It is Spring Break week for many school systems across the country. I know this because my family headed south on I-75 this Saturday morning. Within about 3 miles on the highway we hit stop-and-go traffic. My daughter began counting the number of different state license plates (which was particularly easy at seven to nine miles per hour) and my son started Googling spring break weeks in the US. I kept my right foot swiveling between break and gas, and the usual 3.5-hour trip to the state line took nearly double that. Yes, it was as painful as it sounds, so let’s move on.
Yesterday I received a text from a friend. “Soooo…let’s hypothetically imagine your son gets in trouble on Spring Break. What does that mean for college admission?” I’ll save you the series of .gif I sent to answer this question, as well as his quips and creative emoji responses, although there were a few absolute gems to be sure.
I don’t have data on this, but for some reason April and May seem to be big months for the topic of discipline/behavior, so this is a redux of a piece I wrote a few years ago that attempts to provide some broad insight and advice.
As always, a huge asterisk that I do not speak on behalf of all colleges. If, after reading this, you have specific questions, call or contact the school you are interested in (don’t worry–you won’t be the first to disguise your voice or indicate you are “asking for a friend”).
The short answer: schools use the same individualized, holistic process for reviewing a student’s discipline history that they do for reviewing academic or extra-curricular background.
Here’s the long answer.
Context. Typically, the first question admission counselors ask when they open an application is “where does this student live and go to school?” The goal is to understand who you are, where you are from, and what your family, academic, social, and community background looks like. Admission counselors are charged with gaining perspective on your high school setting and experience in order to understand both the options available to you and the choices you made, both inside and outside the classroom.
Moved three times in high school? Had a two-hour commute each day? Saw mom and dad go through an ugly divorce? Suffered a concussion or another illness that caused a prolonged absence? In college application review, context matters. Context is critical. Therefore, context is always considered.
The same is true of our review of your disciplinary background. I once read the application of a student who was arrested for being in a dumpster behind his school. Why? Because his mother was working a double shift and had not left him a key to their apartment, he was looking for warmth and shelter. Another student was arrested for being in a dumpster after spray painting the school with graffiti and slurs (the dumpster was simply where the police found him and his friends hiding). As you can see, context matters—and context will always be considered.
Timing. In their academic review, many colleges separate a student’s 9th grade GPA from their 10th-12th grade academic performance. This does not mean grades in Geography or Geometry in freshman year don’t matter, but rather indicates we recognize they’re not as predictive of academic success in college as grades in higher level courses (this is also why committees look at grade trends in a holistic review process).
Timing is also one of the factors admission counselors consider when reviewing a student’s discipline record. No, we don’t love your sophomore year suspension, but if there are not additional infractions, we are likely to exercise grace, consider it an isolated incident, and trust you learned a valuable lesson. The bottom line: holistic review = human review. Admission deans, directors, counselors may look polished or established now, but we’ve all made plenty of mistakes (I likely up the overall average). It is important you know we bring our ability to make judgment calls into our review of transcripts, test scores, family background, non-academic impact, and yes, disciplinary infractions as well.
Process. The admission “process” is not just for students. Colleges also have an entire process, including one for review of all elements of an application. In most admission offices, there are initial guidelines for discipline/behavior/criminal review. Most of the questions relate to severity, timing, the school’s action, and the implications that incident had on other students. If the situation warrants additional review, staff members escalate it to an Associate Director, Dean, Director, or an official review committee. At this point, 99% of cases are cleared without further action. However, if the case requires another layer of review, schools will involve partners from around the university for insight and areas of expertise, e.g., Dean of Students, General Counsel, and perhaps Chief of Police or other security representatives.
Having participated in many of these layers, I am always encouraged by how thoroughly and thoughtfully questions are asked and facts are gathered. One of the most difficult things about living in this beautiful but broken world is coming to the realization that as much as we may desire it, there are few things that are 100% good or bad; 100% right or wrong; 100% black or white.
Ownership. Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.
“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined up and bagged them on the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening.
Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.
A Final Note to Seniors
Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy: games, productions, awards ceremonies, spring break, prom– tradition upon tradition, and last upon last. I get it.
I ask you to please hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few months. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do indescribably dumb stuff that has lasting implications or consequences. So before you get behind the wheel; before you go to (or throw) that party; before someone brings out another bottle; when “everyone” is going to jump off that bridge naked in the dark into water at an untested depth; when cramming 12 people into a hearse to go blow up the principal’s mailbox gets suggested as a senior prank; before you post pictures or gossip or antagonizing content on social media, I hope you will thoughtfully consider your beliefs, character, and goals. (If all of that sounds too specific to be made up, well…).
I implore you not to rationalize with phrases like “everyone else is” or “she told me to” or “someone said it was okay.” Have the maturity and vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation or speak calmly in frenetic moments.
I encourage you to read your offers of admission from colleges closely. They are promises of a future community. They are based on your academic potential but also upon their belief you have and will continue to enrich those around you. Ultimately, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with character in these final months of high school. Finish well.