Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez
Every year, we have a few students who agonize over the disciplinary question on the Common App and how to respond to that question. As parents ourselves and private admissions counselors for two decades, we have seen all sorts of crazy incidents from a student who was charged with a felony (“graffiti” on federal land when it was actually just a funny drawing in a park) to plagiarism, cheating, fighting, drug/alcohol and minor disciplinary charges like missing a few days of schools. One complicating factor is that every high school has different rules for suspensions, expulsions and what to report. Should a student who receives a dress code suspension receive the same treatment as one accused of academic dishonesty?
ACADEMIC HONESTY IS KEY
When I worked in Ivy League admissions, I can testify that we were VERY concerned about any report of academic dishonesty from plagiarism to cheating and did reject kids who were known cheaters. After all, academic honesty and integrity is the currency of a university experience. Any violation of academic integrity typically resulted in rejection though often we would verify with the student’s school counselor first.
We also gave the student a chance to explain what happened and the Common App itself provided a space to do so. For years as private counselors we have helped students show their side of the story which often mitigated the judgment if it turned out to be more of a misunderstanding than a flagrant violation such as the student who wrote on social media that she could “Kill Mrs. Smith for that horrible test” which her school took as a threat.
When the Common App actually analyzed the data of who actually submitted application materials, they found that students of color (Black students particularly) were more than twice as likely to report a disciplinary record than white students. This is a significant issue since Black and Latinx students (27 percent of students who submit applications through the Common App) comprise 52 percent of the roughly 7,000 students who first, declare an infraction and second, as a result, do not submit their application.
COMMON APP DISCIPLINARY QUESTION = GONE
Based on that data, the Common App decided to eliminate that question beginning in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Does that mean students should not worry at all? Of course not. Keep in mind that serious incidents of bad behavior or academic dishonesty still have paths to reach the admissions office. The most common way is the actual guidance/college letter. I would hope that a counselor would include in their official letter any serious incidents as they put their reputation on the line each time they write a letter of recommendation. If admissions officers learned of a serious omission, it would threaten the credibility of the high school and the counselor. My worry is that counselors are often afraid of legal repercussions and undue pressure from wealthy/powerful parents who could influence them to leave out important information. The other avenue for requesting the same information would be for colleges who wanted more information and who cared deeply about academic dishonestly to include that question on their supplemental essay questions so that the student would have a chance to elaborate.
Though of course we don’t support a question that penalizes one segment of the population, we do think the Common App could have perhaps tweaked the question rather than abandoning it altogether. We surmise that suspensions result more often from bad behavior than from academic dishonesty. If that were the case, why not ask a more targeted question: has this student had any major infractions of academic dishonestly including cheating or plagiarism. That would eliminate the minor suspensions from shoving a classmate in the hallway or not tucking in a shirt for instance, but preserve the essence of the question.
OUR ADVICE TO YOU
Our advice to students and parents is to keep in mind that top colleges DO value honesty and integrity and your teachers and school counselor are still writing letters to colleges that elaborate on what kind of student you are. Just because the Common App is eliminating the disciplinary history question (along with the cover letter School Form that asks for similar information) does not give you license to cheat or behave badly. That information is likely to come across via other channels (even from jealous classmates – really!).
Honesty is usually the best policy and we have helped students explain unjust suspensions or unfounded accusations. Admissions officers are human beings who do try to understand the context and the nature of any disciplinary action. That being said, your best option is to take pride in your own academic achievements and to avoid risking rejection for falsifying any of your work, period.