December 20, 2010 College Admissions and Social Media: Should an Applicant “Disappear” From Facebook?
College applicants have a bit of a dilemma about their social media these days. Most high school students have a presence on one form of social media or another, the vast majority on Facebook. Facebook is currently the gathering place for just about everyone, including college admissions offices. Many colleges have their own pages through which they communicate with current students, alumni, fellow faculty, as well as prospective students. Some schools have a variety of pages that share the most up-to-date news about their different departments and disciplines. In addition, some colleges use social media to check out their applicants and see if they are (online anyway) the stellar people reflected in their applications.
It makes sense for college applicants to plug into the information flow of their schools of interest. It makes sense for applicants to use these avenues to connect with the schools to which they are applying or interested in applying. But does it make sense for students to have a Facebook presence themselves if that presence can detrimentally impact the school’s assessment of them? Is it easier for students to simply shut down their Facebook pages during the application process in order to avoid any negative repercussions that may result from the content stream that appears there?
Some students are deciding to do just that. I spoke to a small group of students who are heading for and are currently attending college. They verified that, at least in their circles, some students take a Facebook break because they don’t want to have to worry about what is seen and said at any given time on their pages. If they keep their pages going, they argue, they have to keep constant watch over what their friends are posting and how they are being tagged in photos. Since active Facebook participants are posting and updating 24/7, vigilant students have to keep a constant eye on what appears on their pages. The other alternative is to carefully utilize the privacy settings to limit what can show up on their walls. Some of these students would rather disappear, than un-friend their longtime (albeit high-risk) friends or block their exchanges. Some say they will become active again after they have secured their college admissions.
This is not unusual, teens say. They go on and off of Facebook all of the time. When they feel that they no longer want to participate because their friends’ current communications have taken a negative turn or they just want a break, they simply make their pages private by adjusting their settings. According to the New York Times, San Francisco high school juniors, Halley Lamberson and Monica Reed decided between them to take a break because Facebook was taking up too much of their time. They allowed themselves to log in only on the first Saturday of every month. In this way, they felt they were recouping time used up by reading and posting statuses. Last year, Bloomberg BusinessWeek blogger, Lourdes Lee Valeriano, applauded her daughter and her daughter’s friend who also decided to take a Facebook break as part of their new year’s resolutions. The author was proudo f their ability to self-govern themselves when the trend is to spend more time online and not less. According to Sherry Turkle, psychologist, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Alone Together,” college applicants are not just leaving Facebook to hide from colleges, they leave because keeping up a social media persona becomes too challenging. In her book, she discusses one college applicant who left Facebook because “he was burned out… trying to live up to his own descriptions of himself” (quoted in New York Times.) Those of us who maintain a Facebook presence can certainly relate to the challenges presented by the constant movement of the medium and the pressure to keep things fresh and current.
For students who don’t want to disappear, however, there are substantial benefits to having well-developed and positively reflective social media. A savvy college applicant can utilize their Facebook pages, YouTube channels, blogs and special interest networks to showcase their attributes, accomplishments and interests in ways that go far beyond what colleges can glean from short answers and application essays. Though this kind of integrated social media activity takes work and a commitment to manage every site, and though there is no guarantee that a college will be willing to visit a social media site or Internet destination, by creating and maintaining positive online pages, applicants are not just enhancing their connections to others in positive ways but assuring that those who find them will get a beneficial impression. Also, those who want to be active online can connect and interact with colleges and college communities in ways that expand their exploratory experience with the school.
The truth is, though, social media users have to accept the reality that once you exist in these online places, you can’t really completely disappear. If you’ve had a website or blog, or you’ve contributed or commented on a forum or network, and the search engines have already found you, you may not be able to make that content disappear entirely. Your old links may be found through a search of your name and the search results may display information that you might prefer to hide. This is also true for any contribution you’ve made to someone else’s social media pages. Also, remember that once you’ve secured your admissions, and you go back online, what you do and say can still negatively impact your admissions decision. Colleges have reneged on their acceptances of students who have shown poor judgment on their social media.
So whether you decide to “disappear” or not, the best practice is still to be careful about what you say and show online. It’s still more prudent to take responsibility for what appears on your social media pages, and to assume that once you’ve clicked the “send” button, that information is out of your control forever. Disappearing from the social media scene might give you some relief or a much needed break. Just make sure you are not putting off the clean-up work that has become an inevitable part of growing up online. If you want to eventually continue to be present on online (and according Professor Turkle, most young people do eventually return to their Facebook activity)— what you do and say there may continue to impact your life in many areas, like your job and your relationships . So whatever you do, keep putting your best self forward online.