Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. – Maya Angelou

Mr. Walker's Classroom Blog

Social-networking sites viewed by admissions officers

Survey shows some use Facebook, MySpace as another aspect to college application.

Lauren Pfeiffer said she doesn’t have to worry about what’s on her Facebook profile, but she can’t say the same about her fellow students.

“Some of my friends could get in trouble with their photos,” said the junior at Andrew High School in Tinley Park. “I wouldn’t want it to be a deciding factor in their future.”

The idea that a lapse in cyber-judgment could alter a life trajectory might once have been dismissed as paranoia.

But with some admissions officers confirming in a new survey that they visit social-networking sites, high schoolers say getting into college is no longer only about sky-high test scores and impressive extracurricular activities. Now it means being smart about their online personas as well.

In a new survey, 10 percent of admissions officers from prestigious schools said they had peeked at sites like Facebook and MySpace to evaluate college-bound seniors. Of those using the profiles, 38 percent said it had a “negative impact” on the applicant, according to Kaplan Inc., the education services company that polled the officers.

At least one admissions officer had rescinded an offer because of an applicant’s postings, results showed. The survey went out to 500 schools—of which 320 responded—in July and August and promised anonymity.

The finding highlights a technological world moving so fast that neither the students nor the schools have had time to factor in all the implications. What’s clear is that students have yet another potential obstacle to navigate in an increasingly fierce competition for slots in the country’s top universities.

The networking sites were virtually nonexistent five years ago but now are approaching cell phone use in popularity. With few schools having formal guidelines in place, “we’re in a period of figuring out this technology . . . and exactly where the boundaries are going to be,” said Jeff Olson, who heads research for Kaplan’s test preparation division.

At the University of Notre Dame, which received 14,000 applications for 1,985 slots last year, assistant provost for enrollment Dan Saracino said he and his staff “don’t go out of our way” to scrutinize students online, but sometimes they come across candidates portraying themselves in a less-than-flattering light.

“It’s typically inappropriate photos—like holding up a can of beer at a party,” Saracino said.

“We try to turn it into a teaching moment,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to let students know that what they put on these sites is not just between you and your friends, but you and the world.”

On the other hand, using the Internet to vet someone’s character seems overly intrusive to Northwestern University‘s Christopher Watson.

“We consider Facebook and MySpace their personal space,” the dean of undergraduate admissions said. “It would feel somewhat like an invasion of privacy.”

That sentiment was seconded by the University of Chicago‘s dean of admissions, Ted O’Neill, who was surprised by the survey’s results.

“We don’t have a policy not to look, we just don’t look,” he said. “Despite the fact that these things are semipublic . . . I don’t think we should be spying on things that aren’t intended for us.”

Even so, the findings give adults a bit of extra ammunition in urging discretion—not always the first impulse for adolescents.

Gloria Mueller, college counseling coordinator at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, said she has been telling kids to be careful with their postings ever since she first heard colleges and employers were checking out Web sites. “You never know when this will come back to bite you,” she said.

Sharyn Reiff of Skokie already had “the talk” a couple of years ago with her son, Jordan, a senior at Niles North High School, that resulted in his deleting some inappropriate content.

“He loves his Facebook and he makes it funny, but he knows it has to be good, clean fun,” said Reiff, whose son has his hopes pinned on Brown University or Reed College. “He also knows that there are a lot of talented kids out there and he needs every advantage he can get.”

Ethan Goldsmith, a senior, said he, too, already was exercising caution because New Trier Township High School has suspended students from sports teams for brandishing a beer in photos online.

Olson stressed that schools weren’t routinely checking the sites as part of the evaluation process but were visiting only if there was something troublesome in the application or information that needed to be confirmed.

With colleges expecting a record number of applications this year, the survey results should serve as a wake-up call for both students and parents, he said.

“Today’s application is not just what you send . . . but whatever they can Google about you,” Olson said.