Should You Share Dirty Secrets With College Admission Offices?

What happens if your teenagers has made a bad mistake during his or her high school years? I’m talking about a suspension from school. A drunk driving ticket. A cheating incident.

How do you handle these kinds of mistakes on your college application?

Lee Bierer, an independent college counselor in Charlotte, NC, and a syndicated columnist, tackled this thorny college admission subject this month in her column. With her permission, here is what Bierer had to say:

Admissions offices will usually forgive the mistake, but not the lie.

Blemishes are never attractive. Whether they are the hormonally-induced variety or those that raise a red flag in the admissions office, neither one is what a student wants to be dealing with during the college application season.

Being upfront and honest about most any incident is the unanimous recommendation from admissions professionals.

“If you don’t tell us – I promise someone else will,” said Former Director of Admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, Nanette Tarbouni. “There is always an eager student who wasn’t admitted to the same college or a parent of a student who will write to us anonymously and let us know.”

Colleges will look more kindly on the student who has chosen to be honest and taken the initiative to surface their incident on their own. “Hiding it makes things much worse and college admissions officials are much less likely to be forgiving when there is an effort at covering up these mistakes,” Tarbouni said.

Parents can sometimes be the guiltier party here, convincing their children not to be forthcoming because they think any issue is the equivalent of an automatic rejection. That’s not the case. If colleges are convinced a student has learned a lifelong lesson, many a student’s record will be cleared and they will be evaluated with the rest.

If students answer “yes” to the disciplinary question, they are asked for an explanation. This is not a time for students to make excuses as in “everybody else in the class cheated too, but I was the only one that got caught.”

Students should deal factually with the infraction and then move onto an explanation of they learned from the experience. If the issue was an isolated incident and reflects an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment, then a student will benefit from sharing those details.

It is very important for students to read the application questions on discipline carefully. Colleges are very intentional in their language here and are generally not interested in finding out about a student getting caught for skipping a class or smoking a cigarette. Some will say “Have you ever been charged with, convicted of, or pled guilty to…” This means that even if an infraction has been expunged from a student’s record, the answer is “yes.” Admissions officers recommend that a full and honest disclosure is what they want to see.

In general, families have good reason to trust the college admissions office. As they often remind everyone they are an admissions office not a rejection office.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.

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