’ long-term online presence

Counselors helping their students pare down and refine their image on the Web are doing them a service that will last well beyond the college admission process. Four years later, when they become job-seeking college graduates, anything they’ve posted on the Internet could be discovered by their future employers and professional colleagues--even something innocent but ill-advised from their high school days. Students who are taught to keep a watchful eye on their online presence early on will reap the benefits indefinitely.

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