Can a Disciplinary Infraction Keep You From Getting Into Your College of Choice?

As the first half of senior year comes to a close, many of you are feverishly working to complete your college applications. Those of you who have broken a rule or two -- got caught drinking at a school dance, forgotten to cite a source in a history paper or used weed killer to spell out your school's name on your archrival's football field -- have the added stress of explaining those incidents as part of the disciplinary history section of the Common Application.

You may be concerned that any disciplinary infraction, no matter how small, means that you will not be admitted to the college of your choice, or any college. But as a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, I can tell you that how you address these mistakes often matters more than the violations themselves. With that in mind, here are the three steps you might consider:

Step 1 -- Own it. Regardless of whether or not you feel that the rule you broke was valid or that you truly deserved the punishment meted out, the fact is that there was a rule and you did break it. You need to accept that fact and take responsibility for it before you can move forward in this process, or everything that comes afterwards, particularly step three, will be for naught.

Step 2 -- Disclose it. Because of a variety of policies adopted by high schools, not all incidents get put on a student's permanent record or are revealed to the colleges by the high schools themselves. This can lead to the ethically murky question of whether or not to answer the disciplinary infraction query honestly.

My colleagues and I always advise the same thing: if the honest answer to whether or not you have been found responsible for a disciplinary violation is yes, you should answer yes on the application. If the college finds out about your misstep from someone other than you -- anonymous letters are a particularly popular option -- the consequences are generally very bad. Once the college uncovers your dishonesty, it's hard to convincingly state that you have taken responsibility for and learned from your original mistake.

One caveat: the Common Application specifically states that students are not required to answer yes to this question or provide an explanation if the judgment or conviction was ordered by the court to be kept confidential. (Visit for the full version of this note.)

Step 3 -- Reflect on it. If owning it and disclosing it are the first steps towards redemption, reflecting on the incident is where you can truly showcase that you have learned and moved on from this lapse in judgment. Write honestly and thoughtfully about the experience. Take the blame, provide a mature explanation for what happened and why, tell your reader what you learned, and, if possible, provide a few examples of that lesson in action.

Depending on the seriousness of the infraction, you may need to apply to a few more schools than initially planned. For a truly grave mistake that involves violations of the law, you might consider making an appointment with the admissions officer to discuss what happened in person. Not all AOs will be open to this idea, but a willingness to talk about the issue may point to a greater likelihood of acceptance down the road. Still, you should probably add a few more safety options to your list and be prepared to show every single school to which you will apply some love by visiting and interviewing if that option is available.

In the end, keep in mind that all admissions officers realize that the applicants in their charge are teenagers who will sometimes make bad choices. It is how you as an applicant react to the fallout from those choices that will sway AOs back to your side.