We've said it before, and we'll say it again and again and again: Anything you post online is not private, not as long as people can comment on it, forward it, share it, retweet it, or otherwise attribute it to you, and it doesn't matter if your privacy settings on Facebook are on lockdown.
When it comes to thinking about your future remember this advice: If you wouldn't want your Grandma—or your college admission officer, or the funder of the scholarship you're applying for—to read the post or see the picture, don't put it out there for anyone to see.
According to a report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in 2009, 26 percent of colleges go online to research candidates for "special programs or scholarships." A 2008 Kaplan survey of 320 admissions officers from the top 500 schools (as compiled from U.S.News & World Report's Ultimate College Directory and Barron's Profiles of American Colleges) reported that one in 10 checks applicants' online profiles before making a decision about their admission—and more than one third shared that what they found out there didn't make them feel better about the students they were researching.
[Read about if Facebook posts can lead to college rejection letters.]
As colleges increasingly use social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as research tools, what can you do about it? And, more importantly, how can you turn it to your favor? Start by thinking of your social sites as more than social. Social networking sites are a communication tool you can use to showcase your talent, your volunteering, your interests, and your work. And yes, you can do this without looking like a big, fat narcissist. Here's how:
Be authentic. Don't limit your posts and updates to rote recitation of your volunteer activities. Do share personal anecdotes about your volunteer experiences (without violating privacy of others) in between more personal posts about your weekend plans. Writing about your whole life can show a breadth of interests and a depth of character that your scholarship application may not. And if you post about your college plans, make sure you stay away from saying anything negative about a college or scholarship organization; you may miss out on a great opportunity. Of the 26 percent of colleges that performed online research on their special program and scholarship candidates mentioned above, all of them did so in order to protect their school from potential embarrassment.
[Take a look at 5 unique college Facebook pages.]
Start a blog about something that interests you. Writing a blog makes you more searchable online, and also can help paint a picture of who you are, what interests you, and why you'd make a great candidate for the prestigious scholarship for which your college of choice may be considering you. Instead of writing a strictly personal blog, use your interests as a way of expressing your opinions. For example, one of my friends blogs about movies she sees. She writes thoughtful reviews in a professional tone, but her manner and tone strike a balance that tell the reader a lot about her. And don't forget: after you've written the posts, make sure you share them via your other social media streams.
Use YouTube (or Flickr) to post your creative work. Showcase the work you want people to see. And then follow the same advice from the previous paragraph: Share links to your creative work via your other social media channels.
Keep private things private. College Board's studentPoll on Social Networking Sites and College-Bound Students reports that nearly half of all students keep their full Facebook profile private. But keep in mind, even if you have your profile on full lockdown, your posts can still be forwarded and shared to a wider audience than you may be intending.
Think about your scholarship search like a job search. Recruiters and search firms often do their primary research about a potential job candidate by reviewing their online personas (specifically LinkedIn and Twitter). If scholarship evaluators did the same, what would you want them to find out about you in online channels? In addition to keeping potentially embarrassing materials out of your online life, make sure they find what you want to showcase about yourself!
Janine Fugate joined Scholarship America in 2002. She is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minn., and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Fugate is the recipient of numerous scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate level.