When was the last time you looked at your own online presence? Not just the latest Instagram “story” you posted, but the entire constructed story of your virtual persona. How might all your comments and posts, in their gloriously incomplete representation of you, be interpreted by a stranger?

It is possible that colleges and universities will look at your social media to get a more complete picture of who you are. According to a 2017 Kaplan survey of 388 admissions officers from the nation’s top schools, “More than two-thirds of colleges say that it’s ‘fair game’ for them to visit applicants’ social media profiles like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help them decide who gets in — despite the fact that less than a third actually engage in the practice.” 

Let’s explore what might motivate college admissions to “cyberstalk” you, and how you can strategically build your online image to work in your favor.  

Reasons colleges look at students’ social media 

  1. To help them determine which students will fit best with their campuses, colleges want to get to know applicants as best they can. If part of an application is unclear, or they want to better understand what sets a student apart, admissions officers may consult social media. 
  2. In their efforts to put together safe, diverse, high-caliber student bodies, schools will investigate any doubts they have about an applicant’s moral integrity. In fact, almost 10 percent of admissions officers say they have revoked a student’s admission after discovering offensive social media content. This year, for example, Harvard revoked an admissions offer after learning of a student’s racist writings, and a couple years ago revoked another 10 admissions after discovering students had posted extremely offensive memes on a Facebook group. 

Action steps to ensure your social media is college-friendly

  1. Review your social media presence through the eyes of an outsider. Try pretending you are your grandmother as you notice any comments, photos, or posts that could be possibly offensive. Pay attention to memes, inside jokes, or vague messages that you may not initially realize could be off-putting to someone else. If you happen to have a particularly cool grandma and pretending to be her doesn’t help, you can also check your posts by asking, “Would I say this on TV?” Then make the appropriate deletions.   
  2. Google yourself. This may reveal some hidden places you exist online that you’ve either forgotten about or (surprise!) you didn’t even know were there. 
  3. Show off your skills and accomplishments. Once your online contributions are free of questionable content, you can start filling in a fuller, college-friendly representation of yourself. Consider posting photos of your favorite activities, family gatherings, community service, or trips abroad. Instagram can be a good place to showcase the products of your talents, such as art pieces or performance clips. A LinkedIn profile can convey your dedication to extracurricular activities and projects. 
  4. Demonstrate interest in colleges and universities. Admissions officers want to feel confident you are genuinely interested in their school and plan to attend if admitted. You can post pictures from a college tour you took or say something that reflects your enthusiasm about a school. Keep in mind that as much as the colleges are assessing you, you want to be assessing them. So you can be an investigator too, using social media to look into what colleges have to offer and what it’s like to be a student there.  
  5. Check your privacy settings. If you simply do not want your social media to be seen at all, adjust your privacy settings to keep unknown people from accessing your content. 

All of the above suggestions are meant to help you enhance your application, not to encourage you to be someone you think others want you to be. Everyone is unique, and thank goodness because this is a necessity for the optimal functioning of each campus, and really, the entire world. So do what you can to put forth the true you, in the real world, and in the virtual world.