When Kelsang Dolma began sending in her college applications, the first thing she did was lock down her Twitter account.
"I was applying to about 10 schools and I knew that every bit of information could be crucial," said Dolma, now a junior at Yale University. "My Twitter by no means was offensive, but I worried that any little joke could be a deal breaker. Most of the schools I applied to had razor thin admission rates, so I wanted to be safe rather than sorry."
Dolma’s story turned out safe. Others have turned out sorry.
Online profiles are now just another part of a student's background like a GPA or extra-curricular activities. College admissions officers routinely check social media, with 35 percent of those surveyed by Kaplan Test Prep saying they have checked applicants' social media postings. Of those, 42 percent said that what they found had a negative impact on the student's application.
Consequences can be severe. Recently, Harvard revoked the acceptance letters of 10 students after discovering they had posted offensive memes to a Facebook group chat. The event and others like it have struck fear into the hearts of students and parents alike—and for good reason.
Scrubbing social media accounts—or preemptively making sure their online presences can’t be tracked—has become a common move for students entering their senior year of high school in 2017. Plenty of teens have had social media accounts since middle school and are terrified that an errant post or tagged photo from years ago could come back to haunt them.
Unfortunately, there are still lots of students who don't take necessary precautions when it comes to policing their own online presence.
"One of the things this Harvard example highlights is that a lot of kids do things online that can come back to bite them. It's important to realize that it happens on a much more regular level," said Patrick Ambron, CEO at BrandYourself, an online reputation management firm that works with students.
It's hard to grow up online these days and not leave behind something, anything, that might prove suspect in the eyes of a college admissions officer. That's where BrandYourself comes in.
The company recently launched a new "Student Makeover" product aimed at high schoolers' worried parents. Billed as "the perfect graduation gift," the service promises to surface and remove risky online references to sex, alcohol, drugs, politics, religion, and more for $99, according to the website.
To get started, students grant the BrandYourself system access to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The software then scours thousands of old posts and uses a machine learning algorithm to pull up the ones that may be deemed problematic. Students and their parents can then evaluate the old posts and choose whether or not to delete the content.
The program will also identify troubling search results for a student's name and provide an overall reputation score, which indicates how likely it is that a student's results will negatively affect their career or college prospects.
BrandYourself's makeover product is new, but students have spent years been using home-grown methods to avoid admissions officers. For many, adopting a senior name is the first step they take to shield their real identity.
"Senior names," which many students adopt at the end of summer or the beginning of senior year, are aliases used on Facebook throughout their senior year, and sometimes beyond. These aliases are theoretically meant to hide a student's real identity from admissions officers or summer internship hiring managers who search for their offline name.
While senior names are a great first step, other high schoolers take more extensive measures to protect their identity like deleting old accounts or creating duplicate "ghost" profiles that they use to share questionable material online.