For millions, social media have become an integral part of everyday life. We use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram on our computers, phones and tablets all day long to make all kinds of connections.
Social media use is so ingrained in many high school and college students' lives that it's almost second nature. However, if you're applying to college or seeking scholarships, it's important to take some time off from games like "FarmVille" to consider how everyday social networking can help - or hurt - your chances.
Following are four tips for scholarship seekers on how they can best use social media.
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1. Be your best self: The most important advice for any social media user is to be authentic but tactful. Your Instagram photos, tweets and Facebook posts should reflect the people and things you care about; after all, they'll help you remember the great times you've had in school for years to come.
However, it's also crucial that you put some thought into what you post and what you don't, lest you become the next cautionary tale about compromising pictures or an unfortunate choice of words. No matter how much you want to document that crazy party - and no matter how private you make your posts - the fact remains that if it's out there with your name or picture attached, it can always be spread more widely than you intend.
We like the advice offered by Katherine Cohen: if you'd be embarrassed for your grandparents (or your college admissions officer) to see it, you probably shouldn't post it.
2. Join the conversations you care about: This tip goes hand in hand with putting your best face forward on social media. Whether you're passionate about environmental issues, political debates or international soccer, chances are there's a sizable social media community that shares those passions.
Joining the conversation by retweeting, replying to and blogging about others in the field is an ideal way to enhance your online presence, which can come in handy when you're looking at colleges. According to a 2009 study from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, around a quarter of colleges research prospective students via search engines, and 17 percent do so specifically on social networks. In addition, 85 percent of colleges use social media for recruitment, so if you're interested in a school, follow it.
[Employ social media in your college search.]
Of course, the benefits go deeper than that. Online engagement with your areas of interest and your prospective schools means you'll delve deeper and stay more informed - and your admissions and scholarship essays will reap the rewards of that.
3. Find social scholarships: Speaking of scholarships, your social media can be invaluable tools for searching and even applying for scholarships. Scholarship America regularly posts about new scholarship opportunities on Facebook and on Twitter at ScholAmerica, and we've rounded up a few other Twitter feeds to follow for scholarship advice.
Beyond those resources, you can also use social media much more directly for a handful of scholarships. The Scholarships.com Short and Tweet Scholarship opens every few months, and awards $1,000 scholarships for the best 140-character answers on Twitter to their question. CollegeNET has a similar program, which awards weekly scholarships for the best responses in its forum. And if you're into longer-form media, the CollegeScholarships.org Blogging Scholarship provides an annual $1,000 award to a student who runs a great blog; applications for the scholarship are open now.
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4. Look beyond Twitter and Facebook: While these two (along with the fast-growing Instagram) have become entrenched as the most widely used social networks, they're not the only ones that can help with your scholarship efforts. YouTube has become a central focus for plenty of major scholarship and tuition-assistance programs, most notably the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway, which offers more than $1 million each year and requires applicants to upload video applications.
If you're a user of Foursquare, the location-based check-in service, you can explore tips about your college and its surroundings and earn campus rewards. And if you're looking to bolster your resume with internships in your field, LinkedIn offers a dedicated portal just for student jobs. In short, wherever you are in your education career, you can find a way to use social media to your advantage.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.