Dear College Students:
Are you applying for graduate school, internships, or entry-level jobs on a career track? If the answer is yes, then you are most likely in need of a social medial makeover.
Have you ever Googled yourself? Open up an “incognito” or “private” tab in your browser and do it now. Take a look at what your search results are. (If you have a unique name, just use that. Otherwise, Google your name plus your college or high school name, or some other identifying information.) If your results are anything like the typical student’s, you may see a few mentions in the school newspaper or local media about your academic or athletic achievements, or your activities in leadership and clubs. But, you may also see social media profiles for yourself or people that match your name. (Oh, and that time you got written up in the newspaper for getting drunk and impersonating Justin Timberlake? Maybe that’s there too!)
In the near future, prospective employers, colleagues, and fiancés’ dads are all going to be Googling you. While doing this, they will try to peek into your social media profiles in order to find out more about you. (If you think I’m just being paranoid, see this or this or this or literally millions of other articles.) Even if you don’t have any skeletons you are trying to hide, now is a good time to take control of your online presence and start using it to put your best foot forward professionally. Here are some simple tips that could save you much embarrassment.
First, you have an important vow to take. Repeat after me: I solemnly swear that from now on, I’m going to be a grown-up online. I will not have an email address that contains potentially objectionable words. None of my publicly available profile pictures will include intoxicants or indecency, or anything that remotely looks like the picture below. Also, I will take the time to rewrite all of my publicly-available profiles to present the professional image that I am interested in projecting. (I’m serious, I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve received from students’ personal email addresses that break all the rules of common sense.)
Public or Private?
Having taken your vow, the next step is to choose from two basic strategies for using social media. You could maintain a strict separation between work and personal. (For example, you could decide that you are going to continue to use a private Instagram account for interactions with friends and family, but that you’ll start a Twitter account to connect with work colleagues.) This approach allows you to maintain two different styles of communication among those two different groups of acquaintances. However, it has the disadvantage that you never know in advance which social media platforms might become the best professional meeting place for you. (For example, my field is unlike other industries in that Facebook groups are the major source of information and networking, while virtually no one uses LinkedIn. Who knew?) A more simple and straightfoward strategy is to decide to open up all your profiles to everyone and commit to never again post anything to a social media site that you wouldn’t want everyone on earth — including your potential employer—to see.
Once you’ve decided your overall strategy, you need to manage the privacy settings for each of your platforms. There are a few choices to make here as well:
- If you want to reserve a particular social media platform for relaxed interactions between friends, then you should crank up the security settings on that account and keep up with changes to privacy policies in order to prevent unwanted eyes from peering inside. You should never accept an invitation from anyone at work — especially not your boss — and frequently peruse your list of contacts in order to prune out anyone who is not currently a close friend in real life. This will not protect your privacy completely, as someone can always print out something malicious or stupid you said and show it around the office. But, it will allow you to have a more informal tone to your social media interactions on this platform.
- On the other hand, if you think you might ever want to associate with bosses, coworkers, or colleagues through a particular social media platform, then you need to do some housecleaning. Go through your entire history and delete anything that reflects poorly on your integrity, reliability, or good judgment. If your account is full of pictures of you doing bong hits with your high school buddies, or if you wouldn’t put it past your current associates to post racy (or worse, racist) comments on your feed, then don’t hesitate to go with the nuclear option: delete the account and start fresh.
Adding the Professional Touch
Now that you’ve either cleaned up or started fresh, it’s time for the third and final part of the social media makeover: adding the professional touch. Having cleaned out any embarrassing material, it’s now time to actively promote a professional image online. There are a fewsteps here:
- Make sure that the publicly visible content on all your social media profiles are projecting your professionalism.
- Upload a profile picture that suggests your expertise or creative abilities.
- Rewrite your bio to introduce yourself in a professional capacity.
- Make sure your educational experience and current job are set to be publicly visible.
- Follow some professional organizations, public institutions (museums, universities, etc.) in your intended professional field. Or at least, some intelligent news sources. This will both loop you into the current conversation and connect you with some key players and thought leaders.
- Create a LinkedIn account if you don’t already have one. This is the primary professional network for most industries.
Finally, it’s time for the challenge. Imagine you’re a prospective employer. Log out of all your accounts, then Google yourself again and see what comes up. Scrutinize your social media profiles, and click around on all the available links. What do you see? How can you spruce it up even further to improve your chances in the job market?
(This post first appeared on piercesalguero.com on May 19, 2014. It was edited and moved to this new location.)