August 24, 2022

Why Teens MUST Audit Their Digital Footprint BEFORE Applying to College

Contributing author: Julie Fisher, M.Ed., digital parenting & technology coach at Your Digital Guardian

What is a Digital Footprint?

Your digital footprint is made up of EVERYTHING you share digitally. That includes texts, photos, videos, social media posts, and for your kids, even their schoolwork. Once you make something digital, it becomes part of your digital footprint, which is akin to a permanent record that follows you the rest of your life.

Why do teens need to audit their digital footprint before applying to college?

Your digital persona matters when it comes to college admissions. If you’re not already involved in the process, you ought to know that it’s become sort of a competitive sport in it’s own right. Parents and teens are doing everything they can to make sure that their application will stand out. In fact, the latest Kaplan survey of college admissions officers found that 66% said that an applicant’s social media is FAIR GAME during the admissions process. What does that mean in practical terms for you/your teen? It means that you can no longer ignore the impact your teen’s digital communication can have on their future.

“Do you want to risk potentially negating all the hard work you have invested throughout high school with one thoughtless post or comment?” Brennan Barnard

So, how do you audit your digital footprint?

  1. To start, teens need to consider how other people, in this case, adult decision-makers, will view their posts. Will they understand the joke? Will they view the words, images, and video they shared in the light they intended it to be viewed? Social media, and especially digital text, is easily misunderstood. Tone, sarcasm, teasing, etc., often don’t translate as the author intended. How many times have you read a text and thought the author meant one thing when they actually meant it something else (think all caps in text or emoji misunderstandings)?
  2. After that, perform an audit. That means taking a look at ALL your social media accounts and examine through a different lens. That means, looking at all your posts with a critical eye and considering how someone who doesn’t already know you would see them (someone like a college admissions officer or a future employer). Think about what your posts say about you as a person…about the quality of your character. Take a look at the red flag list below to see what colleges (and employers) DON’T want to see if they choose to check you out online. Edit or delete any posts that could cause a decision-maker (like an admissions officer) to question your character or judgment.
  3. Next, Google yourself to see what comes up. Make sure you’re not getting noticed for the wrong reason.
  4. Finally, I suggest creating a LinkedIn account (using a “professional/grown-up” email address) that you’ll be proud to use both during college admissions and beyond, when you’re looking for a job. LinkedIn is a great place to not only highlight your accomplishments from high school (grades, activities, jobs, etc.), but also a platform to showcase your community service/volunteer experience, show-off and get endorsements for skills you have, and store recommendations from teachers, coaches, employers, and volunteer coordinators, that not only highlight you and your experience, but help you maintain connections, expand your network of support, and set you up for future success.

Beware of Red Flags

I conducted a survey of college admissions officers regarding how (and if) they use social media during the admissions process. One of the most interesting things to come out of that survey was a list of 5 “red flag” issues that if seen, lead them to question a candidate’s character.

1. Symbols of Violence or Displays of Prejudice or Discrimination

Students must recognize that even though they may not view something as a symbol of violence (like the image of a gun), other might. Before posting, consider trying to take a look at your post as if you are behind a variety of lenses: How would someone in a different part of the country view your post? How would someone with different political opinions view your post? How would someone who has experienced negative outcomes due to something contained in your post view your post? How would someone older or younger or from a different religion or race view your post?

What we often forget is that for better or worse, we are often judged based on what we post and all that content becomes a part of our “personal brand”.

TIP: Be thoughtful and try to view your words or images through the lenses of others who don’t know you IRL and most likely will never contact you to ask you what you really meant by the post.

2. Partying, Alcohol or Drugs

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. When you post about partying or images of yourself partying, it can lead adult decision-makers question your character and judgment especially if you’re underage. Even a photo in your kitchen with beer bottles in the background that were from your parents’ party the evening before and haven’t made it to the recycling bin yet could get you into trouble. When someone sees a photo you’ve posted, they don’t have any context from which to draw conclusions so in this case, they might assume those beer bottles were yours.

TIP: Once again, think about the lenses through which others will view your posts and recognize that no one will ever call you to ask if the beer bottles behind you in the photo are your or not. When it comes to posting party pictures, don’t post anything photo you take while you’re at the party. Instead, wait until the light of day to view them and make responsible decisions about what’s smart/not smart to post.

3. Negative Comments about School

Every student at one time or another has been as a result of something that happened at school. Maybe it’s a teacher you don’t see eye-to-eye with or maybe it’s a school or class policy you don’t agree with. When you post negatively about your school, it can reflect negatively upon your character. Schools (secondary and colleges alike) have employees whose job it is to note every time their school is mentioned online.

TIP: When it comes to posting negatively about school, if you don’t have something nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all.

4. Nudity or Partial Nudity

Everyone likes to post pics of themselves on vacation and while there’s nothing wrong with sharing those good memories online, it’s important to recognize that not all pictures should make the cut to post online. Before you post pics of yourself and your friends from your spring break trip, look at the angles in the photograph as well as the expressions on everyone’s faces.

TIP: The angle of the photo of a girl on the beach or the pout on her face may cause the image to appear sexualized even if that wasn’t the subject’s or poster’s intention. A good rule of thumb, if grandma or grandpa wouldn’t like the photo then an adult judging your character online won’t either.

5. Profanity

Every adult knows that teens and college students swear online and most aren’t too offended by it. That number goes up however if your social media pages are filled with profanity.

TIP: Be thoughtful about the words you use online and make sure that before it’s time to apply to college or for a job, you scan your posts and edit out most of the profanity or foul language you used in the past.

“Every year, there are high-profile cases of newly admitted students sharing a meme, posting a picture, or making a statement online that is inappropriate, leading to their offer of admission being revoked.”  Brennan Barnard

What Can You Do?

Take some time to go through your digital history and edit or remove posts that could cause someone (like a college admissions officer) to judge you negatively. That doesn’t mean you can’t be your authentic self online, BUT, it does mean though that you need to consider how other people might view or judge you based on what you choose to share online.

Julie Fisher, M.Ed. is digital parenting & technology coach at Your Digital Guardian. She is a seasoned educator, engagement & advocacy consultant, social media expert, speaker, and author who helps teesn navigate the complicated task of balancing the digital world with the real one.

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