Protecting Your Online Identity Before Applying

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

When I was applying to colleges in high school, I thought I had it made. I had a 4.0 GPA, a 2380 on my SATs, and perfect scores on my SAT II’s. I was a nationally-ranked debater, and was being recruited by debate programs at several top schools. I was sure I would get into Harvard. The Harvard debate coach even told me that I was going to get into Harvard. I worked tirelessly on my application, nailed my alumni interview, and applied early decision. I was certain that in a few short months I would be holding an acceptance letter in my hands.
However, on an ill-fated day, during the middle of a debate round at a tournament in Minnesota, I received my email from Harvard. My heart leapt into my throat, I insisted that all debating cease until I had confirmed my acceptance, and proceeded to open the email.
“Dear Mr. [Last name],
We regret to inform you….”
Brutal. I wasn’t quite rejected. I had gotten the deferral-letter-of-death. Believing that I was destined to attend the great Crimson, I launched my acceptance campaign. I sent updates and letters to Harvard, letting them know that they were my first choice, updating them on my most recent accomplishments and awards, and generally sending positive vibes their way. It was to no avail. I subsequently received a “waitlisted” letter, and finally, the inevitable rejection letter. I would like to say that I took this rejection in stride. The truth is that I was devastated. Not only because I sincerely wanted to spend my undergraduate years in Cambridge, but also because I had genuinely believed that I would be admitted. I had been so confident – what had I overlooked?
To this day, I’m not quite positive what I did wrong. Of course, thousands of highly-qualified applicants are rejected every year. Nonetheless, I have an idea of what might have happened. You see, as an adolescent I was something of an unabashed wise-ass. As fate would have it, I was also something of an idiot. Several months before I applied to college, I had created an indelible imprint of myself on the web. A girl at my high school – a bit of a square, but with only the best intentions – had started a Facebook group entitled “I don’t have to do drugs and alcohol to have fun.” Not terribly original.
In response, my insolent teenage proclivities led me to found an opposing Facebook group, entitled: “I ABSOLUTELY have to do drugs and alcohol to have a good time.” I certainly wasn’t losing points for originality. In three days, that group grew to roughly 20% of my high school’s student body. The Facebook page had detailed commentary from my friends and me on a full array of illicit and debaucherous drug-related activities. The profile picture for the group was a long wooden table littered with the entire spectrum of hard drugs – mushrooms, cocaine, heroin – you name it.
Of course, I soon forgot entirely about my ill-conceived Facebook group. I applied to colleges without ever checking my web presence, and received a number of surprising rejection letters in addition to the letter from Harvard.
Years later, when I applied to professional school, I took it upon myself to investigate how I was being chronicled on the World Wide Web. Imagine my surprise when the first hit for a Google search of my name was a Facebook group entitled: “I ABSOLUTELY have to do drugs and alcohol to have a good time.” Shock eventually gave way to sadness, as it occurred to me that this Facebook group was, in Google’s opinion, the most significant accomplishment of my life.
Worse still, I was the sole administrator of this group. It dawned on me that if a college admissions officer had simply searched my name on Google four years prior, that this would be the person they found – an ignorant, seemingly drug-addled psychopath ranting about cocaine, methamphetamines, etc. As I scrolled down the Google page, I realized that every negative comment I had made on any web forum – and any negative comment made about me – was plastered on the internet, highlighted by Google, and readily available for the inquiring admissions officer. My college rejection letters started to make more sense. In short, even though these were all the sarcastic antics of an immature 17-year old, they created a very real, very negative impression of me that could easily make an admissions officer think that I was a complete profligate.
* * *
So what can you do? Undoubtedly, we’ve all said or done stupid things online – things that are rarely reflective of the people we are. I, for example, have never touched, much less used, any of the aforementioned narcotics. In either case, if your web presence is as calamitous as mine once was, there is still hope! It will take a good deal of time, a fair amount of creativity, and a lot of frustration, but it can be done. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Google your name. If you have a common name, try adding additional terms such as the name of your high school or college, significant academic or extra-curricular achievements, or important activities that you’ve participated in. For example, you might search for “John Smith Berkeley,” or “Jane Doe Soccer.”
2. Research Yourself. Once you’ve located yourself, start browsing. Click on all of the links from the first two or three Google pages (you’re probably safe beyond that), and see what is said about you, by you, or in relation to you. Generate a list of everything you need to get removed.
3. Edit Facebook. If your problem is Facebook-related, then the first thing you must do is change your name on Facebook. This retroactively changes the name attached to any disparaging or unbecoming comments you’ve made under your real name.
For example, if your name is “John Davidson,” change it to “Jon Davis.” It’s important that the name you choose be somewhat similar to your actual name. This is because a Google search for your name will still turn up those same Facebook posts. The reason for this is somewhat complicated, but a simplified explanation is that Google does not update its search results immediately (see below). Sometimes a previous search result will continue to show up on a Google search for weeks and even months after the underlying content is removed.
However, once someone clicks into the Google link, your name will be changed on the actual Facebook page – i.e., the post will appear as being written by Jon Davis, even though Google said it was written by John Davidson. Thus, someone searching for you might reasonably believe that the search engine has simply made a mistake. In the admissions game, plausible deniability is your ally.
Second, you should change your profile picture. No matter what/who the picture is of, it shouldn’t be identifiable as you. If someone finds one of your Facebook posts, you want to create the possibility that this is just another “John Smith.” You should also take down or hide any incriminating or unsavory pictures of yourself. You can un-tag yourself if necessary. You should also make sure to change or remove any personally identifying information about yourself in the “About” section of your Facebook page.
Third, set your security settings to the highest possible setting. You don’t want anyone outside of your friends to be able to find you on Facebook at all. Not even your name. Become a ghost to anyone you are not friends with, including friends of friends – especially friends of friends.
Fourth, if you are a member of any questionable Facebook groups, delete every comment you’ve made on that group’s page, and then leave the group. However, if you are – as I was – the administrator of one of these groups, do not leave it. If the sole administrator leaves a Facebook group, then no one can shut it down. It just floats in online oblivion for eternity – or at least long enough to ruin your chances of being admitted. I made this mistake…of course. Do yourself a favor, and use your powers as administrator to get the group disbanded. Once you’ve left, not only can you not get rid of the group, but you also cannot remove comments. Depending on the type of group, you may also not be able to rejoin without approval from an administrator. Ironic, I know.
If you are like me, and left the group foolishly, there is still hope. You should “report” the group to Facebook. Make sure the reason you cite for reporting them is not totally without merit. If there is no “hate speech,” don’t select that option.
Hopefully, Facebook will respond promptly. Although, as you may soon find out, Facebook has no customer service, and there is nobody waiting at the other end of the phone if you want to beg them to spare your reputation. In fact, they don’t have a phone number to call at all.
Your next step is to destroy the group. Contact its members, and ask them to leave the group. It can be awkward-going for a while, but if you tell people that you’d really appreciate it if they left the group because it is really going to hurt your future, they tend to respond positively, if reluctantly. Once there are no members, the group is automatically removed. Having fun yet?
4. Attack Forums and Blogs. These can be a little trickier. If what you need removed is a comment you made yourself, then you can simply access your account and erase them. This will probably require re-locating or guessing at your old username/password.
If what you need removed is a comment by another person, then you have two options: First, you can contact the culprit and ask that they remove the comment – obviously unlikely given that they were the ones writing disparaging comments about you, or second, you can contact the website administrator and request that they remove the content themselves. If you choose this second option, consider using words like “harassing,” “slander,” or “defamation” when describing the offending comment. Simply saying that you don’t like what was said will rarely be enough. If the website allows you to report these comments, you should do that as well. You might even get the author of the comments banned from the website as an added bonus.
5. Initiate Google Re-crawl. As mentioned previously, Google does not update its search results instantly. Thus, even once I had destroyed the infamous Facebook group, a Google search of my full name continued to display the group’s name, and a description below it which included my full name. While clicking on the link brought you to an error page, this result was nonetheless troubling.
If this happens to you, you must pay homage to the Google-gods. You need to submit the URL of the offending webpage to Google for re-crawling. Basically, Google uses software known as “spiders,” to “crawl” the web and find content to add to its index. Re-crawling basically refreshes Google’s index for the selected URL.
Google says that re-crawling will usually happen “within a day,” although it can sometimes take a little longer. Go to Google’s webmaster tools, and select “Submit URL.” Paste the page’s URL, click “ok,” and hope that Google gets to it sooner rather than later. You can read more by searching “Google re-crawl” on Google – I know, even more ironic.
If, after following the above steps, you are still unable to remove all of the negative content by/about you on the internet, you might consider hiring a professional. Yes, there are people who do this professionally. If the first thing that comes up when you search your name is truly damaging to your image, it may be worth paying someone to get rid of it for good. After all, nothing quite tanks a promising career like personal commentary about your many indiscretions in Vegas. Maybe everyone does these things, but not everyone advertises it to the world. Try and be a part of this latter group.
Good luck, and godspeed.
– Applicant X
This article reprinted with permission from ingeniusprep.