Let’s face it – teenagers make mistakes for all kinds of reasons. Our best hope is that the mistakes they make won’t be life-changing ones. Sometimes, the mistake they make will result in disciplinary action from their high school. And usually, that means that it will wind up on their transcript, which will be sent to colleges. Even if it was a minor event that happened during their freshman year, unfortunately, students might need to explain that suspension on college applications.
Previously, Common App asked all students about disciplinary violations. The Coalition App doesn’t ask about discipline history in the common section of their application, but in my experience the individual colleges using the Coalition App will ask. It remains to be seen whether individual colleges will continue to ask this question. But if they do, one of the worst things that a student can do is to lie about the disciplinary action, because as I mentioned above, the information will be given to the colleges.
So, let’s talk about some different scenarios, which may be more common than you think.
My teen was suspended as a freshman for defending himself in a fight.
Sadly, some schools have a policy that means that both students involved in a fight will be suspended. And generally, the student’s role isn’t explained on the transcript. It will certainly look more favorable if that is the only disciplinary blemish during their entire high school career. A pattern of fights throughout high school would be more concerning to a college.
My child was caught vaping (with THC) in the school bathroom at the end of their junior year and suspended.
This is one of those things where the college’s reaction may depend on how much detail the school includes on the academic record. Vaping has become epidemic in many high schools, so that alone may not raise many red flags to the college. Vaping probably doesn’t carry the same penalty as fighting, although it’s illegal for students under 18. But, colleges would expect that a student knows the school rules and consequences of breaking them, by this point.
My Senior already applied to colleges, but got caught drinking alcohol at a school dance and got suspended.
This may be among the most common scenarios. Colleges will vary in their response to this. Your student may think this is no big deal because the applications have already been sent. However, they are likely wrong. Remember, colleges request final transcripts at the end of the school year. If a disciplinary violation appears on their transcript, a college would reserve the right to rescind an offer of admission. It happens. Some colleges might not be overly upset by an alcohol violation during the senior year. Others will take the view that again, a senior should know better than to break the school rules, as well as the law.
How to Handle Disciplinary Violations on Applications
As I mentioned above, students are going to have to disclose the violation, if the college asks. On most applications, they will need to check the box saying that they do have a discipline record to disclose. When they do so, they will be prompted to provide details. This is NOT the time to make excuses, blame other people, etc. This is the time to accept personal responsibility, be apologetic, and briefly state what they have learned from their actions. Again, that will be much harder to do if there are multiple infractions in the record.
I know of one case where the teen was able to turn their suspension into a positive, by writing about it in their essay. In their case, they had been involved in a fight, after a bullying incident. While they took ownership of his actions that resulted in suspension, they also demonstrated that they were of good character. Not every student’s disciplinary situation is one that will lend itself to an essay though.
It is also a good idea to have the guidance counselor address the issue in their recommendation, assuming they can be positive. The student needs to ask specifically for the guidance counselor to address it, but also ask directly what the counselor will say. Ideally, the counselor will address it, more like, “This student has shown great character throughout their high school years, except for this minor lapse” instead of saying something like, “This student knew the consequences of their actions and chose to ignore the rules.”
For a student that has already applied to college, the situation is trickier. The first thing they need to do is to speak to the guidance counselor to find out whether the high school will notify their potential colleges prior to the end of the school year. Some colleges do ask for midyear reports, and so the information might be disclosed then, if it happened early enough in the year. Students need to write an email to their admissions officer, letting them know about the suspension. Their wording should be similar to what they would have written if they had been including it on their application. Be concise, factual, and accept responsibility. If the college gets the notification of a disciplinary action after the acceptance has gone out, and has not heard from the student directly, it may well increase the odds that the college will exercise their right to rescind their offer.
Will the Disciplinary Violation Affect Admission?
That’s an unknown. 89% of colleges report that they will use the disciplinary information in admissions considerations. However, the majority (75%) do not have formal policies on HOW the information is to be used. That’s why the way the student handles the information on the application is so important. It may help to put an admissions committee at ease.
Colleges worry about whether a high school mistake could unfairly keep a deserving student out of college. At the same time, they obviously don’t want to admit students that will cause problems on campus. Obviously, a violent criminal record is likely to cause more concern than vaping in the bathroom. But ultimately, nobody can guarantee an admissions outcome.