Applying for admission to many American colleges already has high school students jumping through hoops.
School transcript? Check. Recommendations? Check. Personal statement? Standardized test scores? List of accomplishments? Check. Check. Check.
Now some social media experts are advising high school seniors to go even further. They are coaching students to take control of their online personas — by creating elaborate profiles on LinkedIn, the professional network, and bringing them to the attention of college admissions officers.
“They are going to click on your profile,” says Alan Katzman, the chief executive of Social Assurity, a company that offers courses for high school students on how to shape their online images.
Last year, for instance, Mr. Katzman’s company advised a high school senior in the Washington area to create a detailed LinkedIn profile and include a link on his application to Harvard. (His mother asked that the student’s name be withheld for privacy reasons.) Soon after, LinkedIn notified the student that someone from Harvard had checked out his profile.
The student is now in his first year at Harvard. Whether the LinkedIn profile had any bearing on his admission is unknown. Harvard did not respond to a request for comment. But Mr. Katzman says that high school students who use social media to showcase themselves may gain an edge with colleges.
“No one has quantified the power of this,” Mr. Katzman told me recently. “But I maintain that it is very powerful.”
Public schools from San Francisco to New York City are teaching online conduct skills as part of a nationwide digital citizenship push to prepare students for colleges and careers. Teenagers who set up LinkedIn profiles in the hope of enhancing their college prospects represent the vanguard of this trend.
But the phenomenon of ambitious high school students on LinkedIn also demonstrates how social networks are playing a role in the escalation of the college admissions arms race. For students in high-pressure schools who already start packaging themselves for college in ninth grade, LinkedIn could add yet another burden to what might be called the careerization of childhood.
“Will an overstuffed profile become a must?” asked a review of LinkedIn by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s group. “Also, is it even healthy for kids to be so future-focused?” Teenagers, the site concluded, “should think twice before posting an online résumé.”
Professionalized teenage résumés could also further intensify disparities in college applications.“
Kids from privileged families tend to do more of those things both offline and online — joining school clubs, writing for their school newspaper, getting tutoring so their grades go up, doing SAT preparation,” says Vicky Rideout, a researcher who studies how teenagers use technology. Using LinkedIn on college applications, she says, “is yet another way for there to be a disparity between the haves and the have-nots.”
For high school students, LinkedIn is partly a defense mechanism against college admissions officers who snoop on applicants’ public Facebook and Twitter activities — without disclosing how that may affect an applicant’s chance of acceptance.
A recent study from Kaplan Test Prep of about 400 college admissions officers reported that 40 percent said they had visited applicants’ social media pages, a fourfold increase since 2008.
Officials at Vassar College and other institutions that deliberately do not search out applicants’ social media profiles suggested that colleges disclose their admissions practices.
“We prefer to evaluate a candidate based on the items that candidate has prepared and submitted to us,” said Art D. Rodriguez, Vassar’s dean of admission and financial aid. He added, “While we understand that some colleges and universities do look into candidates’ online profiles, we believe those schools should be transparent about the procedure and alert applicants to it.”
Some high school students are establishing LinkedIn profiles to give the colleges that do look something they would like them to find. Students who naturally tailor posts for their peers on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook told me they used the professional network as a separate space to market their accomplishments to adults.
“I did not make a LinkedIn profile for my friends,” says Matthew Martratt, a 17-year-old high school senior in Marietta, Ga., who is an Eagle Scout and a member of his school’s marching band and organizes community service projects. “I made it to show people who don’t know who I am what I am about.”
Mr. Martratt, who took a LinkedIn course from Social Assurity, said he followed colleges to which he intended to apply on LinkedIn and Twitter and posted about them.
“It’s like sending them an invitation to look at my profile,” he said. “When I get likes or notifications back, it shows that they are looking.”
To attract high school students, LinkedIn in 2013 dropped its minimum age requirement for members in the United States to 14 from 18. Since then, the site has had a significant increase in high school users, said Suzi Owens, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. The company declined to specify how many high school students used the network.
At the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan, students majoring in business learn to use LinkedIn to look for internships, explore colleges that have set up pages and connect with alumni.
“LinkedIn makes sense from a professional standpoint of showcasing their expertise and their skills,” said Vita Vaccaro, the school’s marketing and virtual enterprise coordinator.
In a culture where digital citizenship is often taught as a series of prohibitions — “Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see!” — coaching students to build online résumés may increase their sense of agency.
“We are helping them tell really good stories so they can control their own narrative,” says Chad Williamson, a co-founder of Noble Impact, a nonprofit education group that teaches students entrepreneurial skills they can use in their communities.
Given the privacy issues raised by teenagers using sites created primarily for adults, however, Mr. Williamson said his group kept close tabs on the students it had taught to use LinkedIn. Although LinkedIn has default privacy settings for users under 18 — like automatically displaying only their first names and last initials, rather than their full names — students can change the settings.
The push for digital citizenship education also raises the question of whether some schools are so fixated on teaching social media skills that they are steering students to the most popular commercial sites — rather than helping them develop a more expansive worldview, both online and off.
With widening students’ horizons in mind, Noble Impact offers courses at eStem High, a charter school in Little Rock, Ark., where students not only use LinkedIn but also separately create their own online portfolios and learn real-world entrepreneurship skills.
Nate Reeves, a senior at eStem High in the Noble Impact program, for instance, has a LinkedIn profile. But when he wanted an internship at Little Rock Technology Park, he did not rely on it. He called the co-working space directly and landed an in-person interview. He is now an intern there. And Mr. Reeves is trying to cultivate an online presence that is unique to him and not limited to LinkedIn.
“On LinkedIn, they see what you are good at,” said Mr. Reeves, 17, who has studied computer programming and is building a personal website to display a fuller picture of his experiences and interests. “But they don’t really get to know you.”