I was under attack. The year was 1999 and I was engaged in a battle for interstellar domination in the online strategy game StarCraft. I was in a 2 v 2 battle and the opposing team decided to concentrate their attack on me, with the hope of wiping me off the map. I was getting pummeled and my teammate was non-existent. Out of nowhere the trash talking began as I watched my partner take advantage of their lightly guarded bases. The skill with which he dispatched the opposing team was only matched by the his poetic use of four letter English words. I had served my purpose as the bait and made it through the battle. Afterwards we spoke about his strategy and where he was from. He was from Europe, a Slavic country if I remember correctly. I figured he was a high school or college student; imagine my surprise when he told me he was NINE. The picture I had of him in my mind was shattered by the reality of the situation. In much the same way, all the hours of crafting your applications and essays to portray yourself as a top candidate for scholarship assistance can be quickly torpedoed by an inappropriate photo or post that surfaces at the wrong time. To protect against this potential embarrassment, you need to begin taking steps to manage your online persona.

I started college as the cell phone was becoming a tool for everyday use. Yet, this cell phone was quite different from the one we use today; texting, digital cameras, and internet service were not available. Social media was just beginning to pick up steam among college students; MySpace owned the market and Facebook had not yet made it out of the dorm rooms of Harvard University. In short, it was a different era. Today, all these options and more are at your fingertips. You can take a picture, upload a video, or author a post that has the ability to be seen by any person with internet connectivity in the world— and all this from your own phone. And while visibility is king in today’s social environment, it can also lead do your downfall. There is a fine line between fame and infamy.

Google has made the background search process simple. Simply type in the name of the individual about whom you wish to learn, hit search, let Google do the heavy lifting, and then click away. When I used my name, all sorts of information popped up. Google listed my Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ pages. It found my business websites, past blog posts, and articles I had written or that mentioned me by name. It even discovered an old MySpace page that I thought I deactivated years ago. Besides just written information, there were five different images of me, taken from my various public accounts. In under five minutes a scholarship committee member searching for information on me could easily have had their opinion of me confirmed or destroyed just by googling my name.

So what does a Google search of your name reveal? As you look to manage your online persona based on what you have found, I put forth the following wisdom:

Utilize Sites That Allow You To Dictate Your Brand:

Aside from social media sites, there are a myriad of other websites sites that allow you to put forth our personal brand for the internet to see. Some of these are paid sites, while others are free to use. Either way, these sites function as blank canvases upon which you can tell your story. You can blog about topics that are important to you, display your current projects or portfolio, or use your site as a beacon for others to find you, should you have a common name like John Smith.

Branded.me BrandYourself.com Weebly.com About.me
Flavors.me Squarespace.com WordPress.com Wix.com

If you are a little more web-savvy or have a creative side that you wish to highlight, you could always purchase your name (or a variation of it) as a domain and design the site yourself.

Get Familiar With Your Preferred Social Media App’s Privacy Settings:

Depending on the social media site you choose to use, you may have the option of adjusting your privacy settings. This function is particularly important as has the opportunity to keep photos and conversations private and unavailable for search sites to access and use in their search retrieval functions.

Your Friends May Be The Weak Link:

The previous point focused upon your privacy settings. This point highlights the possibility that search sites can access your information because the privacy settings of your friends’ accounts may too low. This is particularly important with the tagging feature available for photos and posts. This feature is basically a beacon allowing search sites to trace these pieces of information back to you.

Also remember that contrary to the Saved by the Bell song, “Friends are Friends Forever,” many of your high school and college relationships will run their course. In the event that things end badly, remember any questionable pictures that they may have of you could easily be used to sully your name.

Be Respectful In Debate:

Politics and religion have taken center stage in much of today’s social media. I’m not asking you to go Thanksgiving dinner quiet, but when you delve into hot-button topics, choose to be courteous and respectful. You can get your point across without damaging your credibility. Remember, some board members of scholarship committees may not agree with your politics or religion, and antagonizing such decision makers is a good way to get your application sidelined.

Context is Lacking In Social Media:

Social media can get your ideas onto the web, but it cannot deliver the context behind them. Viewers only see a picture, a 160 character tweet, or comment; they cannot see your heart or know your character. Unfortunately, there is much that can be lost in translation.

My Umbrella Rule: Do not publish or post anything that your mother would be ashamed to read on the front page of tomorrows newspaper.

When I joined Morgan Stanley right out of college in 2002, this was the be all and end all rule when it came to the company’s view of our interaction with the public. Based on what I see circulating in today’s social media, either mothers have become more liberal (which I doubt), or we have lost our sense of tact and common decency towards our fellow man. Perhaps the implementation of rule in your social media presence is in order for you.