I'm sure you've heard a thousand times that college admissions officers sometimes check on the social media posts of applicants. You've heard that you should be careful what you say--writers tell you not to post anything you wouldn't want your grandmother to see--but also that you should be sure to make your accomplishments clear. You've been told that colleges don't want to see photos of you with booze in your hand, but that they do want to see you're a well-rounded person with a social life. They want to see that you're engaged with your community, but that you don't get into hateful arguments or use poor judgement. You've been told all this already, and you don't need me to tell you again.
Likewise, I don't think you need me to repeat the standard advice: un-tag yourself from photos you don't want colleges to see, make sure you have your school-friendly photos and résumé-building awards on public settings for the world to see, avoid anything that hints at academic imperfection.
The problem with this sort of advice, practical and accurate as it is, is that the overall message and tone of the advice is to consider yourself always watched and always performing. Never say or do anything that colleges don't like, as if all colleges "like" the same things. I advise against doing anything, not matter how productive or good on the surface, simply because colleges want to see you do it. Instead, I advise to be a person, not a résumé. And I think that applies to your online life as well.
With this in mind, do I have any advice other than the standard talking points? Yes, of course!
Get a good look. You really can't know how to think about what colleges see about you online until you actually know what colleges see. Don't just trust what you think you know about your privacy settings. Large companies regularly hire outside security experts to go and find holes in their protection before the hackers do. You can employ a similar approach. Find someone you trust and ask them to pretend to be a college officer trying to get a sense of who you are. Get them to report what they find, both positive and negative. Offer to do the same for them. You may find that things you thought were private are more easily found than you hoped. You might also find that the good things you put out there for college recruiters to see aren't found as easily as you hoped. Once you have a sense of what your online profile really looks like, then decide what, if anything, to do.
Remember that it's not always the strangers you're worried about. If you have things inside your security settings that you don't want outsiders to see, whether those outsiders are college recruiters or anyone else, make sure you really trust the insiders. They are the ones most likely to pass along the material to strangers, not Google or Facebook. If you are trying to hide certain things from college admissions departments (and I'll let you decide if you really should or not), then think carefully before becoming friends with students at the same colleges. Think carefully about remaining friends with someone who sees you as competition and may be looking for a way to knock you down.
Decide if it's really you. Ultimately, this isn't about college admissions. This is about having an honest look at your online presence in the world and deciding if it's really what you want to be projecting and spending your time with. Don't stop being a troll because colleges might find out; stop being a troll because it's rude and hurtful and a waste of your time. Don't just delete photos of you doing crazy stupid things when you're drunk because colleges might see them; reconsider how dangerous and not-really-very-fun those stupid crazy things are. Don't un-friend racist jerks because colleges might associate their racist jerkiness with you; un-friend racist jerks because you don't need racist jerks in your life. Focus on the causes, not just the effects.
Be ready to talk about it. Whatever is in your social media feed, whether public or private, positive or negative, helpful or problematic, be prepared to talk about it. Don't be caught off guard, don't be defensive, don't make things up. Nobody has a perfect life or a perfect past. Nobody only projects what they want to project. Everybody is asked about things they would rather not be asked about. Having an online record of everything you've ever written or posted certainly exacerbates the problem, but it didn't create the problem. When confronted about something you've said or done, in any context, remember to be calm, be kind, and be honest. That's what will get you through.
Thank you for reading! Please share this with someone who would like to read it. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.