BUSTED…how to deal with disciplinary infractions in your college application

Posted on March 27th, 2018 to College Admission by

There has been a lot of buzz about the student protests in reaction to gun violence in schools. While  this has sparked a national discussion around the 2nd amendment and gun violence, it has unintentionally raised a rather taboo issue in the college admission process. How should a student address disciplinary issues in their college application? Why has this specific topic come up? Well, in response to the the national student walkout that took place on March 17, 2018 many school administrators threatened to punish students who participated. K-12 administrators argued that students who participated would be in violation of their code of student conduct, and they would be forced to respond. In response, college administrators from across the country released public statements applauding the students who chose to participate and promised not to punish them in the admission process. This got me thinking about how a student should address any kind of disciplinary infractions in their college admission application–whether it be for the walkout or something else. I started to question if my advice would be different to a student who participated in the walkout versus a student who just made a mistake/poor choice. What I concluded was the guidance is the same–an applicant should be upfront about what happened, and provide some reflection about how the situation impacted his/her life.

Every decision we make in our life becomes part of the fabric of our life’s story. I have worked with a small handful of students who have needed to address a disciplinary issue in their college application.  My approach and guidance fell in line with the overarching message I convey to students. Every piece of a student’s college application should tell one more part of the student’s story. These kinds of situations and experiences are part of the student’s story and should be framed that way. What is important in the admission process is a direct acknowledgment of the situation, some background/contextual information about it, and a reflection on how this situation has shaped the student.

Now, I realize that any kind of “disciplinary infraction” comes with its fair share of emotion–embarrassment, shame, pride, etc. Sometimes a situation can be so fraught with emotion a student and/or parent/guardian would much rather just forget about it–thus leaving it out of the application. That is a strategy….but I highly discourage it. The story will come out. It might come up in one of the letters of recommendation or maybe someone decides to notify the admission office directly. Regardless, it will come up. In that situation someone else is telling the student’s story and telling it from their perspective, not the student’s. So my advice is to address the situation head on.

Why be open? Well, for a few of reasons. First, it allows the student to control the narrative of the story. If the student is silent on the issue and others are telling the story for the student, the admission committee is missing a huge perspective. An admission office (like so many other offices and organizations) isn’t going to necessarily do more work than it has to, so it is unlikely an admission officer will launch an investigation to learn everything that happened. Admission officers don’t have that kind of time. If the student comes out and immediately tells his/her side, then the admission committee is hearing directly from the source and isn’t left to make assumptions about the student. The student, the person who was directly involved, is in control of the narrative.

The second reason I encourage students to be honest and forthright is because, and I’m quoting myself here, “the admission gods giveth, and taketh away”. Imagine for a second that a student doesn’t address the situation and the admission office finds out about it after having admitted a student. The admission office will begin to consider whether or not to rescind that offer. That is a little caveat many don’t see in their offer of admission–it’s the college admission version of “the fine print”. Offers of admission come with strings attached. Schools give themselves the right to rescind the offer at any time. I have seen students acceptances be rescinded, and it is never a pretty sight nor a good position to be in. It leaves the student without an option of going to college in the fall.

The last reason I recommend honesty is because admission officers and committees are just as human as you or I. Admission professionals are people who have also made decisions which resulted in disciplinary action–whether it was based on principal or just a poor life choice. They have been there. They know what it is like to have to answer for their actions and decisions. They understand that one decision does not determine one’s fate. They are empathetic people and willing to be understanding that students are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world.

So if by this point you are seeing the value of addressing these life experiences directly, the next question is how. How does a student share this narrative with colleges? Well there are a couple of ways. Certainly one can have a conversation with an admission officer. Whether by phone or in-person, this can be a useful approach. An admission officer can ask some questions and learn the full story. The admission counselor might also be able to provide some guidance on the next steps a student should take in sharing this story.

Another approach is to disclose this situation in a written response. This could come in the form of an email and/or through the application. There is a section in every application where a student is asked if they have ever been disciplined (suspension, arrested, etc.); then asked to write about what happened.

Whether sharing this story in-person or writing about it, the general response is fairly formulaic. In fact I mention the formula above:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why were you involved?
  3. How has this shaped you as a person?

I think the first two questions are self-explanatory. Just explain what happened. I don’t recommend a ton of detail (you can leave out that it was a bright and sunny day), just enough to paint the picture for someone who wasn’t there. It’s the third question that usually stumps students, and is by far the most important part. Colleges are all about growth and learning–that includes life’s difficult lessons, the ones not taught in a classroom. That said, it’s a reflective question which are often very difficult to respond too. It requires one to go deep inside; to reveal parts of ourselves we may hold back from the world; the parts that are only for us to know about. Here are some other ways to break the question down which might help ease a student into providing a reflection on the situation:

  • How did this make you a better person?
  • What have you learned from this experience?
  • How will you approach your life differently now?
  • How will you approach being a part of the campus community differently?
  • What have you learned about yourself?
  • Did you decide to make some changes to your life because of this situation? If so, what were they and why?

Certainly a student doesn’t need to address all of these introspections, just the ones that are most applicable.

For any adults supporting a student in writing about a disciplinary infraction in his/her college admission journey, I have one plea. Please be empathetic. I know part of your role is to teach boundaries, maturity, responsibility, etc. Sometimes as a teacher, the best curricular materials we have are real-life experiences. They can be such powerful teachable moments, especially when we can scaffold them on to other situations. It makes the experience have a greater impact. With that said, writing these responses can be an enormous challenge for students. Whether it’s re-living an experience they would rather forget or re-engaging a principled stance that gets them fired up–it can be hard for an adolescent to see the forest for the trees. You are in a position to help them keep a healthy perspective, which ultimately will make writing about their experience slightly less painful.

Good luck, and if you find yourself struggling with this part of your application let me know. Send me a message and I would be happy to provide some help.

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