Mitchell Hennessy knows how tough it is to get into the top colleges these days. So like thousands of students nationwide, Hennessy, 17, has turned to Internet networking sites to set himself apart as he competes with record numbers of students trying to get into the schools of their dreams.
With new sites like Zinch.com and Cappex.com, students can tell colleges more about themselves than a typical application allows, even with essays, interviews and recommendations.
"As far as selling yourself to a school, it's the next best thing to talking with someone who's reading your application," said Hennessy, a senior at Foothill Technology High School in Ventura who uses Zinch. "It takes a little of the pressure off and makes the playing field a little more even."
The popularity of the new sites reflects the incursion of online technology into the world of college admissions. Today's students receive college brochures online, apply to college online and even learn online whether they've been accepted.
A record number of seniors will graduate from U.S. high schools this year - 3.32 million - and more of them are applying to college than in the past. At University of California campuses alone, applications are up 9 percent this year.
Students are searching for ways, beyond the predictable volunteer work, extracurricular activities and impressive grades, to make themselves stand out. With Zinch, students can tell colleges about their hobbies, religion, family background and even sexual orientation. They also can post portfolios or video clips of recitals and games.
"There wasn't a way for students to be discovered for who they really were, not just for their test scores," said Mick Hagen, 23, who co-founded Zinch and has since taken a leave of absence from Princeton to run it.
"We're trying to reduce some of the stress, some of the frenzy, and allow more transparency on both ends."
About 300,000 students nationwide have signed up for Zinch so far, along with about 430 campuses, including Stanford University and Claremont McKenna College, Hagen said.
Colleges can search the sites to find students they want at their schools, then recruit them online. Officials might look for a group as broad as students living east of the Mississippi, or as specific as bagpipe players.
That's a much more specific search than officials can do with the College Board, the company most colleges use when building lists of students they want to recruit.
At Cappex, the goal is to help colleges target students who wouldn't normally be drawn to them. Colleges specify the type of students they're seeking, and the site finds those who meet that profile. Colleges then contact the students online.
"Every student will represent diversity to some school out there," said Cappex co-founder Mike Moyer, 36, who did not provide numbers on how many students or colleges are using the site.
Some colleges also are using more popular sites like Facebook or MySpace to learn about applicants, even though many students consider their postings private.
That might cross an ethical boundary, said Matt Ward, dean of undergraduate enrollment at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
"This is a new realm of the law we're dealing with," Ward said. "Should we withhold admission because we see a photo of a student holding a beer and they're under 21 years old? This is something we'll be dealing with more."
Colleges might be reluctant to use social networking sites in admissions decisions, but they do use them in discipline cases. Pepperdine University in Malibu, for example, will search Facebook or MySpace to investigate cases of underage drinking.
In a letter to the college newspaper, Mark Davis, Pepperdine's dean of students, wrote: "We have looked at the Web sites related to these concerns, and we are addressing any misconduct just as we do any time credible information is brought to our attention - regardless of the media type."
At CLU, where alcohol is prohibited on campus, resident assistants document cases in which they spot photos of students drinking there.
In his letter, Davis gave students this advice: "Don't post today what you don't want others to see tomorrow (including your future boss, spouse, children, selection committee, etc.). It's too easy for someone to download and save a youthful indiscretion."
Davis added that "digital cameras can make a private party a public spectacle. Just because you're not posting your pictures doesn't mean someone else isn't posting theirs and you may be in them."
CLU also has started warning students that the sites are anything but private.
"We're trying to get the word out there," said Christine Paul, associate director of student life. "They say, But wait, it's my private space.' And we say, No, it's not.' "
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