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How to Deal with Disciplinary Problems on your College Application
So you’ve found yourself in serious trouble at school. If you’re in that situation, you’re probably in the midst of facing some significant and immediate consequences. If you’re also someone who’s in the midst of applying to colleges, you’re likely also trying to figure out how getting into trouble might have longer-term consequences for your future plans and ambitions.
You may also be worrying about whether any past infraction will have an impact on your college application. You might even be tempted to omit or lie about your disciplinary history in hopes that this will protect you from being judged for your misbehavior. Don’t do that. (We’ll provide more details as to why this isn’t a good idea later in this post.)
Having a significant disciplinary problem in your history doesn’t mean you’re out of the running as an applicant, but it does mean you’ll have some extra work to do in convincing colleges that you’re a mature and responsible applicant who will be a positive addition to their school. How you account for your disciplinary record on your college applications can go a long way in mitigating the consequences of your past mistakes.
What counts as a disciplinary problem for my college applications?
Every high school has a slightly different disciplinary system and specific rules for students to follow. However, essentially every school has a graduated system of consequences that depend on the severity of the offense.
At a typical high school, a minor offense might result in you being reprimanded by a teacher or told to sit out in the hallway. Repeated minor offenses, or a slightly more severe offense, might result in a detention or an on-campus or “in-school” suspension.
If you get in trouble and you receive one of these punishments, it’s generally not something that you’ll need to report to colleges. However, if your offense merits more serious consequences, it’s a different story. This might include off-campus suspension, expulsion, or the involvement of law enforcement. If one of these has happened to you, you’ll need to report that on your college applications.
Colleges also tend to care about certain types of offenses more than others. If, for example, you got in minor trouble because you repeatedly talked to your friends too much during class, colleges likely won’t hold that against you too much. This kind of misbehavior may show some poor judgment on your part, but won’t necessarily lead a college to question your character.
One type of transgression that might make colleges concerned about your character is that of academic dishonesty. You’re coming to college primarily to progress academically, and obviously, colleges take cheating, plagiarism, and similar infractions quite seriously — at some schools, cheating may be grounds for immediate expulsion. Since colleges take academic dishonesty this seriously among their students, it’s not surprising that they also consider it when evaluating applicants.
Disciplinary issues that involve possession of contraband are also of interest to colleges. If you’ve gotten into trouble for possessing alcohol or drugs at school, you’ll need to divulge this on your college applications. The same goes for bringing a weapon or other dangerous item onto your school’s campus. You should be aware that having an infraction like this on your disciplinary record will be of significant concern for colleges reading your applications.
How will disciplinary problems affect my applications?
If you have a serious disciplinary problem on your record, you’ll need to be prepared for the reality that it may have a negative impact upon your college applications. How much of an impact this has depends on a number of different factors.
First of all, different colleges, or even different admissions staffers at the same college, may look at your application and your past mistakes differently. Some schools, such as the University of Virginia with its famous Honor System, place an especially heavy emphasis on their students’ behavior. Others, like Boston University, include specific questions about your disciplinary history in their Common Application supplements.
As we mentioned above, the type of offense you committed is also very significant. Disciplinary problems that involve academic dishonesty, drugs or alcohol, or violence will be of particular concern for colleges. Beyond that, the specific circumstances of your situation matter as well. What influenced you to make this poor decision? How did you handle the disciplinary process? Did you admit culpability, show regret, and make restitution for your actions? Was this an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern? Did you make positive changes in your life afterward?
Think about it this way: colleges expect their students to behave like adults, with good judgment and maturity, and to be accountable for their own actions. Your success in college depends in large part upon your ability to manage your own life responsibly. If you’ve made poor choices or showed considerable immaturity in the past, and especially if you’ve done so repeatedly, colleges may be more reluctant to invite you into their communities.
However — and this is very important — having a disciplinary problem on your record does not mean that you can’t apply or be accepted to a good college. Colleges don’t expect you to have never made any mistakes. What they do expect is that you’ve responded to these mistakes responsibly and maturely. If you can thoughtfully discuss what happened and have clearly learned from your mistakes, that will be a point in your favor.
What will college applications ask me about my disciplinary history?
College applications will ask you specifically if you have committed any serious disciplinary infractions. On the Common App, for instance, you’ll find a Disciplinary History section within the Writing section. If you answer “yes” to the initial question about whether you have a significant incident on your record, you’ll be given space to explain the incident, including the relevant circumstances and what this experience taught you.
If you feel it’s necessary for you to share additional information relating to your disciplinary history, you may want to include additional explanation or documentation in the Additional Information section offered by the Common App. As we’ve noted, some colleges may also include additional questions about your disciplinary history within their Common App supplements. Make sure you answer these questions in an accurate and straightforward manner.
What specific information should you include here? Generally, you’ll need to give colleges a description of your disciplinary infraction, how you were punished, and a basic timeline for when it occurred. While your description should be succinct — there’s no need to overshare — you should also make sure all pertinent details are covered, and provide enough information so colleges can understand what happened and how you were involved.
Obviously, honesty is of paramount importance here. You shouldn’t attempt to hide information from admissions officers or outright lie about what happened. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll be caught, either though a tipoff from a third party, a guidance counselor report, or the admissions office’s own research. (Yes, admissions officers can run an Internet search too!)
If you’re caught in a lie, the repercussions can be very serious for you and your college plans. Your application could easily be rejected on the grounds of dishonesty alone. If you’ve already been accepted to a college, your acceptance could be rescinded after the fact. College admissions offices sometimes share information, so lying to one school could have consequences for your other applications as well.
How do I talk about my disciplinary history on my application?
While being forthright on your application is highly important, that doesn’t mean you can’t put thought and care into how you address your disciplinary history. Once you’ve provided a complete and honest account of what happened, you’ll need to show admissions officers that you recognize you made a mistake and that you’ve learned from the experience.
Accepting responsibility for your actions is key. You’re welcome and encouraged to discuss the circumstances that surrounded your disciplinary problem, but make sure that you’re giving explanations, not excuses. It’s very important for college admissions officers to know that you understand the gravity of what you did wrong.
If you were considerably younger than you are now when you committed your disciplinary infraction — say, if it occurred during your first year of high school, and you’re now a senior — this is worthwhile to mention. Colleges understand that young people make mistakes as a part of growing up, and while this won’t excuse your actions, it may provide context for them. If significant time has passed without an additional incident, this is a good sign to colleges as well.
Make sure to point out the ways in which you’ve grown since the initial incident. College admissions officers will want to see that you’ve learned from your mistakes and made positive changes in your life since the incident. It will help if the people who write your recommendation letters can attest to this growth as well, so you’d be wise to discuss the issue with them in advance.
Of course, for some college applicants, explaining a disciplinary infraction will be a bit more complicated. For example, what if you got in trouble for doing something that you feel was right? Perhaps you became involved in a fight in an attempt to defend someone who was being bullied or were suspended for protesting an unfair school policy.
In these cases, it’s even more important for you to take time to explain your behavior. If you stand by your ideals, but have learned that you went about expressing them in an inappropriate way, say so! Colleges like applicants to be passionate about the issues close to their hearts, but you’ll need to show them that your passion is tempered by maturity, responsibility, and acceptance of the consequences of your actions.
Can I just not mention my disciplinary record on my application?
In a word, no. You’ll be asked explicitly about your disciplinary history when you apply to colleges, and lying on your application about anything, disciplinary or otherwise, is never a good idea. Plus, an evaluation from your high school guidance counselor is a required part of college applications, and if you’ve been in serious trouble, your counselor will almost certainly mention it in that recommendation letter.
Again, of course, you don’t need to report every small infraction. Sometimes a reprimand for talking in class or being sent home for a dress-code violation may feel like a big deal, but generally, that type of disciplinary problem isn’t something that colleges will need to hear about. Remember, admissions officers have a lot of applications to review and don’t require every tiny detail of your high school activities and awards. You also shouldn’t include an excessive amount of information about your disciplinary history.
If you’ve gotten into serious trouble, however, it’s not something you should or can hide, and you need to be honest and open about what happened. How you handle this situation can reflect just as much on your character as the infraction itself.
For a general rule of thumb, consider this: assume that your chosen colleges will check with your guidance counselor to verify that you haven’t been in any serious trouble. Requesting more information about you is something that colleges can and will do. If a disciplinary infraction is serious enough that you’d be tempted to lie about it, it’s also serious enough for the college to check in with your counselor about it — and if you get caught, you could face major consequences, including your admission being rescinded.
If you’re still not sure whether your past actions merit mention on your college application, it may help to have a talk with your guidance counselor. Ask your counselor what information they intend to present when writing your recommendation, and how they intend to phrase that disclosure. You can stress that you’re not trying to hide important information, but making sure that your chosen colleges get a full and accurate picture of not only what happened but who you are now.
If you have a serious disciplinary problem on your record and have faced consequences for it, you already know that making poor choices can affect your life significantly. However, an event in your past doesn’t have to totally derail your future, and you still have a chance at the college of your dreams. Showing that you can address your past infractions with honesty, sincerity, and maturity will go a long way in convincing colleges that you’ve learned from your mistakes and grown into a wiser person.
For more information on addressing issues like disciplinary history on your college applications, check out the CollegeVine blog post How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on College Applications. To learn more about rescinded admissions offers and other potential consequences, take a look at our post on whether your offer of admission can be rescinded.
Looking for more help in navigating the college application process? CollegeVine is here to help! Our admissions experts can do it all, from tutoring you for your standardized tests to helping you craft a great essay to mentoring you through the trials and tribulations of the admissions season. For a free initial consultation, check out our College Application Guidance Program — fill out the provided form and one of our advisors will get back to you!