Fixing Up Your Facebook Page For College Admissions: A Booming Business
By Maxine Joselow
June 18, 2015
Lanre Badmus deleted his Twitter account before the start of his junior year at Westfield High School in Westfield, NJ. He also made his Instagram account private and changed his name on Facebook to a nickname before the start of his senior year. For all of this secrecy, you would think Badmus was trying to hide something from the government or law enforcement. Instead, he was simply applying to college.
“I was sort of afraid colleges would look at my profiles. I didn’t want any of my social media rants to come back and bite me in the college admissions process,” Badmus says, adding that he often posted angry Facebook statuses about his favorite sports teams losing big games and Instagrammed pictures of bikini-clad models.
When Badmus announced he would attend the University of North Carolina, Wilmington next year, he immediately changed his name on Facebook back to his real name. “It took a weight off my shoulders,” he says.
Like Badmus, many high school students worry that admissions officers will disapprove of their online behavior. A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep suggests this fear is not unfounded – 35% of admissions officers surveyed had visited an applicant’s social media page, and 16% had found something online that negatively influenced an applicant’s chances.
In response, a new group of online reputation management firms aims to optimize what admissions officers would see if they Googled an applicant. Many of these firms feature a play on the word “reputation” in their name, including Reputation.com, Integrity Defenders, and BrandYourself.
Students can pay the firm Integrity Defenders $59.99 a month to make their social media pages showcase their strengths, such as their talent in soccer or painting. For a steeper fee of $629 a month, Integrity Defenders will clear the first page of Google results of unwanted links, such as an article in a local newspaper about a high school expulsion. And for $1,329 a month, the firm will bury any undesirable links on the third page of Google results, where Lori Randall Stradtman, author of Online Reputation Management for Dummies, jokes you could hide a dead body.
Around 10% of Integrity Defenders’ clients are students, and most of them are looking to “highlight their skills and accomplishments,” says Alan Assante, president of Integrity Defenders. “We also have folks who had a minor scuffle with their high school or the law that doesn’t portray them in the best light, and we can help them clear that up as well,” he says.
The online reputation management industry is rapidly changing and expanding, Assante says. When Integrity Defenders was founded in 2009, only a few firms sought to help high-profile executives and companies improve their images. But several new firms have recently burst on the scene, and some – including Integrity Defenders – cater to average individuals like college applicants.
“There are so many new players, and you constantly hear new names being thrown out there,” Assante says. “It’s an exciting time to be in the industry for sure.”
BrandYourself, another online reputation management firm founded in 2010 with more than $5 million in venture capital, serves mainly college students and professionals seeking to polish their online presences for potential employers, says BrandYourself CEO Patrick Ambron. But some parents also sign up their children applying to college, he says. Most parents choose the service that costs up to $100 a year and notifies clients when they need to hide negative search results or promote positive search results.
The educational and admissions consulting firm IvyWise adopts a different tactic than online reputation management firms. Rather than supervising students’ online presences, IvyWise counselors encourage students to monitor what they share on the Internet themselves.
“What I tell students is first of all, if you’re going to post something, make sure it passes the grandma test. If you don’t want grandma to see it, don’t post it,” says IvyWise CEO Kat Cohen, noting that admissions officers may interpret pictures of students holding red Solo cups as signs of underage drinking.
Cohen worries that students who use online reputation management firms to hide disciplinary proceedings aren’t telling the truth to colleges or growing from their mistakes. The Common Application includes a section where students must reflect on what they learned from these incidents, she says, and one IvyWise client wrote an outstanding essay about how he matured from cheating on an exam that won him admission to his top-choice school.
Still, students can rest assured that some admissions officers simply don’t have the time or interest to scope out their online behavior.
“We do not consider social media in going through their applications. We’re not going to students’ Facebook pages or doing any sort of Google search of them in the review process,” says Jennifer Hantho, senior associate dean of admissions at Carleton College, a selective private college in Northfield, MN.
“Social media really doesn’t play a role – we usually just rely on the information given in the application to make a decision,” says Alaina Dunn, associate dean of admission at Pomona College, a selective private college in Claremont, CA that admitted a record low of 9.8% of 8,091 applicants this spring.
“Quite honestly, we just don’t have the time,” Dunn says. “We have so many applications to read that the extra step of reading someone’s social media page just isn’t that realistic. And I don’t think it would be very helpful.”