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by Abigail Anderson, former admissions officer at Reed College

Students utilizing the Common Application will notice a question regarding their disciplinary history just after they fill out the Essay Section. This question, which is required, states:

“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.”

The student is then asked to respond “Yes” or “No.” If the student responds “Yes,” then a second required question populates:

“Please give the approximate date(s) of each incident, explain the circumstances and reflect on what you learned from the experience. (400 words)”

Before I get into how to answer this question, it’s important to note that the Common Application gives colleges the option of hiding a student’s response to many questions on the final PDF of their application—and this disciplinary history question is one of them! The Common App states that, “If a college suppresses your response to disciplinary history, all that means is that your answer will not print on the application PDF that you submit. It does not necessarily mean the college won’t review your response at some point in the admission process.”

You can find a full list of colleges that suppress Disciplinary History, as well as what is done with this question, here.

If you do find yourself needing to answer this prompt, there are a few important takeaways to keep in mind:

  1. Colleges appreciate students who take ownership of their mistakes. The admissions officer is not trying to decide who was in the right or wrong in this instance, but rather they are trying to understand what happened and how you learned from it. As one of my colleagues said, “This is not the place for you to plead your case to a new judge.” Try not to put the blame on anyone else, as this will come across as immature to your reader. The reader knows that a student who owns their mistakes is a student who can learn from them!
  2. Be honest, direct, and succinct. State what happened in a straightforward manner; doing so usually only takes one or two sentences. Try to look at the incident from a high-level point-of-view, rather than getting into every detail of who said or did what. If you need help with this portion because you’re still too close to it emotionally, ask a parent or trusted adult to help!
  3. In your response, focus most on the latter half of the prompt, where you are asked to “reflect on what you learned from the experience.” What lessons will you take forward with you to college? How has your behavior changed as a result?
  4. If it’s possible, consider how your letters of recommendation might corroborate (or contradict) what you write here. Is there a school counselor or teacher who can speak to what you learned from the incident, and how you applied that learning? A letter of recommendation from that individual might actually be an opportunity to amplify your growth! If you think this sounds like an option for you, consider writing your own explanation early, so that you can share it with your letter writer and they can better understand your perspective.

Many high school students make mistakes; you are not alone. In fact, your brains are hardwired to test boundaries and challenge the status quo at this developmental time! Know that your disciplinary history will not be the “end” of your college application. If you follow the advice given above, you will increase the likelihood of your application reader seeing this as just a minor bump in the road.

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Written by Abigail Anderson
Abigail Anderson is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Abigail received her bachelor’s in sociology from Colby College. Prior to joining College Coach, Abigail worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College and Emma Willard School. Visit our website to learn more about Abigail Anderson.