If you’re applying to college, you may want to think twice about what you post on your social media accounts.
College admissions officers can learn a lot about you from a simple online search, and what they find could influence whether they accept you into their program.
Harmless shenanigans like dosing your roommate’s coffee with a splash of soy sauce probably won’t raise an eyebrow.
But iIlegal activities, racist language and online bullying could get you passed over in college admissions competition.
According to Kaplan Test Prep, 35% of college admissions officers check out the social media profiles of admissions candidates during the decision-making process.
Since there’s no way to tell which side of the fence your college admissions officer falls on, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Does your online presence show the best side of you? Here’s how to find out, what to do if it doesn’t and how to put your best foot forward.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
The first step to shaping a great online presence is to find out what people can see and learn when they search for you online.
To begin, log out of all your browser, online email and social media accounts.
If you stay logged into your accounts, some services and platforms will show you personalized content. That means you won’t get a clear picture of what others see when searching for you.
Next, search your name online. Use several different search engines, like Google, Yahoo and Bing to get a broad range of results.
Take note of what websites and social platforms show up and what they reveal about you.
See something you don’t like? Here’s what to do.
Erase Embarrassing Content (Or Try To, Anyway)
The things we post online have a nearly eternal shelf life.
Think stuff you posted last year is gone and forgotten? Think again.
“I’ve had a reader message me a photo on my Instagram from four years ago asking me about it,” notes author and online branding expert Jandra Sutton. “Luckily, it was just a bad selfie with a ridiculously embarrassing hairstyle. Nothing serious (the reader thought it was funny), but it reminded me that the things I posted when I wasn’t even thinking about it still exist online, and it isn’t impossible to find them.”
The thing about the internet is that once you put something out there, it’s practically impossible to make it disappear completely.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to minimize how easy it is to find.
Social Media Content
If you yourself posted the unflattering content on a social media platform, begin by hiding or (even better) deleting it. Here are instructions to do that on:
If someone else posted embarrassing content about you on their social media account, ask them to remove it.
If that’s not an option or they refuse, contact the social media platform directly and ask for help.
The Rest of the Internet
Removing unflattering content that turns up during general internet searches is a bit more difficult, but there are a few things you can try.
1. Contact individual search engine companies to ask for their help.
Depending on the nature of the content, they may work with you to remove it from their search results.
Here are instructions for:
2. Bury unflattering content under positive search results.
Studies show that 75% of people don’t scroll past the first page of search results.
If the first page of your name search results contain unflattering content, create positive content to bump it to page two or more.
“Consider writing articles for a local newspaper or newsletter with your byline,” suggests Timothy Jaconette, founder of Advanced Admit College Admission Consulting. “I did this when I was in high school. You can create some professional written material that should come up at the top of search results with your name.”
If you’d rather publish your own content, create a website or open a blog account and use it to highlight your successes.
“Try to write one post per week,” says Jason Patel, founder of college prep company Transizion. “Posts over 1,800 words are viewed very favorably by Google’s algorithm, but posts around 500-800 are great for content.”
3. Call in the professionals.
Depending on the type of content you’re trying to draw attention away from, you may want to consider hiring a professional who specializes in improving your presence in search results.
Reputation repair services can help you figure out ways to manage high-visibility issues like mugshots, arrest records and other negative content.
There are plenty of online services you can use but your best bet is to ask around for a word-of-mouth referral to make sure you find a company you can trust.
Tips for Creating a Sparkling Online Presence
Once you’ve assessed and polished your online presence, you’ll want to keep it looking fresh and appealing to college admissions officers.
Keep these things in mind as you post new content and social media status updates.
“Find a field of interest or a passion,” recommends Patel. “Sounds cliche, but it looks great when a young person has an idea of what she wants to do or be a part of in college or when she’s older.”
He says your interest doesn’t have to be related to a career.
“It just needs to signal to the admissions officer or university that this student is someone who can think on her own and think for the future,” he says.
“People are looking to get to know who you are as an individual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to see every meal you’ve eaten (unless food photography is your passion),” says Sutton.
“When I was establishing my online brand, I sat down and thought about what types of things I actually wanted to post about. I’m passionate about books, current events, and all things Marvel, so I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to stick to these topics.’ I absolutely post about other things, but I try to keep in mind what is relevant and interesting to my audience AND true to what I believe in.”
Make sure the content you share sincerely captures your generosity and thoughtfulness.
“Perhaps you want to think about what you could post that shares your care and concern for other people,” suggests Jaconette. “This concept of care and concern for others shows up multiple places in the college admission process, from college admission policies at large state schools to the teacher evaluation forms in the Common Application.”
“If you have hobbies or skills that you want to highlight in your application make sure that you highlight them in your social profiles, personal blog, website or YouTube channel as well,” says Mark Bechtholt, co-founder and growth hacker and online branding expert at FameMoose. “Admissions offices love to match what you say in your application with your online presence.”
Social content isn’t as formal as a college essay, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to your writing style.
Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation and save text-speak for your instant messages.
The Bottom Line
“For better or worse, social media has become an established factor in college admissions, and it’s more important than ever for applicants to make wise decisions,” says Yariv Alpher, executive director of research at Kaplan Test Prep.
“If you’re not sure what to post, ask a parent or high school counselor. If you’re still not sure, then the best course of action might be to not post it at all.”
Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s eternally grateful the internet wasn’t around when she applied to college.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.