All Kids Dumb Enough to Get Kicked-Out of Harvard

My phone was blowing up earlier this week with colleagues and friends asking my opinion of the 10 Harvard students who had their admissions canceled after posting offensive memes on social media.

If you haven’t heard the story, a number of students who had been admitted to the school had connected on the Harvard College Class of 2021 Facebook group.  Some kids then starting posting risqué memes and eventually created their own splinter Facebook group.  And there things got more graphic with some kids publishing racist and obscene posts.  Administrators found out and chose to rescind the admissions of 10 of the offending students.  The story broke in the Harvard Crimson and soon went viral.

Then the messages started:

“These people need copies of your book.”
“Social media #fail of the year.”
“Call Harvard and send them your book.”

Sadly, I’m not the least bit surprised by this story.  I have heard variations before: Kids did dumb things online shortly after admission and didn’t get the chance to attend their dream school.  An unknowable number of others, applying to Ivy League schools and junior colleges alike, don’t get accepted because of online mistakes and social media mess ups.  And yes, I have chronicled many similar tales in my book How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.

A few months ago, I spoke about how online issues impact college students at a meeting of the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities.  Here are some highlights:

You will be Googled when applying to college.

  • 29% of college admissions officers Google applicants and 40% check social media pages. (And this is not new data, so I bet the number is higher.)
  • Nearly 40% found positive information like undisclosed leadership roles and community service.
  • But, nearly 37% found negative things like criminal offenses, photos of drug or alcohol use, instances of racial prejudice or inappropriate behavior.

You will be Googled when applying for a job.

  • 45% of employers use search engines to research job candidates. (Again, probably higher.)
  • 21% of employers actively look for reasons NOT to hire a candidate.
  • They often find reasons to hire a person: personality seen as a good fit, applicant is well-rounded or candidate has good communications skills.
  • 49% found reasons NOT to hire an applicant – finding provocative, inappropriate photos/videos or info about drinking and drug use.

After sharing these statistics, I then explained to the college administrators that we need to educate students about the dos and don’ts of online reputation.

First the dos:

  • Do keep your nose clean. The best way to have a good online reputation is to have a good offline reputation. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Be a good citizen.  Be respectful of others and so on.
  • Do build a reputational firewall. Register public social media accounts and be active. Work to gain control of the first page of search results for your name, which will make it easy for anyone researching you to find positive, authentic information about you.
  • Do prepare. Understand that different solutions are available to combat online issues.

Now the don’ts:

  • Don’t try to stay off the grid. While we may want to avoid social media, it’s a mistake to try to stay off the grid.  Google and search engines will find information about you, somewhere.  It’s best to embrace the internet and publish your own information in a meaningful, controlled and authentic manner.
  • Don’t hide behind privacy settings. Just because your account is private doesn’t mean that you are protected from an online mishap. The moment you post something online, even on Snapchat or Dust, you lose control of it.  The person on the receiving end can make a copy and then share it.  Just as text messages and e-mails can be captured and forwarded, so can all social media posts.  In the end, there is no such thing as privacy.  If you type it, expect that the world can see it.
  • Don’t try to 0ut5m@rt the system. See how clever that is?  I quickly developed my own secret code to trick Google and Facebook.  Fake and coded screen names may temporarily knock people off your online scent, but it won’t last.  Soon enough, companies and universities will write programs to sniff this stuff out.  (Note to self: Start screen name decoding business.)

If you have a student or recent grad in your life, or if you are concerned about your online image, please embrace my advice and save yourself future online heartaches.  I wish the kids formerly of Harvard had.  More information on online reputation for students and “students of life” is available in How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.  Turns out that it’s a great graduation gift.

–John

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