The carefully crafted college application -- essays, recommendations and all -- now has a digital wild card: Admissions officers are peeking at prospective students' online profiles.
A survey released this month by Kaplan Test Prep found that more than a quarter of college admissions officers browse applicants' digital footprints, and in an increasing number of cases find evidence that lowers students' chances of getting in. Thirty-five percent of the college officials who responded said that their 2012 online searches yielded questionable information -- from essay plagiarism to alcohol consumption in photos -- up from 12 percent in 2011.
"Now there's another way that red flags can come in," said Jeff Olson, vice president of data science for Kaplan. "Everybody's creating this enormous digital trail that is more or less public."
The survey of admissions staffs at 500 schools nationwide was anonymous, so there's no way to know exactly which schools turn to the Web for more information.
Neither the University of Minnesota nor any of the other Minnesota colleges contacted by the Star Tribune said they use Facebook or social media searches in admissions decisions.
Still, Marla Friederichs, associate vice president for admissions and financial aid at the University of St. Thomas, said it's best for applicants to consider the appropriateness of their online posts, just in case. For example, St. Thomas allows admitted students to interact on a university-run Facebook page, and that sometimes reveals lapses in the students' own privacy settings.
"Just assume everything you put out there is public," Friederichs said. "Would you want a college admissions representative to see that?"
At Minnetonka High School, where guidance counselors start stressing the point as early as sophomore year, the message seems to be sinking in.
"Whatever you post online stays with you," said Abbey Hauser, a senior who plans to apply to four colleges.
She's conscious of privacy settings on Facebook and has Googled her own name to check that her digital trail is positive, should someone do a quick search. It's mostly results from high school cross-country meets and stories she has written for the school paper.
"At a young age, I'm still thinking that whatever I post could be seen five to 10 years from now when I'm applying to my first job," she said.
Kaplan's Olson said that most colleges still steer clear of browsing prospective students' social media profiles, because of formal policies or lack of time amid a crush of applications. Instead, they tend to turn to the Web when something appears unusual on an application -- an award that looks embellished, for example -- or if there's a tip from someone about questionable activity.
"Why would you call the guidance counselor to inquire when now there is Google?" Olson said.
Staffers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., use the Internet to gather more information about prospective students.
"Oftentimes these are students who are talented in a particular area, so we look a little bit at Facebook or do a search if they're in a particular theater troupe or musical group," said Martha Allman, dean of admissions. "We just really use it to learn more about our students."
There are instances when online searches uncover something unsavory, such as a discipline problem, but she said it's usually just confirming something admissions officers suspected after reading the application or letters of recommendation.
"We've never made a decision based on just one thing we've seen on Facebook or online," Allman said.
Phil Trout, college counselor at Minnetonka High School, said he has fielded a few inquiries from colleges that check admitted students' social media profiles -- sometimes after being tipped off by a concerned alum.
But he said the emphasis is still on the traditional application process and academics.
"I don't actually know of a student who has had their admission decision rescinded because of a posting on Facebook," Trout said. "I do know of a student who has had an admission decision rescinded because of dramatically decreased level of academic performance in senior year."
Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758