As the new school year begins, many incoming high school seniors are beginning the process of applying to college. And along with transcripts and SAT scores, families might be worried about another aspect of the teens’ records: what they’ve posted on social media.

Aidan Denahy, a 2017 high school graduate entering Bates College in September, has had social media accounts since seventh grade, just like many of his friends. And, he says, they all got the same message from their parents when they signed up. “The warning your parents give you is like, ‘Just so you know, colleges look at that,’” he says. “It’s just like, I don’t know, a standard precursor to getting Facebook.’”

Denahy himself is skeptical that admissions officers examine the jokes, photos, and videos he and other teens post online. “It’s just a gut feeling that they don’t really care,” he says.

However, many colleges do look at social media, according to an annual phone survey of admissions officers by Kaplan Test Prep. In 2016 about one-third of the 365 respondents, who were drawn from highly ranked schools, reported checking social media sites to assess applicants.

Those officers looked for red flags such as language that could be construed as racist and biographical information that contradicted what the candidate wrote on an application. On the other hand, evidence of community engagement helped many applicants, according to the survey.

This practice of scanning social media posts has sparked debate among admissions officers and given rise to a cottage industry of consultants who get paid by school districts and individual families to polish high schoolers’ online footprints. Consumer Reports interviewed consultants and admissions officers for advice that all teens can follow as they think ahead to college.  

(Related: If you’re looking for a job, first clean up your social media presence.)

The Rise of Social Media Coaches

The practice of examining students’ online material has prompted an ethics conversation among admissions officers.

“There’s always a session on social media” at the annual National Association for College Admission Counseling meeting, says Sally Springer, an associate chancellor emerita at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College” (Jossey-Bass, 2009). The main issue? “Should admissions officers be looking at things that students put up there under the presumption that it would be private or at least looked at only by people who they would want to have look at it?” she says.

There’s usually no way for an applicant to know whether a particular college or university looks at social media accounts.

“It’s rare for us, given the amount of time that it takes to read applications, and we’re very busy during that process,” says Jennifer Gayles, director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “But there certainly have been times where I’ve looked up a student just out of curiosity.”

More on Social Media

Admissions officers say students are increasingly likely to have their accounts scanned, for several reasons: Social media is more ubiquitous, more social-media-savvy admissions officers are entering the profession, and teens are applying to more colleges.

“Nowadays students might be applying to 12 or 13 institutions,” Gayles says, and that increases the odds that their old posts will be examined. “Someone from any one of those institutions might look up their social media.”

As more colleges look at social media posts, high school teachers and administrators are taking note, with some wealthier districts hiring outside experts to coach their students on how to avoid trouble and bolster their applications while using social media.

Justin Patchin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who has been researching teens and technology since 2002, has run social media training sessions at a number of schools. “I know of presenters who charge $500 for an assembly, and I know of presenters who charge $5,000 dollars for a series of assemblies in a day,” he says. Patchin declined to discuss his own fees.

Social Assurity is a small consultancy that provides e-courses and workshops to schools as well as one-on-one services for high school and college students. “This is a really invaluable 21st-century tool that we are giving the students early on,” says Naomi Ben-Shahar, the company’s creative director. The company charges individual families $500 for its services; in-school pricing varies by program.

Patchin and Social Assurity both say they provide training to some schools on a pro bono basis. Generally, though, such services target wealthier students. “What we do specifically, is in schools that are better off, that have the resources to devote to this kind of thing,” Patchin says.

That concerns Chike Aguh, the CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit organization that focuses on making internet access more affordable to underprivileged communities. “How do you make sure that the supply—being the training—is connected with the demand of people who need it?” he says. Many college applicants “may not have gotten that digital literacy very early, on how to comport themselves on social media.”

EveryoneOn offers online courses that teach people internet basics but doesn’t currently have programs that aim to help students applying to college.

Though professional coaching services may be helpful, most students can build a positive social media presence on their own, experts say. 

What Students Can Do

Consumer Reports spoke with social media consultants and admissions officers to collect advice for high school students and their parents. The experts agree that teens should not be afraid to post comments and photos online—colleges are not poring through posts to find reasons to reject students. Instead, “they are looking to learn more about you,” Ben-Shahar says, “so give them something to see.”

Here’s what students can do to ensure that their online footprint enhances a college application rather than undermining it. 

Google yourself.  “Colleges operate under the assumption that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” says Springer, a psychologist who has guided her own children through the admissions process. “People can change, but in the absence of any other information, the best predictor you’ve got is what somebody’s done before.” This includes information that your friends or other people may have uploaded about you. Search your name online to learn what admissions officers will see, paying special attention to the links on the first page of results.

Ben-Shahar recommends opening a LinkedIn account, where you can present your accomplishments and experience in the best light. LinkedIn is “a good way to build your online presence,” she says, because Google pushes it to the top of its search results—ahead of content you may be less eager to promote.  

Learn about privacy settings. Many social media users adjust the privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, but they don’t always understand what those settings do. “Students just make the assumption that if they feel something is private, or if they’ve made it private, that no one will ever be able to see it,” Gayles says. “We know that that isn’t always the case.”

For instance, even if you set Facebook photo albums to be viewable only by you, anyone you tag in a picture can still see it. And that means they can save the photograph and then share it separately. Facebook has a “View As” feature that shows you what your profile will look like to the public or to a specific Facebook user. Another tactic is to temporarily “unfriend” one of your peers, then look up your profile from their account to learn what other users of the platform can see.

Don’t count on anonymous platforms. Periodically, a new social app that promises anonymity and ironclad privacy becomes popular—Sarahah is a recent example. Ignore those assurances and you won’t be caught off guard if there’s a change in the platform’s policies, or some hacker finds a workaround.

“If your parents were to see that content, or your grandparents, how would you feel?” Patchin asks. “If you have a concern, then you probably don’t want to be posting that.” Harvard rescinded 10 admissions offers in spring 2017 after prospective students made offensive jokes in a Facebook chat that students believed to be private. Another student informed admissions about the chat, and the participating students were asked to submit everything they had shared.

Students “have to think just beyond what they want us to see,” Gayles says.

Use social media to highlight your strengths. “Not only are you trying to make sure that stuff isn’t out there,” Springer says, “you want to make sure that the stuff that you want them to know about is conveyed.” Admissions want applicants who will fit into the undergraduate community. Gayles says one dean at Sarah Lawrence College calls this the “good roommate factor” in admissions committee meetings. Then, once you graduate, the school hopes you’ll reflect well on your alma mater. If you’ve started a small business or a club, won awards, or developed a passion for art, make sure that’s reflected online.

A free mobile app called ZeeMee can be useful for this. It lets students pick and choose components from their social media profiles to create a portfolio they can share with college admissions offices. 

Network online. Students can use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to communicate with other prospective students or look for alumni events to attend. These are also great tools for finding mentors. Christine Greenhow, an associate professor of educational psychology and technology at Michigan State University, recently did a study on how juniors and seniors at urban public high schools prepare for college. “What we found is that these kids from low-income families often don’t know anyone in their immediate family who went to college,” she says.

Greenhow’s team helped students use Facebook to find informal advisers who were willing to guide them through the application process. “Social media can matter,” Greenhow says, “especially for low-income students or people who don’t have immediate social capital available to them.”

Let your parents help. Springer and other experts consulted by Consumer Reports agree that parents can take an active role in helping their children form good online habits. “Once the kids are out of your control,” they’re going to have to rely on their own judgment when they go online, she says, “and getting that right is just critical for the long term.”

Aidan Denahy concurs. “My mom is friends with me on Facebook,” he says, and he recalls her asking him to take down a picture that “remotely implied” he was at a party when he was a sophomore in high school. He says the pressure is off now that he’s already on the way to college. But, then again, it’s not too early to plan for internships and the work world. “I guess once I get into college, I’ll have to start thinking ahead,” Denahy says. “I mean if I post anything bad, my mom’s getting on my case either way.”