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Students, watch what you post online; College aid providers heading to the Web to vet applicants

Students, beware: Scholarship providers aren't just going by your application to learn about you.

They're also checking you out on Google and social media sites, according to a recent survey. And what they uncover -- the good or the bad -- could be the tie-breaker when it comes to deciding between you and another candidate.

"Students need to recognize that the colleges and scholarship providers are increasingly looking at this," said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Fastweb.com, a scholarship site that conducted the survey.

For years, teens have been warned to be careful about what they post online for safety reasons. Now they have a financial incentive to do so. With scarce scholarship dollars at stake and online privacy settings not foolproof, students will have to make sure they put their best foot forward online.

Kantrowitz, along with the National Scholarship Providers Association, surveyed about 75 of the organization's members.

They found that about a quarter searched Google and social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn for information about applicants. Searches usually were conducted only on finalists.

Searchers looked for red flags, such as evidence of drug use or underage drinking, inappropriate photos, discriminatory comments and poor attitudes. A third of the providers conducting searches denied a scholarship to a student based on their findings.

"They want students to reflect well on the organization," Kantrowitz said. "The last thing a scholarship provider wants to hear is their student just got arrested for running a campus drug ring."

But scholarship providers aren't trying only to dig up dirt. "They are trying to get to know the student better," Kantrowitz said.

A quarter of those doing searches gave a scholarship based on information gleaned online.

Kantrowitz expects the practice of online vetting to grow.

"Several of the providers said they didn't currently look at the online presence of finalists, but now that they think about it, it's not a bad idea," he says.

What can students do?

They can make sure their privacy settings are correctly configured. But these settings can give a false sense of security.

"Friends on Facebook have information about you, and they can pass it on to other people," said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who specializes in Internet privacy. "They don't need your permission to share it with someone."

Remember the Duke University student who rated her lovers in a chart that she emailed to three friends? "One wasn't too much of a friend and forwarded it on," Citron said.

That email went viral -- and not just in this country. When I Googled the incident, the top story was an article on the Duke student from a newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Sometimes students have little choice but to share their online information. Students receiving athletic scholarships sometimes are asked to provide passwords to social media sites, Citron says.

Kantrowitz added that some scholarship providers require finalists to "friend" them on Facebook. You can always refuse but then you're not going to get the money.

The better course is to maintain a professional online presence so you don't give scholarship providers -- or colleges and future employers -- any ammunition against you.

Kantrowitz advises students to Google their names to see if anything unflattering pops up. If something does, he said, see if you can revise it.

Watch what you say. People say things online they never would say to someone's face, Citron said. Students should post comments they would be comfortable sharing with their parents and teachers, she said.

Avoid unprofessional email addresses. " 'Hotmama21' is not an appropriate email address," Kantrowitz said. Stick with your first and last name in the address.