Applying to College? Beware of Social Media


This summer, in a well-publicized story that made international news, Harvard University rescinded offers of admission to more than 10 students who posted obscene, sexually explicit and racist memes in a private Facebook group. This offshoot of another online Facebook page for students admitted to the university’s class of 2021 changed names several times and, at one point, was titled “Offensive memes for horny bourgeois teens.”

One would think students who won acceptance from a pool of candidates with near-perfect SAT scores and impeccable high school transcripts would be wise enough to steer clear of such risky behavior. Yet, amazingly, a number of accepted Harvard University students did the exact same thing in 2016, when members of the class of 2020 exchanged similarly themed messages on an app called GroupMe, but ultimately escaped discipline.

Online Snooping by Admission Offices

The majority of college admissions officers rarely, if ever, Google applicants’ names, rifle through Facebook accounts, pore over archived tweets or analyze selfies on Instagram for artistic value. For some officers, it’s a moral issue; your student’s social media should be his or her private space. For others, stalking forgotten social media pages for evidence of middle school misdeeds would be a wasteful use of precious time.

The practice of online snooping, however, has trended upward over the last 10 years. In 2008, Kaplan reported that only 10 percent of admissions officers bothered looking at an applicant’s social media pages; but in 2017, that number rose to 35 percent. A similar number of admissions officers report at least Googling an applicant to glean any relevant information — positive or negative. A staggering 42 percent of those surveyed, however, reported ultimately finding something that negatively impacted their view of an applicant.

Digital Footprints

As an exercise, Google yourself and see what comes up. Scroll into the deep recesses of your long abandoned pages and refresh your memory of questionable items you may have posted over the past 10 years for the entire world to view. Dig far back through your Facebook page. Were you tagged doing something inappropriate in a group photo you barely even remember being taken?

Then ask your child to do the same. He doesn’t have to shut down his entire online life — he just needs to make sure nothing in cyberspace will cause him to make a poor first impression on admission officers, who may frown upon the contents of his Spring Break 2017 Facebook album. Even if the majority of schools never peer into your child’s online life, there is simply no good reason to risk jeopardizing his chances of admission for the sake of maintaining that risqué Instagram page.

Social Media as an Advantage

College and university department administrators have expanded their own use of social networking in recent years, utilizing social media such as Facebook and Twitter to help connect with potential applicants. Interacting with schools through social media can prove informative and show admissions offices that your child is seriously considering their institution. “Following” a school can be an excellent way to demonstrate interest virtually, without the cost and effort of a campus visit (although this is still recommended).

The Bottom Line

Pass this advice on to your child:

Do not post anything online (or keep anything active online during the admissions process) that you do not feel represents your best self.
Stalk your own digital presence and make sure nothing inappropriate, offensive or otherwise undesirable pops up. If it does, take it down.

While most students’ errors in cyber-judgment won’t land them on the front page of The New York Times, thousands of applicants each year will quietly, and perhaps without ever being told, lose their chance at being admitted to a top-choice college because of a simple internet search. It only takes a minimal amount of effort and common sense to ensure that your child is not among them.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at