Here’s how (not) to lose your spot at Harvard

The Baker Library at the Harvard Business School on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Harvard rescinded admission offers to 10 students for posting offensive memes in a private Facebook group chat. –Charles Krupa / AP

It was a nightmare scenario for any college-bound kid: Last weekend, Harvard University rescinded admission offers for 10 students who had already been admitted to the university’s class of 2021.

The reason? According to The Harvard Crimson, they were allegedly caught posting offensive memes that mocked sexual assault, minority groups, and the Holocaust in a private Facebook group chat that was at one point allegedly dubbed, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” The chat was a spin-off of a larger messaging group that was formed after admitted students contacted each other through the official Harvard University Class of 2021 Facebook page, the Crimson reported.

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While the university wouldn’t comment on the report, Harvard has previously said that any decision to revoke a student’s acceptance offer is final and that the university reserves the right to do so “if a student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

University-affiliated Facebook pages and meme groups for admitted students have become a common way for freshmen to connect with each other before they arrive on campus. But posting in these pages can have far-reaching repercussions, even when these groups are labeled ‘private’ or ‘closed.’

“[Joining these groups is] a short-term and a long-term play,” said Dan Schawbel, a millennial career expert at the consulting firm Millennial Branding .”Short-term, it allows you to feel more comfortable heading into your first day of school. Long-term, you get updates about what’s going on in your class.”

Teens may think it’s safe to post whatever they want in these groups, but Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at the University of Chicago, warns that a ‘private’ label doesn’t mean the information cannot be exposed to the public.

“We have these places that we want to feel like safe spaces to express feelings,” said Lenhart, who studies young people and digital media. “It’s not always private. Things can leave those settings. They can be screen-shotted. They can be copied.”

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With that in mind, here’s some advice about posting on social media for students preparing to head to the school of their dreams:

  • As an admitted student, you’re now representing the university. Act accordingly.

Just like companies, universities are looking for students who best represent them and their values. When students share offensive posts online — especially in a group that carries the university’s name — they’re putting the school at risk.

They’re basically predicting that these students would not fit into the college culture and would subtract and hurt the Harvard brand and the culture of the school,” Schawbel said.

However, Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible, notes that it’s possible to use this information to your advantage, particularly as a prospective student, by building up your “social footprint” to garner interest from your dream school.

Safko shared how he would approach social media as a prospective or admitted student: “I’m gonna blog about my subject matter. I’m going to interview industry experts. I’m going to post pictures of the curriculum I’m participating in. I’m going to talk about all the successes I’ve had in this curriculum – my scholastics, grades – and I’m going to stack the deck. I’m going to do everything I can to make myself look like the best possible candidate out there.”

  • These private groups are often larger than you think.

Posting in “closed” or “private” social media groups often perpetuates the misconception that we’re communicating with a small, secure group of people.

“We create this imagined idea of who our audience is, and we post for them,” Lenhart said.

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She encourages admitted students to keep in mind that they aren’t just sending out posts and information to their friends, or to frequent posters and commenters. There are likely many more people in these groups who will see and react to the information they share.

And anyway, it doesn’t matter how many people are actually in the group because…

  • Everything on the internet is public. 

Safko shares the same piece of advice with kids, teens, and adults: Never post anything on social media that you wouldn’t be willing to put on your resume or tell a stranger. All it takes is one screenshot to ruin a reputation.

“Anything controversial can and probably will come back to bite you,” Safko said.

Teens in prospective student Facebook groups often don’t even know each other – which means they’re essentially sharing posts with a group of strangers.

“Everything you post online or everything that’s written about you is part of your permanent record, even in private groups,” Schawbel said. “Even if you’ve taken it down, people have already gotten a screenshot of it. Once it’s up, it’s up.”

  • First impressions matter, even when they’re online.

When admitted students post in these pages, it’s usually the first time they’re interacting with their future classmates.

Though they have the right to post whatever they’d like in these groups, it may not be a good idea to kick off their university careers by alienating fellow classmates, Lenhart said.

“When you’re joining a community like that, when you start off the bat offending people right away, is that really good?” she said.

  • Think before you post. 

It seems simple enough, but in the heat of the moment, students may forget to consider the potential consequences of what they’re posting. They’re too busy trying to impress other people or garner a certain number of likes.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to think through the consequences when you have this idea for this great meme, that a lot of people are going to find hilarious, but then it’s not as funny as you think it is,” Lenhart said.

Safko also offered up a piece of advice for parents whose children were recently accepted into college: Keep the line of communication open, and have an honest conversation with them about the potential dangers of social media.

“Explain to them that this isn’t just about the party that you had last Saturday,” Safko said. “This is really, honestly, about the rest of your life.”