MBA hopefuls: Need to scrub your social media profile?

March 11, 2011: 11:54 AM ET

MBA candidates who have less than stellar web histories or happen to share a name with a convicted murderer should know that admissions teams are watching, and searching. There's hope, though.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- The social media antics of MBA applicants are fast becoming a new area of scrutiny for admissions officials at many top business schools. In fact, one prominent MBA admissions consulting firm has even begun to offer a "social media audit" to prepare applicants' for Google and Facebook searches by admissions teams.

UNC Kenan-Flagler (pictured above) has begun to selectively conduct web searches on MBA candidates.

The company, Chicago-based The MBA Exchange, combs the Internet for damaging information left on websites by applicants or their friends.

Dan Bauer, managing director of The MBA Exchange, says he came up with the idea for the service last summer, after visiting with several admissions officials at top business schools.

"We realized there is a growing trend among B-schools to go beyond the submitted application by also exploring a candidate's social media profile," says Bauer. "The admissions staff wants to see how future MBAs present themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. "

Bauer and his consultants then began asking their clients how carefully they managed their own social networking profiles. "The response was nearly universal: 'I'm really not sure,'" he says. "It's not just what applicants post, but also what has been posted about them -- or about others with the same name -- that can jeopardize their chances for MBA admission."

Harvard Business School, through a spokesperson, confirmed that it now conducts web searches on applicants. However, most business schools do not screen applicants' online profiles preemptively, but they are likely to do so if something seems amiss in a candidate's formal application.

"We don't systematically Google applicants or look up people on Facebook," says Lisa Beisser, senior associate director of MBA admissions at North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. "But if something strange comes up in an applicant's essay, we will check a Facebook page."

Stanford's Graduate School of Business also lacks a "specific policy or procedure to systematically review the social media sites of each applicant," according to a spokesperson. But "if something like this were brought to an admissions officer's attention, it would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, just as all the information we have on any given candidate is," the Stanford official says.

Some tech savvy applicants, using reverse search techniques, have told other admissions consultants that they discovered that some business schools were doing Google searches on their names. At many top business schools, including Chicago's Booth and the Wharton School, second-year students and alumni often screen and interview applicants. They may be more likely to perform a Google search on someone they're evaluating for admission.

"Admission decisions are so subjective," adds Beisser. "Many are looking for a reason to admit or deny, so it could push someone over the edge."

So far, Bauer says that his firm has uncovered several near-catastrophic boo-boos by current applicants to several top-tier MBA programs, including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Columbia.

Some examples:

  • An applicant who, unfortunately, shares the same name as a convicted murderer.
  • An applicant who had featured photos on Flickr of himself proudly posing in front of a "shoppe" in Amsterdam's infamous red-light district.
  • An applicant who had boasted on Facebook of his six-figure winnings from online poker -- adding, with a "smiley-face" emoticon, that he had not yet declared this on his income tax return.
  • An applicant who had generated a Tweet supporting the legalization of street drugs.
  • An applicant who had Tweeted inappropriate comments about Haitian earthquake victims.
  • An applicant whose blog had featured a music playlist including several highly obscene titles.
  • An applicant whose comments in a public forum for MBA applicants had openly disparaged students at two B-schools to which he was planning to apply.

In each case, says Bauer, the problems were found by online research analysts hired by his firm to find and examine exactly what's written and where it appears. Then, the consultants advised the applicants on how to change, delete or mitigate the potentially damaging content.

Bauer's firm conducts the audit as part of a comprehensive admissions consultation that can cost anywhere between $4,300 and $6,700, depending on the number of applications a person wants to file.

Bauer says he plans to offer the audit on an "a la carte basis priced at $95" later this year. "We already have a waitlist of interested applicants," he says. An optional "scrub service" is priced according to the number and complexity of issues spotted during the audit.

On the flip side, the experts can also suggest opportunities where an applicant's online presence can be expanded and improved to increase their chances for admission. Indeed, Kenan-Flagler's Beisser says one applicant to the school began taking out Facebook ads targeted to officials at the business school.

"The ad with a UNC logo was showing up on our personal Facebook pages," says Beisser, with a laugh. "He was accepted and the ads had a fair amount to do with it. Then, one of our current students noticed he had the exact same Facebook ad for Duke University. It made us a little less impressed, but he was a strong candidate, anyway."

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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