Can a Student Start Over at College Without Revealing a Bad First Year?

Question: My student was in a large university and had a unsatisfactory GPA after one year. He was out of state and had no financial aid; we paid for everything. Can we “start over” without using these grades now?

In a situation like this it’s hard to get off scot-free with the ol’ Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy, at least without lying through your teeth. The problem is that almost all college applications ask candidates to name every institution they’ve attended since 9th grade, and many specifically ask if the student has attended any college. Moreover, the requisite references and transcripts will indicate that time has passed since this student was in high school. Admission officials are sure to pick up on the fact that the candidate in question is not a current senior, and they will want to know how he spent his time since graduation.

Obviously, this is where personal integrity comes into the picture. If he claims he was hiking the Appalachian Trail or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, no one is likely to be the wiser, but that’s certainly not an option we can advocate in good conscience.

Our advice is that, instead, this student should come clean with the fact that he had a rough year but is ready to make a fresh start. Depending on where he’s applying and how effectively he carries out this task, he could turn his bad experience into a plus in the admission process. In addition, you can admit that the first college year was not successful and ask if it’s necessary to submit grades, if the student is applying as a freshman. Explain that he wants to make a clean start and be evaluated on the basis of his high school record alone. Some admission officials may allow this; others probably will insist that you submit the college transcript.

Before doing so, however, we strongly suggest that you—and he—take a close look at why his time at this first university was sub-par. You’ve probably done that already, but you need to be as certain as possible that whatever problems led to the previous “unsatisfactory GPA” aren’t going to dog this young man at his new school.

Reassure him, too, that many college students get off to a bad start and are able to parlay it into a learning experience that makes them stronger (and happier) on the second go-round.

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