Question: Why do admission committees want to know what you did between the time of your high school graduation and the time you are applying to their college?
Colleges are interested in your post-high-school undertakings for a couple reasons. Primarily, they want this information much in the same vein that they want to know not only about your classes, grades, and test scores, but also about your extracurricular activities, hobbies, and work experience. In other words, they’re interested in seeing the “whole person” behind an application, and the way that you spend your non-academic time can provide helpful insight into who you really are.
Most applicants, of course, apply to college straight from high school, so if you’re not still in high school, admission officials are curious about the choices you’ve made since graduation. This knowledge will contribute to their “holistic” view of you as a candidate, and it may also help them determine how your matriculation might impact their campus (e.g., Have you been in rehab? In jail? Were you volunteering in a Third World Country? Manning the fry-o-lator in a fast-food restaurant to save money for your schooling?) Whatever your response, it may enable admission committees to better evaluate how you will fit in at their institution. Moreover, a particularly interesting, challenging, or unusual “gap year” can sometimes help borderline applicants get into a first-choice college.
Secondly, colleges want to know if you have matriculated elsewhere. Sometimes students who have attended another college but have done poorly there will try to apply to a new school and “pretend” that the first college experience never happened. However, it is imperative that applicants are truthful about all post-secondary academic experiences. Although it is tempting to want to make a bad beginning at another college simply vaporize so you can start over with a clean slate, this is unethical. Some students do try it and get away with it, but I’ve heard stories about those who get caught–even several YEARS after enrolling at the new school–and are promptly dismissed. Many admission officials are forgiving when an applicant confesses to bad grades as a freshman elsewhere, but they are not so sympathetic if they discover that the applicant has tried to lie about a previous college experience.
So, if you are applying to college after already graduating from high school, you should be candid about what you’ve done in the intervening time. If you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished (even if it’s doing menial labor), be sure to say so. And if you’re NOT proud, try to explain your regrets to admission officials, put mistakes you’ve made in perspective, note what you’ve learned from the experience, and express your desire to contribute to their campus community in the future.