Teens Digital Footprint and College Applications


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The fewer bumps there are on this road, the better!

The fewer bumps there are on this road, the better!

Everybody is going crazy over a study Kaplan released in November. The study says, among other things, that college admissions staffs are starting to look into applicants’ social media activity and online reputations. Because parents and teens didn’t have enough to worry about in this increasingly public world.

Do you remember when we were kids and the biggest threat a teacher had was putting a bad evaluation or grade on our permanent record? We lived in fear of the idea of someone, years down the line, reading about the time when we poured our milk over a bully’s head in the cafeteria. Then we grew up and learned that employers would never read that permanent record and would never care about the time in tenth grade when we called a teacher a “butt munch” before that teacher was out of earshot.

Those were simpler times – times when employers didn’t check credit reports, when college admissions (for the most part) staff only cared about the grades you earned in high school, and earning a bachelor’s degree was optional.

This isn’t the case for our kids. They live in a world where college degrees are now viewed the same way we once saw a high school diploma. The chances of getting even a minimum wage job without one are tiny. They live in a world where they share everything via public and social mediums. Their permanent records start when they’re born and their parents put their baby pictures up on Facebook.

In some ways, this makes them more web savvy than their adult counterparts. They have a seemingly inherent understanding that everything they put online can be accessed by pretty much anybody. The idea that their internet activity is private is foreign to them.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t still teenagers, and teenagers, as much as we love them, aren’t so great at impulse control. They are also still figuring out who they are, and that means trying out all sorts of different things…things that might be embarrassing later on and things they definitely wouldn’t want to be held accountable for when they grow up and out of a particular phase.

The Kaplan study presents a number of problems for kids who are applying to college. While admissions staff have gone on record in a number of publications saying things like awkward selfies probably won’t negatively influence their decisions, they also say that reading things like disparaging comments about teachers and peers as well as proven association with alcohol or other illicit substances could cause them to refuse a student’s entrance into their school.

What makes this even more stressful is that most online reputations are only given a cursory glance. This means that someone in your kid’s chosen school could be inadvertently looking at a profile for someone else with the same name as your child or, worse, looking at a fake profile one of your kid’s rivals set up to be mean.

So what can you do? As a parent, how much of this is within your control?
Talk to your kids about the importance of their online reputations. Remind them that everything they post online has the potential to go public (and viral). Encourage them to only post those things that they wouldn’t mind being grilled about by their highly prudish great great aunts and uncles over Thanksgiving dinner.

This is not the look you want to see on someone's face when they search for your teen!

This is not the look you want to see on someone’s face when they search for your teen!

Connect with your kids online as well as at home. Make sure that your kids have friended you on Facebook and that you can follow their Twitter and other social media accounts. This way you can see what they post the same way their friends can.

Work with them to set their privacy settings to the strictest levels possible. This way, even if someone searches for their profiles, they won’t see anything you and your kids don’t want them to see.

Why not cut them off at the chase? Include links to social media profiles with applications to ensure that admissions officers are looking at the correct profiles. Plus, knowing that those links are included in applications should hopefully encourage your kids to practice some social media decorum.

What are some of the things you and your teens have done to make sure that they present the best possible light to college admissions officers (and anybody else who might do an online reputation check)?

Contributor: Erin Steiner is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. She has written extensively about social media, reputation management and cultural topics.

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