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Note to college kids: Your social media behavior can cost you a scholarship

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Recruiters do make decisions based on what they read and see on social media. 10 ways to keep your character intact.

I didn’t create a Facebook account until I started my freshman year of college. Thankfully, that means my profile doesn’t include any embarrassing pictures of my awkward teenage years. Instead, if you scroll through my Facebook wall, you’ll see pictures of me laughing with other students over inside jokes, hanging out with them at history conferences, and in one picture I’m standing beside a stack of books almost as tall as me, taken while I was preparing my senior year project. Learning new things, traveling to new places, and meeting new people are just some of my favorite memories from my time as an undergrad student, and my social media reflects those memories.

But that’s not the experience all students have with social media. Back in 2011, one student lost her scholarship after she posted rap lyrics to social media. And last year, a post was published referencing an anonymous student athlete who lost her scholarship after recruiters reviewed her social media account and discovered images involving alcohol and profanity. The comments exploded into a debate citing sexism, slut-shaming, and calling into question the ethics of judging someone worthy of acceptance based on these factors. Right or wrong, the fact remains: recruiters are looking, and they are basing their decision on what they see and read about you.

So yes, what you post on the internet, even on your own social accounts, has real repercussions offline. That said, I’m not trying to scare you, or suggest you shut off all your social media and live under a rock. College is about new experiences and growth, after all. But it’s always best to use caution when navigating this still relatively new medium. Here are 10 dos and don’ts for you — or to pass along to your college-aged kids — to keep your social media accounts working for you, not against you.

1. DO connect with your college or university’s social media accounts

Elaine Lewis, director of Success Evaluation and Retention in the Center for Student Success and Retention at Washburn University, had some great advice for students figuring out how social media fits with their new experience at a university. She recommends staying connected to the school itself by joining groups, and following or becoming “friends” with different departments online, too. “Most institutions have social media accounts, especially Twitter, for various offices. For example, our first year experience program has an active Twitter presence and advertises events, learning opportunities, and general study tips. Keeping this information in your social media newsfeed is a powerful tool to act upon for student success.” You can keep up on the latest events going on around your campus and build your Twitter follower list, too!

2. DON’T get lax with social media after your acceptance letter comes

You got accepted! Maybe you even just got the news about that scholarship you worked so hard for! When you reach a big goal like these, it’s great to let loose and celebrate a little. But, too often, excited students let their guard down on social media. So just remember that you represent your high school and your chosen university from acceptance through enrollment: When people read through your accounts, they identify you with the school you are attending, and the one you will be attending next year.

3. DO ask yourself if this post could be easily misunderstood

Even though social media is a great tool for self expression, humor, and intellectual debate, it can also be a forum where it’s very easy to misunderstand one another. People can’t hear your voice or watch your facial expressions when you’re posting that update. I’ve had satirical comments and posts be misread as rude or overly sarcastic online, even by those people who know me offline. Before you post, make sure that what you’re saying is clear, and try to think about it from the perspective of others: a friend, a fellow student, your Dad, or even the dean. Try waiting on your post, even for five minutes, before hitting send. It’s much easier to think it through from the get-go than edit a post that’s already up.

4. DON’T post something that will embarrass someone else

It’s like your mother always told you: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It sounds super cheesy, but I promise that’s still a good rule to go by on social media. If you have a funny video or picture of your friend, do a quick check before you post it. If your friend had that same video or picture of you, would you want them to post it? If the answer is no, save your friend the embarrassment and don’t click Post.

5. DO check your spelling

It may seem like a no-brainer, but making sure that your post is spelled correctly makes a difference. If you have a great point to make but spell some words wrong, your credibility on the subject is immediately undermined by whoever reads it. Run your post through a spell-checker just to be safe (it’s as easy as pasting your text into a Word Doc). You’ve got some great things to say, so make sure people take them seriously.

6. DON’T forget how powerful social media is

Social media is a lot more than cat videos and food pictures. But on a personal level, you should think of your profile as putting your best foot forward. Future employers can look through accounts to see what kind of an employee they think you’ll be after college. Ms. Lewis says you can use social media to shape what people think of you: “Social media is a powerful way to control a perception and image of yourself. This is important when looking for internships and finding mentors in the community.”

7. DO think before friending or following your professor

While I was earning my Bachelor’s degree, I took quite a few classes with my favorite history professor. He was funny, interesting, and had some amazing hobbies and jobs outside of the classroom. But when his Facebook profile popped up as a suggested friend, I didn’t friend him until I was finished with classes. Curious if I had been overly cautious, I asked Ms. Lewis: Should you friend request your professor? I was surprised to hear that she doesn’t think there is one correct answer to that question. Instead, she points out the two sides to every friend request, saying, “I believe it is up to the student’s discretion to friend the professor, but it is also up to the professor’s discretion to accept the friend request.”

8. DON’T seek all of your approval online

It can be easy to thrive off the emotional boosts that can come with likes and retweets, but remember that you’re more than just your online profile. If you’re searching for encouragement, go talk to a friend offline. If you’re frustrated with a project or assignment, stop in during the professor’s office hours and try to figure out what the issue is. Even though posting about the highs and lows of student life can make you popular online, it’s best not to seek approval from your Twitter followers. You’ll be better off investing in IRL friendships and relationships.

9. DO give your social media a break every so often

Enjoy friendships without having to post a Facebook picture when you catch up with friends. Watch the sunset without making an Instagram post about it. It can be tempting to show the world every part of your life online, and it’s so easy with all of the social media outlets we have now from Snapchat to Instagram Stories. But don’t be afraid to live life unplugged from social media and enjoy some of the moments just as you, sans smartphone. Sometimes the best memories are those that never make it onto social media because you were having so much fun you forgot to post about it.

10. DON’T post anything you wouldn’t show your mom

Yup, it’s the mom rule. If you would be embarrassed for your mom to see your Instagram post from this weekend, it’s probably not a good idea to post it. “The image you portray in social media is incredibly important, especially for younger students who have a social media record that spans their entire lives,” Ms. Lewis said. “I generally tell students to steer clear of posting anything they would not want a future employer or their innocent grandmother to see.”

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