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.
Most college applications require you to write a brief essay, usually between 250 and 650 words. If you are applying to schools that accept the Common Application, there are five essay prompts from which you can choose. Schools that do not accept the Common App will provide their own essay prompts, and schools may require additional short answer essays. The essay is widely considered to be the third most important factor in the college application process, after grades and test scores. It is your chance to speak to the admissions officers in your own voice, to become a three-dimensional person rather than a collection of statistics. This is where you can share your passions, your dreams, your talents, your story, and most importantly what makes you special.
Need help getting started? Download "Writing Your College Essay: A Twelve-Step Program from Grady's CCC." Make sure to download these sample essays, as well (reading sample essays is Step One).
2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (650 words)
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Essay Tips (click here)
Resources for essay and resume help:
The Writing Center: located in the Media Center and open Monday—Thursday from 3:15 to 6 p.m. No appointment necessary.
The CCC: one-on-one essay help is available during lunch periods. Sign up by e-mailing CCCessayhelp@gmail.com for a 25-minute session with a private tutor to brush up and refine your story.
Schools sometimes ask for additional supplemental essays. Make sure you check each school's requirements. One common question is Why do you want to attend this university? Click here for advice.