"The Google Test
The World Wide Web has emerged as a quick and easy way to run background checks on job candidates. The practice of Googling job applicants may be controversial--""swimming in very muddy ethical waters,"" as one university career center director puts it--but it's also becoming more and more common. Brian Krueger, president of CollegeGrad.com, sees ""a growing trend in the number of employers who are Googling candidates to research for information."" In fact, many employers even check out personal profiles on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

How widespread is the practice of researching job applicants online? Tom Devin, director of the career center at UC Berkeley, doubts the prevalence of online background checks: ""My observation is that it's more fiction than fact."" But many employers may be loath to admit to a controversial and potentially illegal practice. Career center director Dawn Sherman cautions that the ""trend of recruiters using these sites in their recruiting efforts...can't be underestimated, and may also be much more widespread than many people want to believe."" Hiring managers at Microsoft admit that researching job applicants on social networking sites is ""now fairly typical.""

It Happened to Me...
Plenty of war stories circulating in cyberspace confirm the use of internet background checks. UCLA undergraduate Tien Nguyen couldn't figure out why his resume and grades weren't landing him interviews with corporate recruiters. Until he Googled himself, that is, and discovered ""Lying Your Way to the Top,"" a satirical essay he had posted a year earlier on a college student site. He had the essay removed, and the interview offers started rolling in.

But it doesn't take a web publishing habit to sink your job prospects. The usual culprit is a less than professional profile on a social networking site such as MySpace or Facebook. What you post on these sites may be meant for your friends eyes only, but by no means is it confidential. ""There is a false feeling of safety attached to the network you create with these systems,"" observes career counselor Megan Houlker. The internet blurs the line between private and public, warns John Fracchia of Ithaca College's Career Center. He sounds a note of caution: ""Students need to realize that anything they post, or even that their friends post about them, is potentially viewable by the entire planet.""

One highly qualified job applicant learned this lesson the hard way. Despite a strong academic background, the student lost all credibility when his interviewer came across the following Facebook profile. Interests: ""Smokin' blunts with the homies and bustin' caps in whitey;"" Favorite quote: ""Beware of big butts and a smile."" Funny, right? His prospective employer didn't think so. ""Our 'first impression' of our candidate was officially tainted, and he had little hope of regaining a professional image in our eyes."" Needless to say, ""He was not hired.""

Networking sites like MySpace and Facebook create a sense of community, and it's easy to forget that you may have uninvited guests lurking behind the scenes. Employers and recruiters have no problem gaining access to restricted sites. First, most have access to the sites through an employee with an account. And if not, they can easily register for the site, even providing an alumni or false college email to gain access to sites restricted to college students. Don't forget that MySpace has more than 100 million members, and Facebook, the #1 college-focused site, has 10 million. A few clicks are all that separate your prospective employer from your personal profile.

How to Handle Your Online PR
College has always been a time for crazy stunts and social game-playing, but that misbehavior was once discreetly confined to dorms, frats, or sororities. Now it's plastered all over the internet. ""This is really the first time that we've seen that stage of life captured in a kind of time capsule and in a public way,"" observes career resource specialist Jennifer Floren. ""It's now in a public arena.""

Of course, publicity is not necessarily a bad thing--managed well, your internet presence can be an asset in your job search. Here's how to ensure that your online activity projects nothing but a professional image.

1. Google yourself. You may be surprised what that clever algorithm unearths. If it's unflattering, contact the source to have it removed. If it's unflattering and about someone else (say, someone with the same name), you may want to contact that person and/or mention it to the interviewer to head off any misunderstanding.

2. Use the privacy settings on social networking sites. Take advantage of the privacy settings on Facebook and MySpace. Don't count on your online alias to hide your identity. As one recent grad puts it, ""There are plenty of ways to figure out who someone is even if they are hiding behind a nondescript screen name.""

3. Remove any sensitive personal information. Better safe than sorry. Recruiter Logan Maienschein offers a good rule of thumb: ""Don't put anything out on the Internet that you would not want to have to explain to your mother, father, grandparents, priest, boss, or a judge."" Some job applicants may also prefer not to disclose basic information such as their age, ethnicity, or religious affiliation--this information is off limits in an interview, but often readily available online.

4. Use the internet to your advantage. Don't miss out on this opportunity to post positive career information about yourself. Social networking sites ""provide a real opportunity for self-marketing and promotion,"" says Career Center director John Brown. Blogs, WebPages, and networking sites allow students to ""advertise components of their qualifications typically truncated from a typical resume or application."" This approach worked for Catherine Germann. A recruiter Googled her name and found not only her resume but also her personal website and live journal, which she had fine-tuned to project a clean, professional image. He contacted her, and she got the job.

The internet is still a new frontier, and many job applicants have yet to discover the full potential of this new medium. As you head out on the job market, make sure you're putting your best foot forward--in the interview, on your resume, and online. "

Author's Bio: 

Kelli Smith is the senior editor of www.Edu411.org. Edu411.org is a career education directory of colleges and universities, career training schools, and technical institutes.