Suspensions and Discipline:
Comments from Sally Rubenstone
by Sally Rubenstone, Senior College Counselor and Contributing Editor, CollegeConfidential.com, and former Admission Counselor, Smith College (here, writing in College Confidential’s Ask the Dean column)
Question: I am a high school sophomore who recently got in a trouble. I violated my school’s academic integrity policy and got a one-day suspension. I regret it a lot, and I won’t behave like this again, but my parents are very concerned about my future. My counselor says that I have been a hard-working student, so the suspension will be deleted from my school record, if I don’t get in any trouble by the end of the year. But college applications ask about suspensions. If I say yes, can I still go to a college if I make decent grades and don’t cause any trouble during the rest of my high school years?
If it’s any consolation (as in “misery loves company”), your question is one that “The Dean” encounters frequently. Clearly, there are many high school students out there, like you, who have gone astray just once and are eager to get back on track.
When the time comes to complete your college applications, this is what we suggest:
Answer the “Have you ever been suspended?” question with an honest “yes” and then explain the circumstances. Some application forms give you a place to do this. If not (or if the space provided isn’t adequate), feel free to attach a separate statement. Your statement should include a brief explanation of the infraction, noting, too, when it occurred. It should also cite what you learned from the experience and how you’ve made a point of working hard since then to prove that the incident was an exception. Point out that, because of your good behavior since then, your school has expunged the violation from your permanent record, but you are reporting the suspension nonetheless because you feel it would be less than truthful not to, even if the admission committee wouldn’t otherwise learn of it.
What you should not do in this statement is to try to wheedle out of responsibility for your actions, regardless of what happened (e.g., “I did it because the other kids made me” or “Everyone knew the teacher was unfair so it seemed like my only recourse”).
Most college admission officials will respect you for your candor, but will your suspension affect your admission decisions nonetheless? Probably not, but maybe.
For starters, the nature of your infraction may come into play. Admission officers tend to look somewhat kindly on what might be called youthful follies or rites of passage (sharing a beer under the basketball bleachers, putting Monopoly money in the soda machine). Episodes that endanger or belittle others are not regarded as frivolously. Academic violations–such as yours–are often viewed seriously, too. However, again, the type of violation may make a difference. Copying a seatmate’s biology lab report on the school bus would probably be dismissed with an “everybody does it at some point” wave of hands, while stealing test answers from the teacher’s file cabinet might raise questions about personal integrity. Frankly, there is some dumb luck involved, too. One admission staff member might consider an incident to be trivial while another could regard the same incident with disdain. So, depending on whose desk your application folder lands, your suspension may hurt you—or not at all.
Another important factor will be how strong a candidate you are. If your “numbers” (test scores, rank, GPA, etc.), your background, or your special talents make you a top contender, then your suspension will probably not affect your admission decision. If, on the other hand, you are a borderline candidate (and at the Ivy League colleges and their equivalents, almost no one is a shoo-in) then it’s possible that your infraction may come back to haunt you when the final tough choices are made among equally qualified candidates. In other words, you will definitely have colleges that will admit you, despite this one-time mistake, even if your first-choice school turns you down.
Because of your situation, admission officials may scrutinize your required references very carefully, so be sure to choose wisely when you select the teachers who will write on your behalf. If your guidance counselor speaks well of you at recommendation time, then this will be a big plus, too. Thus it would be wise of you to keep in regular touch with your counselor throughout your high school career and remind him or her periodically that you’ve made good on your promise to stay out of trouble.
While it’s frustrating to realize that a youthful indiscretion can follow you years later, take solace in the fact that you learned an important lesson while still young. Sometimes these lessons aren’t learned until far later in life, when the consequences can be much more severe.
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Sally Rubenstone is Senior College Counselor and Contributing Editor, CollegeConfidential.com, and former Admission Counselor, Smith College; Sally is the primary dispenser of advice in College Confidential’s Ask the Dean column.