Social-networking sites viewed by admissions officers

Survey shows some use Facebook, MySpace as another aspect to college application

By Emma Graves Fitzsimmons and Bonnie Miller Rubin |Chicago Tribune reporters

September 20, 2008

Lauren Pfeiffer said she doesn’t have to worry about what’s on her Facebook profile, but she can’t say the same about her fellow students.

“Some of my friends could get in trouble with their photos,” said the junior at Andrew High School in Tinley Park. “I wouldn’t want it to be a deciding factor in their future.”

The idea that a lapse in cyber-judgment could alter a life trajectory might once have been dismissed as paranoia.

But
with some admissions officers confirming in a new survey that they
visit social-networking sites, high schoolers say getting into college
is no longer only about sky-high test scores and impressive
extracurricular activities. Now it means being smart about their online
personas as well.

In a new survey, 10 percent of admissions officers from prestigious schools said they had peeked at sites like Facebook and MySpace
to evaluate college-bound seniors. Of those using the profiles, 38
percent said it had a “negative impact” on the applicant, according to
Kaplan Inc., the education services company that polled the officers.

At
least one admissions officer had rescinded an offer because of an
applicant’s postings, results showed. The survey went out to 500
schools—of which 320 responded—in July and August and promised
anonymity.

The finding highlights a technological world moving
so fast that neither the students nor the schools have had time to
factor in all the implications. What’s clear is that students have yet
another potential obstacle to navigate in an increasingly fierce
competition for slots in the country’s top universities.

The
networking sites were virtually nonexistent five years ago but now are
approaching cell phone use in popularity. With few schools having
formal guidelines in place, “we’re in a period of figuring out this
technology . . . and exactly where the boundaries are going to be,”
said Jeff Olson, who heads research for Kaplan’s test preparation
division.

At the University of Notre Dame, which received 14,000
applications for 1,985 slots last year, assistant provost for
enrollment Dan Saracino said he and his staff “don’t go out of our way”
to scrutinize students online, but sometimes they come across
candidates portraying themselves in a less-than-flattering light.

“It’s typically inappropriate photos—like holding up a can of beer at a party,” Saracino said.

“We
try to turn it into a teaching moment,” he said. “It’s an opportunity
to let students know that what they put on these sites is not just
between you and your friends, but you and the world.”

On the other hand, using the Internet to vet someone’s character seems overly intrusive to Northwestern University‘s Christopher Watson.

“We
consider Facebook and MySpace their personal space,” the dean of
undergraduate admissions said. “It would feel somewhat like an invasion
of privacy.”

That sentiment was seconded by the University of Chicago‘s dean of admissions, Ted O’Neill, who was surprised by the survey’s results.

“We
don’t have a policy not to look, we just don’t look,” he said. “Despite
the fact that these things are semipublic . . . I don’t think we should
be spying on things that aren’t intended for us.”

Even so, the findings give adults a bit of extra ammunition in urging discretion—not always the first impulse for adolescents.

Gloria Mueller, college counseling coordinator at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview,
said she has been telling kids to be careful with their postings ever
since she first heard colleges and employers were checking out Web
sites. “You never know when this will come back to bite you,” she said.

Sharyn Reiff of Skokie
already had “the talk” a couple of years ago with her son, Jordan, a
senior at Niles North High School, that resulted in his deleting some
inappropriate content.

“He loves his Facebook and he makes it
funny, but he knows it has to be good, clean fun,” said Reiff, whose
son has his hopes pinned on Brown University or Reed College. “He also
knows that there are a lot of talented kids out there and he needs
every advantage he can get.”

Ethan Goldsmith, a senior, said
he, too, already was exercising caution because New Trier Township High
School has suspended students from sports teams for brandishing a beer
in photos online.

Olson stressed that schools weren’t
routinely checking the sites as part of the evaluation process but were
visiting only if there was something troublesome in the application or
information that needed to be confirmed.

With colleges
expecting a record number of applications this year, the survey results
should serve as a wake-up call for both students and parents, he said.

“Today’s application is not just what you send . . . but whatever they can Google about you,” Olson said.

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