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How to present your best online self for future schools and potential employers

POSTED: June 15, 2017 3:10 a.m.
Amy Iverson/

What your social media accounts say about you matters. Recruiters and school admissions officers say there are certain things you should never post if you want to present your best self.

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We all like to demand the right to free speech, but living in a social media-saturated world means some free speech can have long-lasting consequences.

Harvard College took back its letters of acceptance to at least 10 incoming freshmen after they posted racially and sexually offensive memes and comments on a private Facebook group chat. Talk about consequences. Those are likely some major lifelong dreams that quickly evaporated into thin air.

Harvard receives more than 40,000 applicants each year, and it only accepts about 2,000. The average student at Harvard has a 4.1 grade point average and scored a 34 on the ACT. Only the best and the brightest are accepted at Harvard. But where was their critical common sense when it comes to what is and is not appropriate to post on social media?

School admissions officers, as well as prospective employers, often use social media accounts to gather a more comprehensive idea of what a person is all about. According to Jobvite’s annual Social Recruiting Survey, 93 percent of recruiters review a candidate’s social profile. Christine Brown, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep, told The New York Times, “students’ social media and digital footprints can sometimes play a role in the admissions process.”

It certainly did at Harvard.

The possibility of posting inappropriate things is much higher for teenagers. They have had a social online presence their entire lives, while many adults only have 10 years or so under their belts. Dr. Lisa Damour, a child psychologist, told CBS "it's so tough with teenagers because their better judgment can be overridden by their wish to be connected to their friends." They often post thoughts and photos impulsively, without thinking about possible repercussions.

So how can we ensure our children are posting photos and comments that won’t get them in trouble when it comes to applying for college or finding a job? And, let’s face it, how do we make sure we do the same?

Ponder before you post.

Suzana Flores is author of “Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships, and Lives.” She told CNBC that employees (or students) should "only say or share things online that (they'd) be comfortable saying or sharing with (their) boss and colleagues in person."

I have another take on this concept. I ask my children if they’d like their grandma to see the post or comment in question. Would she approve? I also tell my kids to imagine the post going up on a billboard in the middle of town. Would they feel comfortable seeing it there? If not, it’s probably not wise to stick it online.

Check privacy settings.

Making sure only trusted friends have access to your accounts can be helpful. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s foolproof. Even if your Facebook profile has strict privacy settings, you’d be shocked at how many photos of you are floating around out there.

Try typing “photos of (your name)” into the search window. Pictures you likely never even knew existed will pop up. If there are any you’d rather not have online, you’ll need to ask the person who posted it either to untag you or remove the post altogether.

When in doubt, take it out.

Patricia Vaccarino owns a Seattle public relations firm and cautions against posting things that may seem trivial but could make an impression on potential employers or school admissions officers. She says her own Facebook friends have posted "in great detail about their colonoscopies, dead teeth pulled, dead dogs, flatulence, adult acne, marital breakups, battles with mental illnesses and drinking problems.”

She told Reuters "if this information can make friends cringe, imagine the impression it would make on a potential employer." Others in the field say to delete any posts with profanity or alcohol (even if you’re over 21) and anything sexually or racially insensitive.

Review, review, review.

It’s time to take a walk down memory lane. Look at anything you have uploaded on YouTube, anything you’ve "liked" on Facebook, and groups you may have joined. Make sure those things represent you in a good light, showing off your strengths.

Finally, make sure your email address is acceptable.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen teenagers with email addresses including words like "hottie," "playa" or "dude." These are not professional, and if you’re applying for jobs or schools, it’s time to change them.

Just as you walk into a job interview dressed appropriately and using your best vocabulary and smile, the impression you put out to the online world matters. When someone searches you out online, make sure they find an online presence that is smart, sharp and a representation of your best self.

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