High school students embarking on college applications should watch their step on social media platforms. That’s common wisdom, and it’s true. By now, we’ve all heard stories about acceptances being rescinded or applications being denied because of bad behavior online—in one particularly dramatic instance in 2017, Harvard withdrew 10 acceptances over offensive comments in a single group chat. These days, with social media a ubiquitous part of life, there’s no excuse for not realizing that it plays a role in the real world, and that nothing you put on the internet is sacred, or truly private.
If you weren’t warned of this possibility several years ago when you were applying to colleges, it’s likely because social media was not yet a large enough presence in our lives. But today’s MBA applicants should certainly take the hint now. If anything, an MBA admissions committee has even greater reason to check your online presence and make sure that you are “on-brand” with their program’s prestige and respectability. An B-school’s relationship with its students is closer to that of an employer than a school, and the adcom can no longer excuse your behavior as that of a teenager. Plus, you likely have many more years of online presence to account for than you would have had at 17 or 18 years old.
Let’s take a look at how the social media vetting process works in the MBA context.
Do Colleges Check Social Media?
The short answer is yes, colleges do look at social media as they are assessing your candidacy. At least, you must absolutely assume that they will. While no admissions officer has time to dig deep or even do a quick search of every single applicant’s social media profiles, you should not count on being skipped over. Social media is an additional source of information about who you are as a person and what you may bring to the campus, available to adcoms should they choose to use it.
Why do Universities Look at Your Social Media Profile?
If you happen to be an “on the fence” candidate, if your application raises questions of legitimacy, or if the admissions committee has some reason to be concerned about who you are, they’ll likely probe your online presence. That means that you’re actually more likely to receive this scrutiny if you’re a competitive candidate with a good chance of getting in.
Is it Legal?
Well, it’s certainly contentious.
While some contend that admissions officers, or employers for that matter, have no right to poke around in your “private” life, very little of what you post online is legally private (this is true in most of the world, there are a few more protections in the European Union). Simply by choosing to make your comments on a public website, you are making public statements about who you are and what you value. If you can’t accept that, then you probably shouldn’t be on social media in the first place.
How do Admissions Committees Look at Social Media?
They’re probably not taking a deep dive into your social media profiles and flipping through Facebook albums from your teen years, but you shouldn’t assume anything. Some of the most controversial admit withdrawals in recent years involved comments made in private forums that became public because a member of the private group published them to a public forum without the other members’ consent. The internet makes all of our pasts a part of the present. If someone is intent on putting an applicant’s behavior in front of the adcom, social media gives them the tools to do it.
Where do They Look?
The vast universe of social media is constantly growing, but admissions officers are often a bit behind. Unless you’ve done something very odd that raised a lot of red flags, the person doing this research will not be a technical expert.
The adcom will likely start with Google and Facebook—the most common and generally accessible aspects of your online presence. LinkedIn is another likely candidate, though (hopefully) not one you should need to be worried about. This is as far as most searches will go.
Secondary Social Media Profiles
Smaller networks such as Twitter or Instagram could also be fair game,, though they are more likely to be kept under an anonymous username. If the school does search these up, it is likely out of some concern related to the legitimacy of claims on your application or aspects of your character that are in doubt.
Obscure, For Now
Finally, it is pretty much unheard of for admissions officers (especially for MBA programs) to be looking for candidates on newer and more obscure platforms like VSCO or TikTok. This may change in the future as these platforms gain users and younger generations enter admissions departments. The moral of the story, then, is don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t want an admissions officer seeing, up to and including TikToks.
What Are They Looking For?
Unless a specific concern has been raised by some aspect of your application, admissions officers are looking into your social media to get a better sense of who you are—the good, the bad.
Let’s start with the good, and what you should hope that they find when they run a Google search: confirmation of your passions, pursuits, achievements and good qualities. If you talk endlessly about your love for music and your involvement in various musical groups in your application, then they probably expect to see some evidence of that online. While it wouldn’t necessarily be a black mark against you if they don’t see you toting your bassoon around Facebook, it won’t play to your favor, particularly if you discuss spending every weekend playing local venues or participating in your chamber orchestra.
If anything on your profile jumps immediately to mind as a possible risk, then it probably is. Evidence of illegal activity (seriously, you should know better fringe, controversial or offensive viewpoints, online harassment, if these are prominent aspects of your online presence, you can expect the admissions officer to put a red flag on your file. Also be wary of anything that directly contradicts your application. You shouldn’t be lying on your application anyway, but if you are, this is one (of many) ways you can get caught.
How to Clean Up Your Social Media for University (and Job) Applications
The most obvious line of defense is your own actions—what you post, state, or comment; how you engage, treat others and portray yourself. Behave online as you would in person. Don’t post pictures of yourself that you wouldn’t show to your extended family, for example, or make comments or statements that you wouldn’t willingly share with anyone in your life, or with strangers. This extends to interactions as well; getting involved in comment wars or making personal attacks on others is a pointless and frustrating waste of your energy, and it creates a permanent record of you in what is probably not your best moment.
But, what if it’s a bit… late… to change your behavior? Start with your privacy settings. The social media companies often make these settings intentionally opaque (or deceptively simple) so do find an outside source to guide you through the process for the specific sites you use. These certainly are something you should be knowledgeable about and using effectively, but they are not a catch-all, nor a one-stop solution to filtering how the world sees you online.
You also need to be aware of others’ behavior that is visible on your profiles, whether you have friends who like to jokingly (or in all seriousness) make obscene or offensive comments on your photos or posts, friends tagging you in pictures you’d rather not let the whole world see, or you are getting dragged into ugly interactions. Be vigilant about untagging yourself, deleting nasty comments, and, if you need to, blocking individuals who persistently bring negative images or language to your social media profiles.
To make sure that your online presence reflects you the way you would like it to, run a Google search on yourself in Incognito mode, and look at your profiles with a critical eye. Even better, get a friend or trusted mentor to take a look for you and make you aware of any questionable content. MBA admissions consultants can help you look at your social media profiles just as an admissions officer would view them, and point out areas you need to clean up.
Finally, any good admissions consulting professional will tell you that it’s not just a matter of cleaning up the bad, but proactively putting your best foot forward. Knowing that universities do look at your social media gives you one more opportunity to make a case for why you would be an excellent addition to their program. Post about your passions—pictures of you doing what you love, links to articles, books, films, or even YouTube videos about your interests and the activities you engage in, and maintain a generally positive presence online. This is certainly far from the most important way to advance your application (there’s no shame in just not posting much at all), but if you’d be posting anyway, take the full audience into account. Most importantly, be yourself—often an admissions officer will seek out your social media profiles to get a better sense of who you are, and after all, isn’t presenting the best version of yourself to the world the whole point of social media?