High school students should be careful what they post online, experts say, because their social media behaviour could prove to be a roadblock on their path to higher education at the school of their choice.

Young people entering the workforce are often advised that prospective employers might scrutinize their social media footprint, but as a recent high-profile incident at Harvard shows, admissions officers are also keeping their eyes online.

"Many of these students have grown up with iPhones and social media and the word is now out that everything you do on a digital device leaves some sort of trace," said Lee Weiss, vice-president for college admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep, a U.S. company that helps students prepare for college entrance tests.

"If any of your settings are set to public, there is a very good chance that that information is being used to determine really important aspects of your life," he said.

Kaplan does an annual survey of college admissions officers in the U.S. and its most recent one, released in February, found 35 per cent of the 350 people surveyed said they check the social media profiles of applicants. What they find can either help or hurt the student's chances of getting into the school, the respondents said.

Harvard Admission Revocation

The Harvard Crimson reported on June 4 that the university had revoked admission offers to at least 10 prospective freshmen over offensive online messages. (Charles Krupa, File/Associated Press)

In the Harvard case, about 10 students had already been admitted to the world-famous school, and it was their post-acceptance behaviour in a private Facebook group that came back to bite them.

The school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported that the group was initially titled, "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." Some participants posted memes and images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children.

They also joked that abusing children was sexually arousing and one called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child "pinata time," according to the Crimson.

'Stupid thing' for 'smart kids' to do

Harvard's admissions office found out about the postings, asked the students for explanations and revoked several of their offers in mid-April, according to the report.

"If these kids got into Harvard, they are really bright, smart kids," said Kat Cohen, founder and CEO of IvyWise, an American educational consulting company that helps students apply for schools like Harvard.

"It's probably the first time that they did something really atrocious — and there is a huge consequence for it," she said. "I thought it was a very stupid thing for them to do."

IvyWise starts working with students in ninth grade to help them prepare for college applications, and that includes advising them on how to keep a clean image on social media.

Social Media

Many students 'have grown up with iPhones and social media and the word is now out that everything you do on a digital device leaves some sort of trace,' said Lee Weiss, who works for a U.S. company that helps students prepare for college entrance tests. (Image Source: thenextweb)

"We have to stalk them because we have to look at everything and make sure that they're not doing anything that they shouldn't be doing," she said. 

"I think it's important for students to learn early on in high school what's too much information, what to post, what not to post," said Cohen. Do post photos with family, volunteering in the community or taking part in athletic or artistic activities, she tells clients — but don't post tons of photos of partying.

Anne-Marie Roy, national deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, said that Harvard did the right thing by rescinding the offers.

"I'm happy to see that the institution is doing everything in its power to ensure that students on campus are safe and not surrounded by individuals who perpetuate and promote violence," she said.

Social media 'wild card' in applications

Roy, however, said that she has some discomfort with schools using social media accounts to determine admissions. If someone is turned down because of political views expressed online, for example, that would not be OK, but if they are promoting violence, "that's a problem."

"I think there is a fine balance that needs to be struck," said Roy.

But students need to take responsibility for what they put online, and the consequences it can have, she added.

"We should all be aware of what we post on Facebook, not only for admissions to different schools, be it Harvard or others," said Roy. "I think Facebook is a platform that has a lot of visibility and we need to be cognizant of the fact that the things that we post out there perpetuate and promote different attitudes." 

Post-secondary institutions in Canada all have their own criteria for admissions. Two schools that responded to requests for information on Tuesday said they do not currently review social media activity as part of their admissions process.

Western University in London, Ont., said its student code of conduct takes effect once the student has registered with the school.

The University of British Columbia doesn't assess social media behaviour, either, and said if an incoming student were to post inappropriate content on a school-administered social media site, the school would respond on a "case-by-case basis," and that the school reserves the right to deny admission.

Weiss's advice is that prospective students should conduct themselves online with the assumption that any post, even a private one, could be used against them.

They should also keep in mind that offers of admission can always be taken away.

"Anything you share has the opportunity to affect your reputation and important decisions in one's life," he said. "It remains a real wild card in the admissions process."