I met a mom recently who banned her sixteen year old daughter from Facebook. The daughter had recently posted photos of herself getting her tongue pierced (I suspect the getting-her-tongue-pierced part was a problem in itself).
I expressed some mild surprise that she would resort to such Draconian measures and she insisted that Facebook was dangerous. "Kids are losing scholarships because of what they put on Facebook!" she said.
I don't like the idea of banning kids from social media. But the mom did have a point.
As an interviewer, I like to Google candidates before I meet them. It's a good way to get a sense for the person before I sit down to interview. Recall that as an interviewer, I don't get access to any portion of the application beforehand. Even if have the candidate bring a resume along, I need to be able to scan it quickly and start asking questions. This way, I get a bit of prep in.
I'd like to tell you that I don't let myself be prejudiced by photos of kids holding beers at parties, or dancing with their friends on furniture, or painting questionable logos on each other's stomachs. I'd like to say that.
But it's just not true. In interviews, it's the details that count: being well-dressed. Sending a thank you note. Being a good conversationalist. It all adds up to the first impression, which is what your interviewer will use when filling out your recommendation forms.
I doubt that hordes of students frequently lose scholarships or have an admission reneg'd for something that they innocently put up on Facebook. BUT what actually happens is much worse. Indiscreet social media postings can make your interviewer (or the admissions officer) prejudiced against you without realizing it. And that's scary and worrisome because a large chunk of admissions decisions are really close calls. They are based on "fit" and "feel" - it's not just what you've shown you can do, but the potential people think you have.
If they go into your app or start your interview with an image of you jumping up and down on a trampoline with a beer, it'll take a lot more to dislodge it than if they come in with nothing. Or better yet, a picture of you shaking hands with mayor of your town after winning a writing contest.
The "scared straight" message of this shouldn't be that you can't use Facebook. Just be smart about it. Keep your account private. If you want to post goofy photos, go right ahead - but keep your main profile photo something neutral. Google yourself occasionally to make sure that nothing comes up that you're embarassed about. Nothing that you wouldn't share with your grandparents or your parents' friends.
I, by the way, learned this lesson the hard way. I'll date myself here - but at one point in college I had created a Friendster profile. It was goofy and irreverent. I think I said that I wanted to meet dictators and my hobbies included belly dancing. Kind of innocuous, but not particularly smart. Fast forward four years. I'm out of college, I'm working at a investment firm. My boss asks me to step in to one of our investments and help manage it for six months. Suddenly, I have a group of twenty people reporting to me, all of whom are older. It's imperative that I command respect and cultivate a serious persona. Of course, it's just my luck that the nearly defunct Friendster suddenly opens up their database to google. Now, when you search my name, that old profile becomes the fourth or fifth hit. Embarassing!
Learn from my mistake - check. Check often. It's a good habit that will serve you well, not just through the admissions process, but beyond.