When students apply to colleges, their entire lives may be put under a microscope and reviewed by admissions professionals. Students who have excelled at promoting a positive image online may improve their admissions chances, while those who have not been so careful online could hamper their prospects.
"We develop this online identity as children, and that follows us into adulthood," says Tadd Rosenfeld, CEO of the marketing and branding firm Dual Eagle. "When somebody types your name into Google, what shows up in search results will be the main impression they have of you as an individual."
Admissions professionals are increasingly going to the Web to review candidates, according to an October survey by Kaplan Test Prep, which fielded responses from 350 admissions officers. In the report, 27 percent of officials said they used Google and 26 percent checked Facebook as part of the applicant review process.
For students looking to maintain a clean social media profile, the solution is simple, says Lincoln Morris, director of admissions at Pennsylvania's Cedar Crest College. "Just make sure there are no incriminating pictures or posts," Morris advises. "That's pretty easy to take care of."
Beyond protecting personal material from schools, here are three ways students can improve their online brands.
1. Enhance search results: One of the first things students should do when they are assessing their online brand is to Google themselves, notes Garrett Brinker, director for undergraduate outreach at the University of Chicago. "Everyone loves to see how famous they are," he says, "[but] a Google search of your name shouldn't look like the front page of TMZ."
Students who don't like the results they see on the first page of Google may be able to replace that content with more positive coverage, says Glenn Bozinski, director of admissions at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania.
"Get in your local paper, which of course is online and therefore no longer local," he advises. "Be quoted or depicted in articles in which you are doing something positive in your community, like a clean-up project, or a fundraiser for a family in need, or receiving an academic award."
[Learn how public service can lead to college scholarships.]
Students can also proactively build their brand by creating their own website that focuses on a particular passion or interest, adds Dual Eagle's Rosenfeld. "I think registering the domain name that contains your individual name is the best way to impact what appears at the top of the search results," he says.
2. Keep E-mails professional: When connecting with admissions officers through E-mail, students should always be cognizant of how they're representing themselves, notes Cedar Crest's Morris, who recently corresponded with a prospective student who did not communicate in a professional manner.
"It had no formatting at all," he says of the E-mail. "It was sent more like a long text message and had horrible grammar. It made a really poor first impression. If students are looking at competitive colleges, they really can't afford a bad first impression like that."
A student can make a good impression and enhance their online brand by sending E-mails that are succinct, well-structured, and that display that he or she reviewed the note before sending it, Morris adds. "Even just doing spell check is better than nothing at all … and they should always sign [the E-mail]," he says. "I don't want to have to look and see who this E-mail is from."
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3. Create a proactive social media strategy: Often when admissions officers are turning to Google or social media to review a student, they are "looking for reasons to admit them, not reasons to keep them out," says Morris.
"On [social media], if they're going to have pictures that they're going to upload, it's nice to see them doing something like community service," he notes. "It shows us that the student is genuine, which I think is most important."
Instead of being defensive on social media by blocking all personal information from the public, students could promote their positive work, notes Ruth Vedvik, a former director of admission at Ball State University and the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign and currently a principal at higher education consultancy Hardwick Day.
"Students could actually create a separate Facebook page … where they create a brand that would have strong representation including appropriate grammar and appropriate pictures," Vedvik notes. "If I had a Facebook page, I would be posting any and all honors or awards. We need to know everything about them, and if they have bragging rights, brag—get it out there."
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