Social media blurs rights to privacy

Across the nation, millions of high school seniors experience unshakable panic over the college applications process every year. Completing the Common App, soliciting recommendations, writing supplementary essays—all of these things must come together in perfect harmony within just a few months. However, college preparation often starts the moment students enter the ninth grade. They bulk up on AP classes, find extracurriculars with which to pad their résumé and do community service, all the time keeping their eye on the prize: the school of their choice.

But what if it was all put in jeopardy with one careless Facebook post?

Last year, Rhode Island’s House Judiciary Committee sought to establish legislature that would protect students and employees from having their social media checked by their higher-ups (The Brown Daily Herald, 12.2.2013). With the increasingly universal use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there seems to be increasing anxiety about who can access it and how they will use the information they find there.

Prospective Vassar students though, said Dean of Admissions David Borus, need not worry.

With about 8,000 applications submitted each year, the Vassar Office of Admissions doesn’t have the time. “Nor do we really feel that that’s appropriate. As far as I’m concerned, a student’s Facebook account is their personal property, so to speak. It really isn’t there as a part of their college application process and I really don’t think it’s appropriate for us to use it as such,” said Borus.

In fact, the only time when admissions officers will engage with students’ social media sites is if applicants explicitly direct them there. Most often, Borus said, this will come in the form of a YouTube video which students typically include as part of Vassar’s “Your Space” section on their application, or simply as a creative addendum. “I think most of our peer institutions face a virtually identical situation as we do: They’re all swamped with applications and need to give each one a thorough reading. We don’t have time to be out there fishing in social media,” he said. Though, he added, for schools with a smaller applicant pool, seeking out students on social media might seem like a more viable option.

“There are schools, I think, that have a lower application load and are less selective who may do this to a greater extent. I’ve seen surveys that would indicate that some schools do utilize social media to get a broader view of the candidate.”

Josh Schwartz, an incoming Vassar freshman, said that though he is conscientious about what he posts online, applying for college wasn’t the impetus for his decision.

“I’d never thought about it from an admissions perspective, more from an understanding that people can see what I post and say online and, therefore, I want to try and present myself in my best light. Furthermore, I’m friends with various adults on Facebook, and I always make sure there’s nothing I would be uncomfortable with them seeing,” said Schwartz in an emailed statement.

Jesse Peters ’14 said at his high school, this technique was presented in the way of what he called the “classic grandparent example.”

“Perhaps rather than stressing ‘cleaning up’ or deactivating social media accounts, my high school college advisors encouraged us to ensure that we were projecting an image of ourselves that we would be comfortable with college admissions officers seeing,” said Peters in an emailed statement. He continued, “I think they might have even used the classic grandparent example: ‘If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, you should probably rethink it.’”

Peters just received letters of acceptance to Duke and UCLA law schools, and is currently waiting to hear back from the other 12 he applied to. Though he said he was conscious of the possibility of admissions officers perusing his social media platforms, it was something he took with a grain of salt.

“I ultimately decided that I had–perhaps unknowingly—always kept my advisors’ advice in mind throughout my time at Vassar, so I did not need to make significant edits or obsessively screen every picture I was tagged in on Facebook. For example, even if there are images of me with alcohol, I think that they do not cast me in any sort of bad light. In fact, they might even demonstrate a certain amount of responsibility or maturity, and I think that is something we all should strive for when managing our social media,” said Peters.

Borus said despite the fact that Vassar doesn’t participate in looking at students’ Facebook or Twitter accounts, Peters and Schwartz’s approaches are smart ones.

“A lot of counselors and advisers will tell students to clean up anything they don’t want a college to see. I don’t think that’s bad advice: It’s good advice in general. Facebook has become almost public property these days and I don’t think it makes sense to have things there you don’t want other people to see,” he said.

Though Schwartz agreed that social media certainly blurs the lines between public and private information, he doesn’t think a student’s Facebook is necessarily fair game.

“A school should get a clear enough picture of a student from their essays, transcript, etc. What people do in their private lives shouldn’t matter. At the same time, I still think it’s important for students to be conscious of what they’re sharing on social media sites. People need to understand that almost anyone can see what they’re posting,” he said.

Borus stated that the availability of information online is something that students should be concerned with, especially when they start applying for jobs. Not only are employers dealing with a smaller number of applicants, but they are faced with different factors they must consider.

“I think it’s pretty common now for potential employers to look up Facebook accounts and try to find out more about the candidate that wouldn’t be contained in the average résumé and cover letter that don’t tell you much. They’re talking about bringing someone into their company or workplace. There are no expectations of privacy whereas I think students can reasonably have an expectation of privacy,” said Borus.

Peters echoed Borus’ sentiments, stating that there is a clear distinction in the aim of an admissions office and that of a company; however, he believes businesses shouldn’t be bothered with their employees social media presence.

“The college years are not intended to develop just the intellect, but the entire person. Given that, I would say that admissions officers should (and probably do) take this into consideration when making their decisions. Employers, on the other hand, are largely concerned with a bottom line—whether that be profit or getting the job done; on the whole, there is less concern for extracurricular activities,” said Peters.

Social media in the hands of universities and employers doesn’t always have to be wielded as a weapon.

Vassar uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs to reach out to prospective students and make the College accessible to those who can’t physically visit.

For Schwartz, even other Vassar students’ uncensored use of social media helped him decide to apply early decision to the College.

He said, “I’m friends with a few people who are freshmen at Vassar right now, and a substantial part of my decision was seeing how much fun those people were having via their pictures on Facebook, Tweets and Instagrams. Social media can definitely be a really good tool in the college process, as long as you know how to use it well.”

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