Yes, Jacob and Sophia and Emma and Mason and all you other students planning to apply to college some year soon: Your online life can affect your chances of getting into the school of your dreams — or any school at all. Fair or not.

According to a new survey, more college admissions officers than ever are checking out applicants by looking on the Internet and seeing what they’ve been up to. The annual survey, by Kaplan Test Prep, says that 29 percent of those who responded to a phone survey said they had Googled an applicant — up from 27 percent last year — and 31 percent said they checked out a student’s Facebook or other social networking page, up from 26 percent last year. There was, though,  a drop — from 35 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2013 — in the number of admissions officers who said that they had made online discoveries that harmed a student’s chances of being admitted.

College admissions officers are looking for the things you’d expect them to be looking for: bad judgment, bad language, bad behavior.

Some high school counselors think this isn’t fair. Here’s what Shaun McElroy, counselor at Shanghai American School in China, wrote on the listserv of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (published with his permission):

Here is what I don’t understand: Web 2.0 has been around long enough for colleges to come up with policies about what they will look at in the application process. Colleges have a very clear opportunity to ask for what they need to make a decision. It is called the application (and for common app enthusiasts, the supplement). You could ask them if they have ever drank alcohol. Why do you need to go look for pictures. You could ask them if they ever made snarky comments to impress friends–why do you need to go scour twitter feeds? I understand the human nature element of goggling someone, but these are young adults who were once kids. Near as I can figure making mistakes is part of growing up.
We now expect our young people to live a higher standard than we ever did (I guess that has been happening for a while what with the AP/IB proliferation, save the world via community service and start a club that will help other students invent a club that fills a genuine need and looks good to college admission counselors). A few years ago one of our teachers was distraught and wanted a kid not admitted to the National Honor Society because this kid had joined a group on Facebook called I HATE APUSH. AP US History is a right of passage here for our high performing students in grade 10. It is a course they love to hate. She wanted him ineligible, not for something he said, but because he was part of this group (virtually all the posts were to the effect “Man this course is hard”, “I stayed up so late because of APUSH”, “My brain is full of History I cannot remember my cat’s name.”) Not a single complaint about the teacher. They were venting.
If colleges want this information they should put it on the application: We reserve the right to examine your presence on the web.
And then they really should give the kid a chance to respond.


The college admissions survey, which began in 2008, was taken by phone between July and August 2013, with 381 admissions officers from the nation’s top national, regional and liberal arts colleges and universities being questioned. (Kaplan is a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company, which published the Washington Post for decades until it was sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who formally took control on Oct. 1, 2013.)