Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The College Application Question No One Wants to Handle

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

At first, it seems like a simple couple of questions that cause most college applicants no problem.  Usually located right after the student’s name, address, senior year schedule, and year of graduation, two fairly long questions appear, both with Yes and No boxes to check:

“Have you ever been suspended, disciplined, expelled, or put on probation while in high school?”

“Have you ever been charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or felony?”

Like most things in life, if neither situation applies to you, this is no big deal—check no twice, and start thinking about how to tackle the essay prompt.  But for those students who don’t check no, life can get interesting in a hurry—and that means it gets interesting for counselors, who are often asked the same question.

As is always the case, the best plan to have is to plan ahead.  For the question about school discipline:

  • Make sure you know the school policy on how to answer this question.  Many schools have a policy requiring counselors not to answer this question—the student can, but the counselor cannot.  If your school has a policy, follow it; if your school doesn’t have a policy, develop one.  Now.
  • It’s important to read the question on each application closely. Some schools will ask about the student’s entire disciplinary record, while others will only want to know about discipline that led to time away from school.  One answer may not apply to all applications.
  • When the answer is “yes”, the college may ask for an explanation.  Many schools direct counselors to discuss this with the student, have the student write an explanation they review together, and submit that answer, with no additional explanation from the counselor.  This shows the college that the student is taking ownership, and can explain how they have moved on from the situation—and that’s the important part of the explanation.  Unless it’s absolutely necessary, the counselor doesn’t add their own comments.
  • If the situation is complex, the counselor may simply want to say “please call me” when answering the question.  The student should still submit an answer as well.

The question about misdemeanors and felonies is more challenging, largely because most counselors aren’t aware of these situations, since most students aren’t eager to share them.  At the same time, many students will simply stop filling out a college application, convinced that simply answering Yes to this question will lead to a denial of their application.

After once again reviewing school policy, the best way to be proactive with this question is to supply general information to all students.  They need to know that most colleges evaluate each Yes answer on its own merits, and many colleges that ask this question turn all Yes answers over to a separate legal or judicial division of the college.  This group often reads the student’s explanation, does any appropriate investigations, and determines if the student would pose a risk to the college.  If the answer is no, the application is then read for admission like every other application, and the matter is closed.

It’s easy to understand that some people think one poor choice is like one low grade—that it will eliminate college as an option.  While discipline questions aren’t usually a part of college admission, it’s important all students know that “one strike and you’re out” doesn’t generally apply.  These questions shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing your college goals. 

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