Obscenity and College Admissions: Don’t Judge People by Their F-Bombs

I read an article on GOOD that provided statistics about how much college admissions officers stalk check applicants’ Facebooks. Apparently 24% of officers do it, and that number is on the rise.

Now, this is really nothing new. However, what did strike me about the article was this:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.


See anything troubling there?

I do. Several of the things on that list involve activities that are illegal and/or violate most schools’ codes of conduct–underage drinking, plagiarism, and “illegal activity” in general. One, however, does not, and that is vulgarity.

It makes me a little queasy whenever some sort of higher authority attempts to determine what is “moral” and what isn’t. With regards to vulgarity, common courtesy generally prevails–don’t use inappropriate language with employers, interviewers, teachers and professors, other respected elders, and children. If you’re unhappy with someone in a public setting, don’t scream obscenities at them. Etcetera.

But is a person who uses vulgar language with his/her friends a bad person? Should they be denied college admission? Would they be a poor addition to their campus community?

I can see why a college admissions officer would not want to admit an applicant who clearly parties a lot, engages in plagiarism, or otherwise breaks the law. But can you really just assume that someone who uses obscenities is a bad person?

I don’t have any research on this, so I can only really use myself as a case study. I curse. A lot. I always have. I tell dirty jokes, I call politicians dicks, and I say “fuck” a lot.

I have also contributed to my university more than many, if not most, of its other students. I’ve led two student groups, started and led an initiative to bring a peer listening service to campus, served as an RA for a year, participated in a sexual health peer education group, assisted two research projects, written for campus publications, volunteered with campus groups, donated to fundraisers, and generally helped make this campus a better place. I have never received any sort of disciplinary action while I have been at Northwestern, nor have I broken any university policies, aside from keeping an electric kettle in my dorm room so I can drink tea. I have never bullied, harassed, or assaulted another student, and that’s more than I can say for some of my peers. I think that if they had to do it over, Northwestern’s admissions officers would absolutely accept me again.

But what if they’d seen the f-bombs on my Facebook profile?

Really, I think stalking applicants’ Facebooks and other profiles is a practice of dubious ethicality, anyway. Of course, everyone’s all like, “But you made it public! But it’s right there! If you didn’t want every single person in the world to know you shouldn’t have uploaded it!”

Perhaps. But there are certain boundaries that I think we should respect when it comes to others. Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?

If I walk past a house with the lights on and the blinds up and see, say, a couple having sex, should they have been more careful? Probably. But does that mean I should stand there and stare at them doing it? No. That’s creepy as hell.

So suffice it to say that I oppose creeping on people’s lives electronically, too. And I should point out that aside from the vulgarity issue, which I’ve only recently found out about anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t drink or party, so there are no Facebook photos of me drinking and partying. I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t brag about my sexual conquests. There’s nothing on my profile that I’d be ashamed of anyone else seeing.

But I do at times use obscenities when I feel the desire to express myself that way. And it doesn’t make me any less of a suitable candidate for a spot at a university, a job, or anything else.

Now, I’m also not stupid, so knowing what I now know, I’m definitely going to put my Facebook on super-duper private or just temporarily change the name on it when I’m applying for stuff. I’ve checked how my profile looks to someone who’s not friends with me and it doesn’t show any of my foul language.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to work for an employer who’s moronic enough to overlook my strong resume and assume that I won’t know how to behave in the office–especially after interviewing me. My decorum and sense of morality are quite intact, thank you very much. But they’re not something you can judge by glancing over an online profile.

14 thoughts on “Obscenity and College Admissions: Don’t Judge People by Their F-Bombs

  1. “Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?”

    This is an interesting idea. I’m not sure where I come down on the whole checking out Facebook/Twitter/electronic public data by employers, schools and interviewers. I’ve always put information up online with the understanding that my worst enemy could find it and do wretched things with it, i.e., I try not to say things that I would be ashamed of later. But even things that we’re not ashamed of that show up online can be used against us. Google me and you’ll find out I’m a liberal, socially progressive atheist – some employers are not going to like that and may choose to pick the candidate who has chosen some other religion and politics for their profile. I guess I’ve always felt that if these employers are the kind of people who would not employee me based on my world views, then that’s not a company I want to be associated with. But I’m employed full-time now and can say that easily.

    It is discomfiting to think that school admissions departments and employers are making judgements on us based on our Facebook status updates, because the person we are on Facebook may be very different from the people we are professionally and academically. But perhaps this digital age of information sharing doesn’t allow for us to separate the two as much as we used to be able to do.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • I can definitely echo your concerns regarding the political bit. (In fact, Clarissa, who linked to this post on her blog and commented here, has a commenter on her own post sharing just that sort of story.)

      But I also agree that I wouldn’t want to work for such an employer to begin with. This is especially relevant to me since I’m going into psychology, and that’s a field in which a lot of harm can be done by conservative views. (In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how she went to see a therapist because her husband wanted children and she didn’t, and her therapist asked her why she didn’t want to please her husband by giving him children. I don’t want to work for someone who espouses that sort of therapy.)

      Thanks for reading!

  2. A great post! State universities explicitly prohibit search committees from doing any online searches on the candidates precisely because a job search process for a new faculty member should not be reduced to an exchange of gossip about who said what on their blog or Facebook page. I think this is a great policy.

  3. Pingback: College Admissions Officers Police Prospective Students Through Facebook « Clarissa's Blog

  4. One of the first words we taught our kids was ‘consequence’. This is one area I harp on them all the time, be careful what you do or say online because it is not private anymore. The truth sometimes hurts…………..bad.

    • That’s not really relevant to the point I’m making in this post; my Facebook’s locked down and there’s absolutely nothing on the internet under my name that I’m ashamed of (I know, because I Googled).

      The point is that judging people like this is wrong, unethical, and downright creepy, and we should advocate against it.

      • Actually I dont believe its wrong or unethical to look at what is in the public forum. Now if they were to hack into someones account that is a different story. If you dont want the bad press dont do things in public. Pretty simple actually. I suggest you put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people who dont think of the repercussions before they act. The truth is we judge all the time, just look at you judging the people judging the other people and look at me judging you too. Round and round we go.

        • I didn’t say it’s wrong to look at it. I said it’s wrong to JUDGE based on it.

          Yes, people judge, blahblahblah, we all know that. Just because something is happening doesn’t make it right. And I’m not “judging” anyone; I’m making a rational argument pointing out a flaw in someone’s reasoning.

          As for blame, I’m not really interested in placing blame. But you’ll find that with most societal issues, you can’t “squarely” place the blame on any single actor. People shouldn’t put dumb crap on their Facebooks. But people also shouldn’t judge people for putting dumb crap on their Facebooks.

          It turns into a circular argument. Why is it wrong to curse online? Because an employer might see it and assume you’re stupid. Why would they assume you’re stupid? Because you cursed online even though employers might see it and assume you’re stupid.

          tl;dr it doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

          • I asked a couple of our employees what they thought on this matter and they agreed with many of your points but one of the women had a great observation. If it was in regards to a job posting and the employer looked at the facebook pages of the individuals applying and their resumes were almost an even match in skill and competency then the crap they put online could be the determing factor for who gets hired. The same could be true for a college application. In that case is the school being unethical, immoral or just prudent in regards to ALL the information available?

          • But again, what crap did they put online? I’m guessing the employer would be interviewing candidates anyway, so they would be able to show their manners and communication skills in the interview. And I refuse to believe that the ONE difference between two candidates is that one said “fuck” on his/her Facebook page and the other did not.

            If what they put online was evidence of actual illegal activity or something like that, as I mentioned in my post, I do think that’s a good reason not to hire someone, since that means that they may jeopardize your company (or your university).

  5. I agree with you. I curse, a lot. I curse on my blog, I curse a whole fucking lot on my facebook (see what I did there?), and I curse on Twitter, too. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with most curse words–I use them for emphasis, to convey that what I’m saying is Really Important, that Brittany is Angry (or Excited, heh.), and so on. The “badness” or “vulgarity” ascribed to them is only that we’ve given them.

    My question is, why eliminate candidates based on their usage of “fuck” “shit” or “damn” rather than homophobic, racist, or sexist slurs? Why focus on words that shock, rather than words that convey hate?

    • Indeed, what about all the people who participate in those awful #thingsihateaboutblackpeople and #thingsihateaboutuglypeople memes on Twitter? I think that’s a much bigger problem than “vulgarity.”

  6. Interesting post. I definitely agree that a curse word here and there (or even a lot more than a curse word here and there, depending on the context) doesn’t give much insight into a person’s character or ability to contribute (to a job, a college campus, whatever). I think your analogy about walking by a couple’s house and seeing them having sex or overhearing two people argue is interesting, but I’m not sure I’m 100% there because I think that people who have public Facebook pages (without privacy settings or with limited privacy settings) are intentionally committing more public acts than that. To me, it’s more like someone writing a message on a dry erase board posted on their college dorm room door; the message is intentionally written and–though it might be intended for someone in particular–you do so knowing that other people can and will walk by and see it. I still wouldn’t judge someone’s ability to contribute to college based on that, but I do think there’s a higher degree of agency and accountability.

  7. I’ve never understood the concept of a “bad word,” myself.

    Noone has ever been able to explain to me why they see certain words as bad, other than “Because my parents taught me so.”

    My views are thus: Words are strings of syllables, sounds used because we aren’t capable of reading each others’ minds. That’s it. If you’re going to get offended at anything, get offended at the idea the person is putting across. Not the sounds they used to make sure you understood it.

    The other big one I hear is people saying something along the lines of :”Vulgarity just proves that you’re too stupid to get your point across without being rude.” That cracks me up, personally. You don’t like the words I chose, so you assume I’m dumb? Get off your high horse!

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