By Kevin Mahnken
In mid-April, 10 high school seniors received some unwelcome news: Their acceptances to Harvard, perhaps the most coveted prize in the nationwide college admissions tourney, had been suddenly revoked over content they’d shared online.
The offending material — a series of jokes and memes that mocked suicide, child abuse, and the Holocaust — was posted in an invitation-only chat that had spun off from Harvard’s Facebook group for incoming freshmen. But the forum proved to be less private than its participants assumed, and when word got back to university administrators, they quickly rescinded admission.
It’s a cautionary tale that reflects prevailing trends in education and technology, as top-flight colleges have become increasingly selective and social media platforms have found enthusiastic constituencies among teenagers with spotty judgment. Experts say internet infractions like bullying, sexting, and off-color humor can become major obstacles to entry at the most prestigious schools. And admissions officers aren’t always the first to notice these transgressions — sometimes, it’s sharp-elbowed fellow applicants who tip them off.
“Social media is public, to a large extent, and you’re dealing with individuals who are 16 or 17 years old when they start an application process,” says Yariv Alpher, executive director for market research at Kaplan Test Prep. “What I think is important for kids and parents to be aware of is that what you put out there, is out there. It might be perceived as a very negative thing to someone who might hold a lot of weight over your life.”
Each year, Alpher surveys more than 350 admissions officers on their approach to students’ social media output. In this year’s poll, 35 percent said they checked personal accounts; one-quarter of those said they did so “often” in order to make admissions decisions. Those numbers have climbed persistently over the 10 years the poll has been conducted.
While 47 percent of the cyber snoops said they’d discovered information that had helped applicants’ chances — accomplishments they’d left off their records, for instance, or online art portfolios — 42 percent said the opposite, citing unbecoming statements and evidence of misbehavior. One anonymous administrator complained of some “really questionable language” on a high schooler’s Twitter account: “It wasn’t quite racist, but it showed a cluelessness that you’d expect of a privileged student who hadn’t seen much of the world.”
This spring’s withdrawn acceptances aren’t the first electronic chat fiasco to ensnare admitted students at Harvard. Last year, a group from the newly accepted class of 2020 traded racist jokes and poked at feminism on Microsoft’s GroupMe mobile app. Though the school did not discipline the students involved, Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons posted an official response describing himself as “troubled and disappointed” by the incident.
Peter Osgood, director of admissions at California’s highly selective Harvey Mudd College, says these types of revelations are precisely why he doesn’t venture online. “I don’t chase that stuff down, and very rarely does our staff do that,” he says. While cautioning that he doesn’t speak for his employer, he worries that digging too deep for additional information could intrude on the private lives of adolescents still coming into their own.
“Some of these young people — they’re young, all right? They haven’t gone to college yet, they don’t have the maturity, they’re still evolving. Some of them are trying to be cool or funny,” he says.
Occasionally, though, colleges don’t have the option of averting their gaze. In the blood sport of application season, when highly ranked institutions rarely admit more than one student from the same high school, some students try to even the odds by anonymously maligning their classmates. An intercepted photo of underage drinking, or a crass Gchat transcript, could be enough to sink a competitor’s chances.
“There’s an aspect of one student informing on another,” says Alpher. “We’ve heard from admissions officers that they’ve received a negative tip from one applicant about another applicant. You could almost think of it as admissions sabotage: ‘Hey, you might want to check out so-and-so.’ ”
The most famous such example occurred in 2013, when poison pen letters were sent to several colleges alleging misconduct against a senior from New York City’s ultra-posh Horace Mann School. But the phenomenon had already attracted the concern of admissions officers nationwide.
A 2008 Chicago Tribune article on admissions sabotage featured representatives from elite schools such as Ohio State University, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago debating whether to put stock in accusatory letters that sometimes looked more like blackmail notes than official correspondence. “If it is more competitive than before, then perhaps more of it is going on,” said one. “People are willing to lie in order to do better in what they consider to be a difficult competition.”
That administrator was William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions.
The best defense
The natural response to a treacherous online landscape might be for parents to impose a social media blackout. But that’s no solution, says John David, a Florida-based public relations consultant and columnist. One of the main recommendations from his recently published book, How to Protect (or Destroy) Your Reputation Online, is to maintain a consistent — and carefully controlled — internet brand. Otherwise, a student is at risk of becoming a blank slate to outside observers, quickly defined by one negative story.
“If that happens, the only thing that’s up is negative,” he says. “There’s no social media page that shows that this is a nice, normal kid. It could be bullying, it could be revenge porn, it could be a hate blog. You may have this desire to circle the wagons and cover your kid — but at some point, they’re going to be out on their own, operating in the world.”
The strategy of pre-emptive branding has led to the creation of specialty reputation-scrubbing software named ... BrandYourself. There are also reports of some college applicants maintaining multiple Facebook accounts for the benefit of admissions office voyeurs. David, a 25-year PR veteran, laments that manicuring a personal image is vastly more difficult now that most of the country carries cellphones in their pockets.
“We all make mistakes. We all do things we’re not proud of. We all lose our temper,” he says. “I went to a major university, was in a fraternity, and I did plenty of stuff that I’m not wholly proud of. Nothing terrible, nothing illegal, but I’m glad it’s not coming up when I’m being checked out by a prospective client.”
Though Harvard drew a firm line on internet offenses, some university authorities take a longer view. Harvey Mudd’s Osgood, who compares social media lapses to an unsightly tattoo that can’t be removed, recalls an incident in which his college’s admissions office considered revoking the acceptance of a student who’d made indelicate remarks that were easy to trace.
“He was trying to show off, and he was a little immature about it. And we had a conversation with him, and he said, ‘That’s not really the way I am, I was just trying to make friends and said things that were a little outrageous,’ ” he says. “He took it to heart, and being called out by the college really got him to wake up a little bit. He grew from that and became a really great citizen here.”
Whether he ever sent a ribald meme is another story.