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Social media may affect admission

Rhode Island does not ban college admission officers from examining applicants’ online profiles

The college application process no longer relies solely on paper and pencil.

With a digitized Common Application, virtual campus tours and outreach through social media, institutions across the country, including Brown, increasingly depend on online tools to promote themselves and to reach applicants unable to visit campus.

But the focus on online exposure means applicants who cultivate their own virtual presences could harm their chances of being accepted to their desired universities.


Building buzz

The University’s social media presence has grown exponentially in the last two years, said John Murphy, the University’s social media specialist. Brown maintains official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram and Google+, he said.

Social media platforms offer glimpses into campus life to prospective students who are unable to travel to universities, admission officers and experts said.

The Office of Admission hosted its first-ever Google Hangout On Air Nov. 23. Two admission officers answered prospective students’ questions on a live webcam, said Chris Belcher, an admission officer who participated in the hangout.

Admission officers at other institutions, including Bowdoin College and Tufts University, have hosted similar Google Hangouts, Belcher said.

“It’s embracing technology for students who can’t get to campus,” he said.


Too much information?

Though social media can help promote a university, some students may find these sites detrimental in the college admission process.

No Rhode Island laws currently prohibit private universities from using applicants’ verified social media profiles as criteria for admission, said Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specializes in social media law.

Shear helped develop the proposed Social Networking Online Protection Act, which would prohibit employers and universities from requesting or requiring social media account passwords from employees or applicants. SNOPA was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate in February, Shear said.

“I just have a certain belief in the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment,” Shear said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to use online accounts.”

Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee recommended the state establish a social media policy to protect students and employees in May, but no legislation has been passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

The Admission Office does not have a “standard, across-the-board policy” on requesting or searching for an applicant’s social media profile, said Rebecca Whittaker, director of outreach for admission. Whittaker added that to her knowledge the University’s admission officers never “actively look” for information on students’ social media accounts.

“Our policy is we look for reasons to admit students,” Whittaker said.

In a 2012 Kaplan Test Prep survey of 350 admission officers, 26 percent of respondents said they had visited an applicant’s social networking page to learn more about him or her, while 27 percent responded that they had searched Google for an applicant’s name, according to the company’s website.

A high school student who attended an information session at Bowdoin last year used Twitter to criticize other students at the session and was later denied admission to the college, the New York Times reported last month.

Though Bowdoin’s dean of admission said the student’s academic record was the reason she was not admitted, he added that the tweets she posted might have seriously harmed her admission chances if her transcript were better, the Times reported.

But college admission officers rarely “proactively” peruse applicants’ social media accounts, said Michele Hernandez, a college consultant and former assistant director of admission at Dartmouth. Because many student accounts are not verified, it would be impossible for officers to determine whether an applicant actually owns an account, she added.

Admission officers at Ivy League institutions typically read about 30 applications daily, so officers do not have time to conduct an online search of every applicant, Hernandez said.

“Admission officers aren’t digging for damning evidence,” she said. They resort to using social media information when assessing an applicant only in extreme cases, like when a “bitter rival student” contacts an admission officer with particularly harmful online evidence against another applicant, she said.


Student prudence

While many admission officers claim not to search for applicants on social media sites, some applicants said they are still cautious about how much information they divulge online.

Emily Keroack, an early decision applicant to the class of 2018 from Orange Park, Fla., said her school’s guidance office instructs students to “maintain a clean social media presence.”

Keroack said she has not altered any of her social media accounts, but many of her friends who are applying to college have changed their Facebook profile names to hide information.

Soyoon Kim, an early decision applicant from Seongnan, South Korea, wrote in an email to The Herald that her friends have created “ridiculous” Facebook profile names or deactivated their accounts during the college application process.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that admissions officers would want to search for potentially harmful characteristics about their applicants unless they have a clear reason to do so,” Kim wrote.

Hernandez said she advises her students to “grandma-proof” their social media accounts by only posting information they would feel comfortable sharing with their grandmothers.

Social media is more harmful when students have certain posts — like cyber-bullying messages or pictures of underage substance abuse — that can translate to high school disciplinary action, Hernandez said, noting that such actions are recorded on transcripts reviewed by college admission officers.

Matt Cooper, an early decision applicant from Wayland, Mass., said he did not alter his Facebook profile before applying to colleges and did not express concern about admission officers potentially searching online for information about students.

“Other people can be able to access information you put out there,” Cooper said. “It’s a reality in the world that we live in now.”


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