Students applying to law school and business school face another layer of scrutiny beyond their applications: Some 41 percent of law school admissions counselors and 27 percent of their business school counterparts admit to running applicants' names through Google to see what photos and information turns up.
This screening practice isn't limited to graduate school, however, about one in five college admissions officers and many employers also use search engines to see what they can glean about applicants.
The best way to defend against your online or social media past haunting you is to become your own filter, according to Alexandra Levit, a career coach, speaker and author of "Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success."
"This may sound drastic, but I don't believe you should post anything on the Web -- anywhere -- that you wouldn't be comfortable reading on the home page of Google, or that you wouldn't be comfortable sharing with your grandmother or religious officiant," Levit says.
Beyond the grandma test, here are five other tips for maintaining a positive online reputation and what to do if unflattering material comes to light.
You may be able to limit access to photos or other information on social networks, but when it comes to the wider Internet, you lose control. Be sure to Google your name once a month to find out what's out there with your name attached to it, says Dr. Jerry Zurek, professor and chairman of the communications department at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa.
"If it's on the Internet, no matter what the privacy settings are, everything's public and permanent," Zurek says. "Even if you think you're making it private, ultimately nothing is private."
Consider the long haul
A key bit of advice to anyone tempted to post on Facebook after having a few drinks at a party is, "Don't," according to Zurek.
His warning is especially relevant with Facebook adopting a "Timeline"-style presentation that makes it easier to view someone's history. It's also important for students and young professionals to keep in mind the big picture as they start their careers.
"I tell them you are going to be in and out of many job situations -- you're not going to work for a company for 40 years, you're going to constantly be on the job market," Zurek says. "What you have is your name, your reputation, your brand, so you have to always be aware of that."
The power of positive posting
If you discover something online about you that's negative -- whether it's an opinion you now regret, personal criticism or an embarrassing photo -- ask the host of the site or poster of the material to remove it. Should that tactic not work, take the high road.
"Post as much positive content as you can to get the negative information pushed down in the search results," says Levit, who produced JobSTART 101, a free, online course to prepare college students and graduates for the workplace. "You can also comment with a straightforward apology, assuring whoever is reading that such behavior will not happen again."
Give it the college try
While most publications won't censor blog entries or comments, college websites can be more flexible towards youthful indiscretions, and may agree on a case-by-case basis to hit delete.
"I have seen student staffs remove stories that were printed several years ago on the Web," Zurek says. "As people mature and are trying to get into law school, they don't want people to know they went to a rave [as an undergraduate]."
Be the master of your domain
Another way to maintain some image control is to create your own site, with an optional blog component. "This is just good protocol for establishing an effective personal brand," Levit says.
But controlling your domain isn't enough to determine your online image. "Neither having a branded website nor a blog takes away the responsibility of patrolling other sites," Levit says. "If you are vigilant, you should be able to maintain a good amount of control."
The issue of what's acceptable on Facebook vs. the real world may be a non-starter in the near future, according to Zurek. Today's 20-year-olds have grown up with social media and are likely to take a more liberal view of such platforms than those 25 and up.
"We are in a transitional time where the generations are more sharply divided," Zurek says. "I wonder if 10 years from now we'll be having this same conversation as current college graduates become hiring managers."