If you post it online, it exists forever: it's a rule of thumb we've been given since social media became such a heavy fixture in our lives. But we post stuff we maybe shouldn't anyways, and it can come back to haunt us. College-bound students in particular learn this valuable lesson, and they're becoming more sophisticated about hiding their digital footprints, concealing or removing questionable posts from the past, and even using tools that help point out areas of concern, like Student Makeover.
It’s been a growing concern in recent years — college admission advisors sifting through your old social media posts in search of tasteless or unsavory material. This isn’t some urban legend. They really do this, and students (or prospective students) really do pay the price for it. A 2013 Kaplan survey found that 31 percent of college admission officers check social media — a five percent increase from the previous year. And make no mistake about it: sometimes, they find stuff they really don’t like.
Take, for instance, the 10 students headed to Harvard, who would’ve been part of the Class of 2021. Their acceptances were rescinded after it was found that they had shared controversial and highly offensive memes on social media.
We all post stupid stuff. We particularly post stupid stuff when we’re young and think we’re invincible. Then we get a little older and go, “Oh sh*t,” realizing that this stuff can haunt us for years. Maybe it’s that picture from a night in high school when you made bad choices. (No judgment. It happens.) Maybe it’s the video your friend took when you got high and ended up piercing your own tongue. We think these are harmless and funny at the time; and even looking back, they don’t seem that troublesome. But these social media posts have become such a concern for prospective students (and their parents) that more businesses are stepping up to provide services to help protect them. One such service is Student Makeover.
While any person can manually dig back through their old posts and look for anything that might land them in hot water, Student Makeover helps automate the process, digs deeper than we ever could, and searches beyond social media.
Student Makeover was launched by BrandYourself, an online reputation management firm. The service finds any online references to sex, alcohol, drugs, and even politics and religion. Once you pay the $99 and give BrandYourself access to your profiles, the program starts the hunt. Students and their parents can review the results and determine what to delete.
Furthermore, Student Makeover will scour search results of the student’s name and give an overall online reputation score, indicating how likely it is that their reputation will negatively impact their college (and career) aspirations. “More and more colleges and employers are using this type of technology to screen applicants,” says Patrick Ambron, CEO of BrandYourself. “We are the first ones to give it back to the consumer.” While this software might not give you a one-up on colleges, it could at least help to level the playing field a little.
It might seem unfair for colleges to use your past against you. Things you posted or found funny when you were 15 likely no longer apply today. Plus, when you think about it, sharing a controversial meme isn't necessarily a reflection of who you are as a student or a person. This also brings into question what "controversial" really is, since such a trait is oftentimes in the eye of the beholder.
Then again, this could be seen as a step colleges are taking to protect the students who do attend by weeding out ones who could be trouble. In the case of the Harvard students whose acceptances were revoked, some of the memes exchanged mocked sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children. Others joked that child abuse was sexually arousing. Some were racially charged, such as the meme that referred to the hanging of a Mexican child as "piñata time." Is it safe to assume that these students were troublemakers in waiting? The answer might not really matter. Were these social media posts concerning enough that Harvard wasn't willing to take the chance? In my own humble opinion (and apparently in theirs), yes.
The easiest solution seems to be a simple one: don't ever post anything that could be deemed inappropriate, because it doesn't matter if you go back and delete it — it always exists. But try telling that to a young teenager who just wants to have fun with friends, fit in, and look cool. When was the last time it was cool to take your parents advice? (That would be... never.)
While preventing these situations from happening in the first place is the ideal answer to the problem, services like Student Makeover come in a close second.
While we should never stop encouraging young people to take extreme care with what they post and share online, sitting down with your young one to take a stroll down Memory Lane and look for any damning evidence doesn't hurt either.