The next generation of business leaders certainly won't struggle with the concept of personal branding. Personal branding has become crucial at an even earlier life stage: the increasingly high-stakes college admissions process during the junior and senior years of high school.
It's well known now that one's online presence is just as important as one's offline persona, as illustrated by reports that some companies hire people to screen job candidates' social network profiles and search their name through Google. I recently read an article from the Dayton Daily News about the same screening process  in college admissions. It makes perfect sense, as teens, ever active on Facebook and MySpace, may have even more of an online presence than many adults.
As a result, teenage follies are now harder to sweep under the rug. Students' online presence will not only stick with them (as in print) but can be accessed by others with a mere click of a mouse. As a result, today's students must be a lot more careful than yesterday's students. Perhaps that's unfair, but in today's Internet-dependent age, that's life.
Additionally, the New York Times recently ran an article about the increasing popularity of college admissions coaches  and their effect on the admissions process. Specifically, the article warns of the pitfalls that students may encounter when they package themselves too slickly in their college applications. Because selective colleges and universities look well beyond transcripts and SAT scores, it's important for applicants to demonstrate an extra "wow" factor in essays and extracurriculars, leading to, in writer Jospeh Berger's words, "slogans like 'the Greenwich ballerina who mentored students in the South Bronx.'"
Such "slogans" may sound quite impressive. But the tried-and-true equation of "stellar academics" + "prodigious talent" + "intense do-gooder complex" probably wears thin after a while. In fact, many applications might sound too rehearsed, or at worst, flat-out phony. And that's where the effort at personal branding goes wrong for these students. In business, it's always important to come across as genuine; doing so encourages trust. The same principle applies in college admissions.
The Times article laments the surge in personal branding efforts for college admissions, arguing that it results in "a world where students are compelled to game the system." But branding exercises are far from "gaming the system"; they're practice in self-presentation, a skill that these students will need for the rest of their lives. They might as well get a head start in practice. It's a bit much to spend thousands of dollars on private coaching, but, hey, it's the families' money. They're just splurging for the same advice that could be obtained from any competent high school counselor.
(Note: I do happen to agree with the Times' article's sentiment that the pressure, often parental, to get into a fixed list of top-tier schools is the root of much anxiety, but that's another story.)
The Times article also places blame for phony, branded packages squarely on colleges and universities. The argument:
Many colleges engage in Orwell-speak about assembling congenial communities with a variety of backgrounds and talents. Academic feats, they also insist, must be abetted with good works and evidence of leadership. And so applicants end up in activities they may not care about.
This statement writes off colleges' interest in applicants' personal qualities and extracurricular as a bunch of fluff, but I don't think that's a fair judgment. For one, it confuses the goal of attracting future leaders with "assembling congenial communities." Grades and test scores, of course, don't necessarily equal leadership skills, and this is precisely why these additional components aren't fluff. The same principle applies to careers and personal branding. You may be able to carry out certain tasks, even do so well, but that alone doesn't guarantee a successful career. Leadership skills, positive personal attributes, and polished presentation count just as much. If this is acceptable -- and founded -- in building careers, why shouldn't it be in the step just before?
The problem isn't the criteria, it's faulty execution, and colleges see right through it. Fortunately, students still have time left to improve their self-presentation, even if it's at college choice #3 rather than choice #1. Their future careers will certainly benefit from the practice!