How to Address Your Disciplinary History on a College Application

February 4, 2022

You so badly just want to just check the “No” box underneath the question asking if you have ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation in high school; it would be so much simpler that way. If only you hadn’t done that one stupid thing at a 10th grade dance…If only you hadn’t glanced at a classmate’s test booklet that week you were too stressed to study. If only…

Welcome to the first stage of grief (denial), experienced by those who made a single mistake at some point in high school and now, sometimes multiple years later, must reckon with reporting that misdeed on their college application. Yet, it is imperative that you rapidly move past this stage and get ready to tackle the situation head-on. With a proactive and positive approach, applicants can minimize the damage of that regrettable incident and still go on to earn an acceptance at their dream university.

Here’s the question that is actually posed to applicants on the Common App:

 “Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary action? These actions could include, but are not limited to: probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion from the institution.”

When considering your response, the following blog will tell you:

  • What disciplinary infractions do I have to report on my college application?
  • What disciplinary infractions do I NOT have to report on my college application?
  • Why lying is NOT an option
  • Why having an honest talk with your counselor is the best option
  • Tips for addressing the Disciplinary History section – with examples

We begin with an examination of what types of infractions need to be disclosed and which can be relegated to the ash heap of history.

What disciplinary infractions do I have to report on my college application?

If you have a relatively serious offense on your transcript such as cheating, possession of a controlled substance, fighting, stealing, or school-related cyber-malfeasance, you likely received some form of significant punishment—an out-of-school suspension or even an expulsion. These types of school-based transgressions do generally (see the “talk with your counselor” section) need to be reported on your college application.

What disciplinary infractions do I NOT have to report on my college application?

Any action that resulted in a mere detention or even series of detentions is very unlikely to rise to the level of needing be included on your college application. Being caught cursing in 9th grade, throwing a grape at a friend in the cafeteria, getting into a shoving match on the basketball court in gym class over who had the better crossover, “accidentally” parking in the faculty lot, being late to school, or talking back to your French teacher (in English, no less!) are all the types of infractions that needn’t be unearthed as one readies themselves to apply to college. Also, nothing from middle school counts—remember, the Common App specifically asks for events that occurred in grades 9-12.

Lying is NOT an option

Having just lived through a well-publicized college admissions scandal which saw the FBI charge 53 people, we hope that the message is crystal clear—lying on your college application, in any form, is a terrible idea. Just as an actresses’ daughter should not pretend to be a star coxswain recruited by the USC crew team, you should not be anything but truthful about a question involving your disciplinary history. The dated, and even more on-the-nose example, is the applicant who was admitted to Harvard in 1995 before the university learned that she had omitted one minor detail…she had previously been convicted of murdering her own mother. Upon this revelation, Harvard rescinded her application not because of the murder but because she lied on her application. For those curious about her fate, she later enrolled at Tufts.

Having an honest talk with your counselor is the best option

Lying is never an option, but coordinating an agreed upon plan with your guidance counselor to deal with disciplinary “gray areas” is absolutely fine—in fact, it is the smart thing to do. The official guidelines for disclosure vary greatly from high school to high school and college to college.  Only about half of high schools in the United States, as a policy, disclose disciplinary information to colleges. At present, 26% always disclose such info, 24% sometimes do, and 50% never include anything about suspensions or expulsions on college applications. If you have a major infraction anywhere on your 9-12 record, sit down with your guidance counselor and find out a) if they plan to report the incident as part of your school report and b) if they think you should address the issue in the disciplinary section of the Common App. As long as you and your counselor agree on an ethical and sensible course of action, you can make a wise choice that has a zero percent chance to come back and bite you down the line.

Tips for addressing your disciplinary history

First and foremost, address the pertinent facts of the case, as requested directly on the application. That request reads, “Please give the approximate date(s) of each incident, explain the circumstances and reflect on what you learned from the experience. (You may use up to 400 words.)”

Along with each tip below, we will provide examples of what TO DO when addressing each area. We offer two examples to show how the same themes can apply to a variety of offenses.

1) Take ownership

Immediately take ownership of your mistake. You may still be bitter that the assistant principal gave you a harsher penalty than the other combatant in the fight, but your college application isn’t the place to argue over spilled milk. Don’t blame the adult who caught you, the person who doled out the punishment, other peers who were involved, or the system of justice at your school (“This whole trial is out of order!”). Just say, in essence, “I did this and it was a terrible mistake.”

Example A: In April of my junior year, I received three days suspension for cheating on a test in my AP English class. It was an absolutely terrible mistake and one that I deeply regret.

Example B: In September of my sophomore year, I attended a school dance under the influence of alcohol. I was subsequently suspended from school for five days, a punishment I fully earned. The decision to consume alcohol, let alone attend a school function while under the influence was a terrible decision and one that I deeply regret to this day.

2) Provide context

It’s critical to give an explanation for what happened while ensuring that that account never veers into excuse territory. Were you angry about your parents’ divorce? Were you experiencing clinical anxiety or depression when the event occurred? This is all critical context to provide the application reader. The best way to do this is to try not to say too much or too little. Don’t skip the step of humanizing the mistake but don’t treat this as a tell-all autobiography where no detail is spared.

Example A: In retrospect, I realize that I made myself susceptible to such a poor choice by not properly managing my anxiety around studying for four AP tests, taking the SAT, playing varsity tennis, and working part-time at a restaurant. After the incident, I reflected on what led me to momentarily lose my moral compass. It was then that I realized that my stress level was too high and I made a series of important decisions. Right then, I cut back my hours at work for the remainder of tennis season, and began reading about mindfulness and meditation. While this emotional state does not excuse my regretful action, I am confident that taking better care of myself will ensure future decision-making that is more consistent with who I am as a person.

Example B: At the time of this incident, I was dealing with the death of my grandfather as well as my two closest friends leaving my high school school. Rather than attempting to process my grief and sadness about these life events, I instead engaged in behavior that I am not proud of and, I do not believe is reflective of who I am today. After the incident, I found a great therapist through my guidance counselor and have since discovered a new and more academically-minded group of friends.

3) Demonstrate growth and maturity

As Pete Rose once said, “If somebody is gracious enough to give me a second chance, I won’t need a third.” While Pete may still be waiting for that second opportunity, his quote captures the spirit of what you should aim to communicate. You learned from the mistake you made, you grew, and you’re never going to make that mistake again.

Example A: When I returned from suspension and, feeling great shame, I humbly handed my English teacher a letter of apology and I could not have been more surprised at or grateful for her reaction. My teacher was so kind and understanding that it literally made me break down in tears on the spot. I know in my heart that I will never let someone like her down again, nor will I let myself down by looking for a dishonest shortcut in the future.

Example B: Though I, of course, wish that I had never consumed alcohol that night, I do feel gratitude for the growth I experienced in the wake of that unfortunate incident. I learned more about getting in touch with my emotions and how to work through them in a healthy manner rather than the self-destructive path I was walking down at that difficult time.

Not every college will read your disciplinary history response

Colleges are extremely divided on the issue of whether or not to even view an applicant’s disciplinary history. At present, roughly 50 Common App member institutions actually suppress that section of the application. Recent research suggests that, overall, 73% of American colleges collect disciplinary data and 89% of those schools weigh that information when making admissions decision. Yet, strangely, only a small percentage (roughly 25%) of postsecondary schools actually have a formal written policy on the subject.

Wesleyan University, for example, will not read a student’s disciplinary history unless they have already received a positive first review and are being seriously considered for admission. At that point, that section “will be studied to fairly assess whether a past offense does or does not indicate their readiness to join the Wesleyan community of learners.” To find out where your prospective schools fall, follow the Common App’s instructions which are as follows: “For more information on whether specific colleges choose to receive this information or how it may be considered, please see the My Colleges tab.”

Key Takeaways

  • Being honest is not a choice. Like Watergate, the cover-up can be worse than the crime.
  • Before deciding whether or not to fill out this section, speak with your counselor.
  • If you are unsure either way, DEFINITELY speak with your counselor.
  • Remember the three steps you should take when addressing your disciplinary history: 1) Take ownership 2) Provide context 3) Show growth and maturity.
  • Refer to the examples given to help formulate your own response that covers these three critical areas.