Hechinger, Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2008
High-school seniors already fretting about grades and test
scores now have another worry: Will their Facebook or MySpace
pages count against them in college admissions?
A new survey of 500 top colleges found that 10% of admissions
officers acknowledged looking at social-networking sites to
evaluate applicants. Of those colleges making use of the online
information, 38% said that what they saw "negatively affected"
their views of the applicant. Only a quarter of the schools
checking the sites said their views were improved, according to
the survey by education company Kaplan, a unit of Washington
Some admissions officers said they had rejected students because
of material on the sites. Jeff Olson, who heads research for
Kaplan's test-preparation division, says one university did so
after the student gushed about the school while visiting the
campus, then trashed it online. Kaplan promised anonymity to the
colleges, of which 320 responded. The company surveyed schools
with the most selective admissions.
Admissions officers have acknowledged looking at
social-networking sites like Facebook to evaluate applicants.
The vast majority of the colleges surveyed had no policy about
when it was appropriate for school officials to look at
prospective students' social-networking sites. "We're in the
early stage of a new technology," Mr. Olson says. "It's the
Wild, Wild West. There are no clear boundaries or limits."
The lack of rules is already provoking debate among admissions
officers. Some maintain that applicants' online data are public
information that schools should vet to help protect the
integrity of the institutions. Others say they are uncomfortable
flipping through teenage Facebook pages.
Colleges' recent interest in social-networking sites is leading
many aspiring students to take a hard look at their online
habits and in some cases to remove or change postings. With a
high-school graduating class nationwide of 3.3 million students,
colleges are expected to be sifting through a record number of
applications this year.
Nicholas Santangelo, a senior at Seton Hall Prep, a private
school in West Orange, N.J., says he expects colleges might look
at his Facebook site but hopes admissions officers realize the
postings reflect only a partial view of any student. "There are
some things I might think about getting rid of," says Nicholas,
17, who is considering such competitive schools as Amherst
College and Wesleyan University.
Sites like Facebook and MySpace let users set up online profiles
-- including pictures, videos and other personal information --
then solicit others to join their network of online "friends."
Users can exchange messages, often publicly, and sometimes offer
detailed descriptions of their activities, dreams and fears.
The sites have inspired many a national conversation over
privacy and exhibitionism. Some job applicants have already
discovered the hard way that employers often examine the sites
to weed out candidates.
of the sites say users can establish online privacy settings
that let their pages be viewed only by invited "friends."
MySpace is part of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street
Journal. Facebook is closely held.
But Kaplan and many high-school guidance counselors say students
often don't restrict public access on social-networking sites
and, in any case, damaging information can find a way to leak
out. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for
the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a
professional organization, says schools don't have time to scour
the Internet systematically to check out thousands of
applicants. But he says admissions officers at times receive
anonymous tips, which may be from rival applicants, about
embarrassing Facebook or MySpace material, such as a picture of
a student drunk at an underage party.
In another recent study, Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the
Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts
at Dartmouth, found that 21% of colleges used social-networking
sites for recruiting prospects and gathering information about
applicants. It's especially common when universities are
awarding scholarships because it isn't hard to go online for a
handful of finalists. "No one wants to be on the front page of
the newspaper for giving a scholarship to a murderer," she says.
"Everybody is trying to protect their brands."
Thomas Griffin, director of undergraduate admissions at North
Carolina State University in Raleigh, says the school will do an
Internet search, including Facebook and other sites, if an
application raises "red flags," such as a suspension from
school. Mr. Griffin says several applicants a year have been
rejected in part because of information on social-networking
sites. In a recent case, the university researched a student who
disclosed on his application that he had been disciplined for
fighting. The school found a Facebook page with a picture of the
applicant holding a gun. "We have to use this information to
make the best decision for the university," Mr. Griffin says.
Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University,
says the school hasn't rejected any applicant because of
information posted on the Internet. Princeton doesn't have time
to look at all applicants' online information, but if an
offensive Facebook post came to the college's attention, the
school would examine it, Ms. Rapelye says. "All of us would
consider anything that would cause us to doubt a student's
character," she says.
Greg Roberts, senior associate dean of admission at the
University of Virginia, says his staff is free to check out
anonymous tips about social-networking sites or make use of the
information if the admissions committee is evaluating a "tight"
Sandra Starke, vice provost for enrollment management at the
State University of New York at Binghamton, says she instructs
her staff to ignore Facebook and other sites because she
considers postings to be casual conversations, the online
equivalent of street-corner banter. "At this age, the students
are still experimenting," she says. "It's a time for them to
learn. It's important for them to grow. We need to be careful
how we might use Facebook."
Marc Prablek, a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in
suburban St. Louis, considers Facebook information "out in the
public" and fair game for colleges. The 17-year-old, with some
550 "friends," says, "I don't have anything bad on Facebook,"
but he may tweak his profile to be "more sophisticated."
Marc, who plans to apply early to Stanford University, says he
won't mention that he loves to read X-Men comic books. His
Facebook literary picks currently include "Crime and Punishment"
and "Pride and Prejudice."
High-school guidance counselors advise applicants, even if they
restrict public access on their sites, to refrain from including
anything that could hurt them in college admissions. They
especially caution against foul or offensive language, nudity,
or photos of drinking and drug use.
"Students need to be accountable for their actions," says Scott
Anderson, director of college guidance at St. George's
Independent School, a private school near Memphis, Tenn. When
writing on Facebook or MySpace, he says, they should be
thinking, "Is this something you want your grandmother to see?"
Write to John Hechinger at
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