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A tweet can have unintended consequences. In 280 or fewer characters, Twitter has fuelled revolution across the Arab world, sent stocks plummeting and triggered countless spats among the rich and famous.
What you post on social media can also affect your odds of getting into business school. More than one-third of US schools now screen candidates’ social media profiles to help them decide who gets in and who does not. This is up from 22 per cent in 2011, according to Kaplan Test Prep, an education services company. So aspiring MBAs must carefully brand themselves online to help secure a place.
The need to differentiate the best candidates from the rest is driving the trend. The MBA application process is highly competitive, with the top 10 US MBA programmes ranked by the Financial Times in 2017 receiving approximately 54,700 applications in 2016, up from 49,000 in 2012.
Social media can hint at strengths that may otherwise be missing from a written application, such as whether a candidate does voluntary work or is a creative thinker, and which can help them gain entry.
“Sometimes candidates don’t talk about meaningful activities in their essays or interview. That can be a missed opportunity, as they can give their application an edge,” says Julie Barefoot, associate dean of MBA admissions for Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, Georgia. Goizueta’s admissions team routinely checks the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of MBA applicants.
When applying to IMD in Switzerland last year, Lucien Chiron highlighted an online blog he recently wrote about travelling across Europe and Asia. The 33 year old, who is French, believes the website helped him get a place on the 12-month course. Chiron wrote the blog in three languages, as he speaks French, German and English, which is prized by IMD’s admissions team as students on the MBA programme typically are of 40 different nationalities.
“It made it a little easier for me to convince the admissions team that I was a fit with their programme,” Chiron says.
Schools are also tracking online profiles to gauge the authenticity of applications. After all, admissions consulting is big business.
“Some applications are too polished, too similar,” says Paola Eicher, MBA recruitment manager with IMD. “Often, admissions coaches don’t help candidates edit their social media profiles, so they can provide an unfiltered view.”
Social media can both help and harm an application. Half of admissions officers who visit candidates’ online profiles have found content that stymied applications, according to a survey by Kaplan. Examples include vitriolic reviews of previous employers and sexist comments.
“Some content may seem benign, but it can cause people to have offers revoked because it can indicate that they won’t do well academically or get hired,” says Karen Marks, founder of admissions consultancy North Star.
She recommends that candidates Google their names and remove anything that could raise a red flag in the application process. This includes hints that you are applying to multiple business schools, as some require that potential students withdraw applications to other schools as a condition of their offer of an MBA place.
“The problem is, there is no one answer for what schools do not want to see. So the only sane thing to do is be conservative,” Marks says.
But business schools’ online monitoring raises questions around candidates’ right to privacy, such as whether it is ethical to deny someone an MBA place because of online information about their private life and whether it can be trusted to be accurate.
At IMD, Eicher says: “We mainly use LinkedIn to screen MBA candidates because it is used by almost 90 per cent of corporate recruiters. We don’t usually check Facebook or Twitter because we don’t want to go so much into their private lives. I’m not conducting an investigation and I’m not on the moral committee.”
However, 61 per cent of schools told Kaplan that what gets posted on social media is “fair game” to use to make admissions decisions.
Some MBA candidates limit what they share with others online to protect their reputation, for example by changing privacy settings, as the default usually enables public access. But removing too much information can be a problem, too.
“If there is an absence of information, that is often considered suspicious,” says Dorie Clark, at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who teaches people how to build their personal brand online. “It raises questions: have you scrubbed it to hide things? Have you fabricated your credentials?”
She says the best approach is for students to actively participate in social networks, for example by positioning themselves as experts in their field, by sharing high-quality insight into trends affecting it, such as innovation. “That will help when trying to find employment, too,” Clark says, as some companies such as Facebook are reviewing job candidates’ online profiles to identify whom to meet in person.
Francesca Malenky, a 26-year-old MBA student at Goizueta, is using social media to showcase a YouTube video of her delivering an undergraduate commencement speech. “It highlights my leadership and communication skills, which will be valuable to potential employers,” she says.
However, candidates should not lose sight of the most important elements of an application, says Dennis Yim, a director at Kaplan. “Your admission or job chances are overwhelmingly decided by the traditional factors, such as work experience and personal recommendations,” he says. “Social media is your wild card.”
Using a service to manage your reputation
Some students are turning to online reputation management companies to help brand themselves.
An example is UK-based Igniyte, which provides an audit of online comments made about you over the past year. Simon Wadsworth, managing partner, says “a lot of our clients are university students who have found themselves in the public eye” for the wrong reasons, such as being the subject of inappropriate content of a sexual nature.
One challenge is that you cannot control all online information about yourself, as it can be shared by others. “If the content infringes your copyright, is abusive or slanderous, we can contact Google or the website hosting it, and ask them to pull it down,” says Wadsworth.
Otherwise, Igniyte can lower the ranking of negative content in Google search results by pushing positive content, such as a professional website, higher by optimising key search terms.
It is not a quick process, with an assessment and the service typically taking six months to complete, at a starting fee of £2,000 per month. But some with damaged reputations may consider it an investment worth making.