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Getting Back On Track After a Disciplinary Setback

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Introduction: You Must Answer Honestly

When you are filling out your college applications, you will come to a section asking if you have had any major disciplinary problems. You must answer and explain any issues you’ve had honestly. While it may be tempting to glide over your past mistakes, the consequences for doing so can be severe. If you are untruthful on your application, colleges have grounds to reject your application or rescind your acceptance.


Furthermore, it can reflect well on you to be truthful. When you do report any major disciplinary issues, colleges will see that you have taken the setback seriously and have improved and reflected as a result. If your disciplinary setback happens after you have been accepted by colleges, you will still need to report it, and there may be consequences — read our guide Can My Offer of Admission Be Rescinded? for more specific details on how to handle a disciplinary setback after you have been admitted to colleges.


We have covered this sort of situation in terms of logistics before — you can read our CollegeVine guides How to Deal With Disciplinary Problems on Your College Application, How to Navigate a Conflict With Your Teacher, and What Happens If I Get Caught Cheating on the SAT or ACT? for information on sorting through this.


This guide, however, will focus on what you can do personally to rebound after a significant disciplinary issue. That way, you can grow from your experiences and learn from your mistakes, as well as take the action steps necessary to move forward, get on the right track, and stay there.


What Consequences You Can Expect

After committing a disciplinary violation, you should first consult your school’s handbook for general disciplinary procedures and direct consequences for different categories of transgressions, so you will have an idea of what you can expect.


Depending on your violation and school, short-term consequences may include measures like suspension, academic probation, expulsion, or other actions. Longer-term consequences include having a negative effect on your grades (for example, if you are suspended, you will not only miss valuable class time, but you may also receive a zero on a major assignment or miss a test), needing to find a new school (if you are expelled), or ongoing requirements with punishments like academic probation.


Additionally, depending on the severity of your disciplinary setback, you may face legal consequences, which could go on your criminal record if you are over the age of 18, as well as impact your life in other ways. Going through court, for example, takes a lot of time and energy, and can negatively affect your grades, so you will have to plan carefully to figure out how to manage this.


Finally, there are also indirect consequences you will have to deal with. Your teachers may trust you less, and you will have to work harder to earn back their confidence in you. This also goes for your parents, who may tighten their rules.


Furthermore, you may worry about future college recommendations. For tips on maintaining a good relationship with your recommenders, read our guides How to Get College Recommendation Letters: Building Recommender Relationships, How Often Should I Meet With My Guidance Counselor? and The Do’s and Don’t’s of Guidance Counselor Recommendations.


Reflecting On and Being Thoughtful About Your Setback

To move forward from your setback, it is essential to acknowledge that you did something wrong, accept the blame, and take the consequences seriously. Do not be dishonest, defensive, or dismissive — instead, you need to accept where you are and look at it as a low point from which you can build upwards.


Make sure to apologize to whomever you have hurt, whether directly or indirectly, and make amends wherever possible. Try to understand how you came to this point, but don’t make excuses for your choices. Think about what this experience has taught you, and how it will help you make better choices so that you avoid these sorts of situations in the future. It may help to work through this with your guidance counselor or another mentor, because he or she can provide a third-party perspective while still serving your interests and helping you get back on track.


Colleges, employers, and all officials who may need to be informed, depending on the severity of the situation, will need to see that you have made a real commitment to changing your behavior. When you put together your college applications, you will need to explain this in writing. Start thinking now about how you will tell this story again in the future — what lessons you have already learned, what you changes you hope to make, and where you will be a few weeks, months, and years from now. Use this as a launch pad for a better future.


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Making New Goals and Moving Forward

Even though a disciplinary setback is a big deal and you should take it very seriously, you should also recognize that it will not torpedo your whole life plan if you take the outlined steps in this guide and treat this as a learning experience. This is not an excuse to stop working towards your goals, so you need to keep moving forward and making good choices for future success.


To do so, identify and address any underlying issues that may crop up again in the future and cause similar problems. This may require professional help. For example, did you cheat on an exam in part because your undiagnosed learning disability made it difficult to finish in the allotted time? If so, you need to work with your guidance counselor, parents, and the appropriate professionals to address the learning disability so that problems like this never happen again, and you are able to succeed on tests in the future. In other words, not only do you want to avoid future negative experiences, but you also want to pave a road towards positive experiences, too.


Next, commit yourself to specific, achievable but challenging new goals that contribute to your future plans. What steps will mark progress towards your goal? If you got in trouble at your school for fighting with other students, some specific goals might be attending therapy on a regular basis, or distancing yourself from three situations that make you really angry and going for a walk instead.


Also, use accountability tools so that you don’t fall short on your plans. An accountability buddy who reminds you to do something, regular check-ins with your parents or teacher, or even a chart to keep track of an activity can work wonders, because they show you that you are making progress, and, on a bad day, help you stay on track.


Finally, avoid situations that put you at risk of repeating the behavior, and actively seek out more healthy and productive environments.


Those friends who have been pushing you towards self-destructive activities? That’s not really how true friends should act. Don’t settle for anyone except those who encourage you to be your best self. After a difficult experience like a disciplinary setback, you’re going to need strong friends who support you. Seriously evaluate your surroundings — where you spend your time, what you spend your time doing, and with whom you spend it — as you consider what changes you need to make now to have a successful, happy, and healthy future.



A disciplinary setback is a serious issue, but not one that should derail you. Instead, you should view the period after your setback as one for reflection and growth. Use this time to think about what led you into the situation, how you learned from it, and what steps you must take to avoid that situation in the future.


You will need to be able to explain all of this on your college applications in the future — see our CollegeVine guide How to Deal With Disciplinary Problems on Your College Application for advice — so it is better to deal with this now rather than later, especially because you do not want these issues to come up again.


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Julia Mearsheimer
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.