Students competing to get into the nation's most elite colleges and universities have begun to use sneaky, under-handed tactics involving Facebook, according to a new report from the Chicago Tribune. Via anonymous letters mailed to college admission offices, applicants suggest to admission officers that they check out the photos on a rival's Facebook page before determining whether or not to accept them into the institution. With competition for spots fiercer than ever, the experts cited in that article believe this marks the beginning of a new trend: "Facebook sabotage."

Unflattering photos and videos and others of questionable taste have long been a part of the social network landscape. Sometimes these images have been used by students to hurt each other by disparaging people's character, getting the other kids into trouble with their parents (or the law), or just flat-out embarrassing them.  But up until recently, these type of incidents didn't have much of a lasting effect beyond the dramatic teenage years of their high school existence.

But now, with these types of sabotage schemes potentially affecting students' shots at their future plans by interfering with which colleges they're able to attend, the question being raised is this: will Gen Y finally learning the perils of over-sharing?

The Situation

According to the report, college admissions officers are seeing an increase in sabotage attempts that come in the form of anonymous letters that say that rivals have cheated on exams, got suspended for underage drinking, or suggest that the college check out the applicant's Facebook page. Sadly, some of these letters aren't even written by the students themselves, but the uber-competitive parents who want to help their own child's chances by any means possible.

A high school guidance counselor in New York, Sue Moller, recently posted a message to the National Association for College Admission Counseling message board in hopes of confirming a rumor one of her students told her. She wanted to know if college officials were receiving these types of letters. She was surprised to receive over a dozen replies.

Because the number of letters, calls, and emails aren't tracked, it's hard to determine if the volume is really increasing, but Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard's admissions dean believes that "if it is more competitive than before, then perhaps more of it is going on. People are willing to lie in order to do better in what they consider to be a difficult competition."

Does It Work?

Some college officials stated that they will only follow-up on signed letters, but others admitted that they investigate any allegations, even in sent in anonymously.

Although the article notes that some letters hint towards Facebook pages specifically, it's just as likely that others point to MySpace profiles, online photos, blog posts, or other public content a student has posted to the net. But we have wonder how prevalent this type of sabotage really is. Facebook profiles (by default) can't be viewed unless a person accepts a friendship request, so the damage done via Facebook should be minimal.

Being Professional On Social Networks

This news of college submission sabotage comes on the heels of the recent NPR interview regarding Facebook and career-seeking. In the interview, it was noted that CareerBuilder found one in five employers do check Facebook profiles when researching a job candidate. They also discovered that one third of those checked were rejected due to photos with alcohol or drugs.

But before everyone rushes out to their online profiles and starts deleting away, it's worth taking a moment to consider how serious this "potential threat" is to you. Even if you're a student looking for college acceptance or a business professional going after a new job, there's no reason not to maintain an online presence. Done correctly, making your name "googleable" can actually help your chances, not hurt them. By tweaking your current online profiles, you can highlight your professional interests instead of your party photos.

Facebook especially allows for fine-grained privacy controls if you're concerned about who's seeing what. You don't necessarily have to remove photos - just adjust who is allowed to view them. Or, if you want to really dress up your Facebook profile, an app like Professional Profile can help by importing your resume or LinkedIn connections. In fact, there are a number of ways to keep your Facebook profile professional.

Unfortunately, the one drawback of Facebook is that you don't have the option of approving the photos that others tag you in. That means you must be constantly monitoring the photos you've been tagged in to make sure nothing embarrassing shows up that could harm your chances. For a social network that so greatly concerns itself with privacy in other areas, the lack of a preventative control here is a surprising omission.

Social networks have made public a lot of personal information you may not have wanted exposed, but in the end you must realize that you have control over your profiles. You can have them showcase your professional attributes, if you wish. And if they ever get out of hand, just remember...there's always the "delete" button.

Image credit: SVG Creations