April 22nd, 4:08pm, Topics: social media, admissions process, facebook, online screening, applicant screening, competitive schools, admissions officers
It's junior year and Ellie Likos is ready to start the college process. The first step: changing her name on Facebook.
Since the explosion of social media just a few years ago, colleges across the country have increasingly used them to scrutinize applicants. To avoid being found on Facebook by admissions officers, it is typical for high school seniors to change the last names on their accounts.
"I don't have anything that I would want to hide, but I am still going to change my name [on Facebook]," said Likos, a Marple Newtown High School student.
Why? Because her friends are doing it, and like them, she is not taking any chances. To Likos, the thought of colleges looking at her Facebook page just doesn't sit right.
Misty Whelan, guidance department chairwoman at Conestoga High School, is all too familiar with the trend of college admissions offices logging onto social media.
"Since the invention of Facebook, colleges have become interested in what students are doing online and what their profiles look like," Whelan said. "The more super-selective the college becomes, the more they are looking at everything."
Whelan said that while this practice is not commonplace, competitive schools that need to choose between strong but identical candidates may resort to Facebook in reaching a decision.
In a 2012 survey of admissions officers from top schools, more than a quarter of them said they Google applicants and visit their social-networking profiles.
Thirty-five percent of the admissions officers surveyed said they discovered something online about a candidate that adversely impacted his or her application.
Bryn Athyn College has a marketing and website manager responsible for screening applicants online.
Director of admissions Allen Linnell said that while Bryn Athyn has never rejected or rescinded acceptance of students because of something that was discovered online about them, he does meet with students to stress that inappropriate postings would not be tolerated while they were enrolled at the college.
"You're putting a magnifying glass on every possible mistake that a person can make," Linnell said. He believes that more often than not, social media are used in unflattering ways by teenagers and young adults.
Linnell said that Bryn Athyn's approach is an effective way to vet applicants because it is a small school.
According to CollegeBoard.com, fewer than 900 students applied to Bryn Athyn in 2011. The school's selective acceptance rate is 44 percent.
Jess Lord, dean of admissions at Haverford College, doesn't really want to find cyberspace skeletons left behind by young people.
"I just think there needs to be space for kids to be kids, without fear that they are being judged for everything that they do," Lord said in an e-mail. "It needs to be OK for them to behave like 17-year-olds, to know that there are parts of their lives that are not necessarily about getting into college, and it needs to be OK for them to make mistakes.
"I think it is challenging enough for students to manage the scope and implications of social media and their own online presence without having to worry about college admission officers going beyond the boundaries of the application to find out more about them."
At Haverford College, admissions officers are prohibited from becoming Facebook friends with prospective students or applicants and are directed to not seek out a student's online presence.
Haverford is not alone in this regard. About 69 percent of colleges do not permit their admissions staffs to visit applicants' sites, according to the survey by the New York-based test preparation firm Kaplan Inc.
Likos, like many high school students, prefers this approach.
"In my opinion, [any other policy would be] an invasion of someone's privacy," she said.
Whelan, the counselor, had a different view.
"I think [social media are] fair game because it says something about somebody's character," she said. "Your social media presence should be representative of yourself and your character."
But, Whelan said, teenagers should be given the chance to redeem themselves.
"It doesn't make them bad people if they've made a mistake, but they may have to suffer consequences that they may not have anticipated or thought about. And that is the danger zone of these adolescent years," she said. "It's being able to have the wherewithal to know that if immature behavior continues in your junior or senior year, it's going to have an impact."