College applications: Teens on social media can tank their college odds

An increasing number of college admissions officers are turning to applicants' social media accounts for insights into the character of prospective students, adding new tension to the existing pressure-cooker process of applying for college.

Karen Herzog-Daykin, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP
Monica Rage of the University of Wisconsin-Madison talks to a prospective student at the Milwaukee National College Fair at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Sept. 29.

A New York Times story entitled "They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets" does an ample job of capturing a whole bunch of zeitgeist in just a few words:

As certain high school seniors work meticulously this month to finish their early applications to colleges, some may not realize that comments they casually make online could negatively affect their prospects. In fact, new research from Kaplan Test Prep, the service owned by the Washington Post Company, suggests that online scrutiny of college hopefuls is growing.

Very quickly, we've dipped into a pile of pressure-cooker topics: the pressure to succeed, educationally; the complicated series of hoops students have to leap through to attain admission to college; and the sometimes devastatingly fast and permanent ability of social media to change perceptions of a hasty and/or emotional user.

Like many New York Times trend pieces, it no sooner rolls out its thesis than it begins qualifying it due to lack of scientifically gathered evidence and college admissions officers who say, in a nutshell, "who has time to Google?" But the story does get to the core of one of our era's leading truths: the person you are online has a real impact on the life you lead everywhere else.

(See also: the National Security Council staffer canned for caustic anonymous tweets, the students who used Facebook to share confidential information about an upcoming test, and of course a whole pack of legislative aides and other public personalities who should have been deleting instead of tweeting.)

To take this into a context broader than mere online communication etiquette, the story points out one of the essential conflicts for all young people for all eras, ever: the brutal struggle between finding and being "yourself" (unpacking that term could take a lifetime's work) and fitting in and eventually earning a steady living.

All of this evokes the line of advice I have already cued up for my own son, likely to be delivered 12-14 years from now:

"Remember, son: anything you write or post anywhere is extremely likely to be read or seen by whomever you'd least like to see it... plus both your grandmas."

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