5 Steps to Keep Those Spring Break Pictures From Costing You a Job

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Ariana McLaughlin

College students dance at a white trash themed party.

Realizing that students today post every dumb thing they do on the Internet, colleges now are starting to help them “erase” those digital mistakes before they become a barrier to employment. Since new grads need all the help they can get breaking into the job market, their schools have begun helping them clean up embarrassing and potentially deal-breaking comments or pictures in their online profiles. 

According to the Associated Press, Syracuse University, the University of Rochester, and Johns Hopkins University all give students tools to burnish their online reputation so moments of poor judgement don’t come back to haunt them during their career search. Syracuse, for instance, gives students free access to BrandYourself’s $10-a-month online reputation management platform. BrandYourself uses search engine optimization techniques to improve the results users get when they search for their names online.

Want to make sure a hiring manager sees your LinkedIn profile or a webpage about your career instead of pictures of you doing keg stands or a blog about your messy divorce? Here’s how to spit-shine your online alter ego.

1. See what’s really out there. Sure, go ahead and Google yourself — but don’t just type in your name and call it a day. On its blog, online privacy company Abine says there are some extra tricks that can help you ferret out what an HR manager is likely to dig up. “You have to include ‘danger’ terms that are more likely to turn up controversial things,” it suggests. In other words, try your name plus words like “drunk,” “discipline,” or “arrest.” Type in your name both with and without quotes, and search for nicknames as well as your full name. Combine your name with your school’s name, your hometown, and previous jobs or employers. Also search Google Images, YouTube, Blogs, and other results pages.

2. Clean up and lock up your profiles. Evaluate your online persona on social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as photo-sharing sites like TwitPic and Flickr. Delete, untag, or make private any details that could paint you in a poor light. Deletion is probably the safest option, since some employers have demanded that job applicants turn in their login credentials during an interview. (A few states have banned the practice, but in others it remains legal.) Don’t forget about MySpace or other accounts you don’t use anymore. Even if you haven’t logged in since 2005, that doesn’t mean incriminating material has vanished.

(MORE: Job Satisfaction or Long-term Job Stability? Turns Out It’s Hard to Have Both)

3. Get off people-finder sites. Employers may use background check sites to get information about job applicants. In fact, the FTC ordered Spokeo to pay $800,000 to settle charges that it gave companies information about job applicants without adhering to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. These sites collect a lot of information about people, but it’s not always accurate, which could hurt you in the job market. For instance, a Spokeo listing that says you lived in California if you’re a lifelong New Yorker could make an HR person think you’re lying about your past or that you have something to hide. Abine offers a step-by-step guide for removing yourself from the 20 biggest of these sites. (They also sell a service called DeleteMe that does the legwork.)

Spring Break

Ariana McLaughlin

Red solo cups and beer cans litter a hotel room floor in Daytona Beach, Fla.

4. Bury the unflattering stuff. If you have a real blemish on your record, and it’s a matter of public record, you probably can’t — and shouldn’t — try to erase it. But you can endeavor to make it less damaging if and when a prospective employer comes upon it. The unflattering material won’t disappear, but the idea is to push it so far down the search results that it’s less likely a hiring manager will see it, says Patrick Ambron, co-founder and CEO of BrandYourself.

Even if you don’t have skeletons in your closet, taking these steps could help you avoid a case of mistaken identity. BrandYourself’s other co-founder, Pete Kistler, got the idea to start the company after finding out that he was being rejected for jobs because he had the same name as a drug dealer whose run-ins with the law were a matter of public record.

  • Get a personal website — ideally with your name as the URL. Add your career goals, resume, and links to all the profiles you need to create on major social networks and personal webpage/resume sites. Fill out the “about me” sections of your profiles completely, and link all your pages and profiles to one another.
  • Blog — “When you have something difficult it’s really a numbers game,” Ambron says. One of the most effective ways to push any unflattering material below the fold of a Google search is blogging, says Ambron. For inspiration, read publications specific to your industry and blog about articles your find interesting.
  • Stay up-to-date — Most people should Tweet, post status updates, and blog monthly at a minimum, Ambron says, but if you’re trying to scrub some serious dirt off your first page, you’ll want to blog more frequently, since this increases the number of pages that show your name in a good light.

(MORE: Use Social Media to Boost Your Job Search)

5. Pick what to promote. LinkedIn is the best pick among social networks when it comes to Google result rankings, according to BrandYourself. Facebook isn’t too far behind. Since these are usually the sites employers will see first, put your effort into making those profiles look better. BrandYourself says WordPress is the highest-ranking blog hosting site, beating out Blogger and Tumblr. Some of the top sites are surprising: for videos, Vimeo ranks several slots higher than YouTube, and upstart Zerply trailed only LinkedIn and Facebook. Lifehacker called Zerply one of the top five “professional nameplate” sites in a post that rounds up the top options in this growing category.