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Students and job applicants hear quite a bit about how social media blunders can hurt their job prospects and chances of being admitted to a graduate program, but savvy students can flip the coin and use social media to their advantage.

A 2012 Kaplan Test Prep survey indicated that more than a quarter of college admissions officers are looking beyond the traditional application by checking Facebook profiles and Googling students’ names.

The study showed the percentage of admissions officers who used Google to learn more about applicants increased from 20% in 2011 to 27% in 2012, and 26% reported checking candidates’ Facebook profiles. That increase carried significant consequences, as the number of admissions officers who reported discovering something that negatively impacted admissions decisions tripled from 12% in 2011 to 35% in 2012.

“Using Google and Facebook to learn more about admission candidates is still the exception rather than the rule, but overall, social media is growing in the role that it is playing in admissions,” said Andrew Mitchell, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of pre-business programs. “If you look at your application to a business school, it is a balanced composite of various elements — it’s not just about GMAT scores or GPA; application essays and letters of recommendation are also an important part of the composite. Increasingly there is a chance for an applicant’s social media presence to be a part of that total picture.”

Taking the Offense

Sarah Ramsey, Director of Recruitment and Admissions for University of California Irvine’s full-time MBA program, echoed the same sentiments, saying that social media is an excellent way for applicants to introduce themselves to admissions officers.

“A lot of schools are on social media now, so it’s a great way to foster interaction and engagement and connect with schools to make an impression and let yourself be known,” Ramsey said. “For example, just the other day, I was interacting with someone on Twitter who is interested in getting an MBA. I was giving her some tips on the GMAT and we ended up meeting for coffee to discuss the admissions process and the Merage School MBA program. That interaction may not have happened without that social media interaction. Again, it’s important for applicants to be self-aware and understand how their brand is represented — i.e. what types of Twitter updates are they sending? How would that sound to an admissions committee or a company recruiting them?”

While the Kaplan study primarily focuses on the potential negative consequences of social media, Mitchell said that social media can also be used for good.

“Using social media can be an opportunity to communicate ineffectively, and therefore hurt your application, or you can choose to communicate effectively and potentially get an edge on your application,” he said.

Being accepted into business school is difficult as is, so gaining an edge is always on a prospective MBA student’s agenda. Here are some tips on how to better use certain social networks to get into business school:

LinkedIn

  • Ask for the Right Endorsements. “When it comes to endorsements, the logic is similar to written recommendations that are part of the traditional application,” said Mitchell. “If the endorsement is vague, even if it’s enthusiastic, it’s not very helpful. The ones that are very specific and give tangible examples of success and attributes are far more useful. Admissions officers have to see them the endorsements and if they are not in an MBA applicants network, they won’t see them.”
  • Use Your Profile to Reflect Your Professionalism. “LinkedIn is a tool that all business school students should be utilizing. If students are using this social media outlet wisely, it indicates to admissions committees their professional maturity,” said Ramsey. “If they are a working professional, and a lot of people have been endorsing their skills relevant to their MBA program and giving recommendations on LinkedIn, include the LinkedIn profile, which would give admissions people an insight of their interests and strengths beyond the application.”
  • Do Better Research. “Collect information on the types of job and roles a candidate might see themselves in upon graduation,” said Ramsey. “Research, through a site like LinkedIn, will help prepare an applicant for essays and interviews.”
  • Stay Consistent. “Make sure the content you share on social media is consistent with how you describe yourself on your LinkedIn profile, curriculum vitae, and resume,” said Sterling Morris, former director of social media at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. This goes for your photo too — that pic of you and your buds double-fisting light beer doesn’t send a professional image. “Keep a consistent, conservative profile photo on all social media networks,” said Morris. “This will set a good first impression and help the business school begin placing a face with the name.

Twitter

  • Where to Start. Find out who to follow on Twitter through Twellow, WeFollow, or HootSuite.
  • Getting on the Radar.“Students who use Twitter to ask admission questions to business schools show up higher on the radar than those who don’t,” said Morris. “MBA applicants should share the steps they’re taking in their application process with the business school via social media.” (For example: “Mailed my application to @Wharton today. I’m hoping to secure an interview in the coming weeks.”) Business schools, like Columbia Business School, want to be followed so prospective students can stay up to date on news, deadlines, and requirements.

Facebook

  • Straighten Out Privacy Settings. “For people whose only intention is to use Facebook to communicate with friends, be very restrictive in privacy settings, and make sure everything that is public facing is acceptable in a hiring and admissions context,” Mitchell said.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Be Human. While it is important to think professional about Facebook posts, not having a Facebook page seems like “suspicious” non-behavior. “It’s really about good judgment,” said Mitchell. “Focusing heavily on religion and politics is a bad idea. Keep it professional, relevant and digestible.” Ramsey agreed, adding, “If avoiding social networks or limiting the statuses posted will help better represent an MBA applicant, then less is more.”

General Social Networking Etiquette

  • The Road Goes Both Ways. Once you’ve gotten the attention of b-schools through social media, be an active player. “Follow and engage with the applied business schools. Respond to their questions, and ask questions to them,” Morris said.”Develop your own social media following around particular professional interests by sharing relevant content and following thought leaders,” said Morris. “If applying for an MBA program specializing in finance, it helps to show a natural interest in the subject.”
  • You Don’t Have to Wait. Still in the early phases for your MBA search? Check out the GMAT Club and other GMAT prep center’s social media accounts and become involved in their various forums to find out valuable information about business schools.

Social networking isn’t all about tweeting random thoughts and posting photos from vacations. It has become the way most of society communicates with the rest of the world and is something that, while used for entertainment, should be considered as an asset to further one’s education and career.