Preparing for College

How Will Suspension for Drinking on School Trip Affect Accepted Student?

Question: My son has already been accepted to his college of choice. However, very recently on a school trip, he and 11 others were nailed for alcohol use and consequently suspended for 3 days. In his particular case, he admits to drinking a little, but then distanced himself from the situation. Must his high school report this? Will his college withdraw the acceptance? Thank you. We are agonizing about this.

It seems that I have answered this question many times over ... especially this spring. I don't know if there's a new epidemic of teenage misbehavior in progress or if there are simply more crackdowns than there used to be.

So, if it gives you any consolation, you are not alone. And perhaps the very epidemic nature of these infractions could work in your favor because colleges must be accustomed to them by now and certainly don't want to rescind multiple offers of admission this month.

Unfortunately, however, all I can tell you at this point is that you need to speak to your son's school officials to ask them how they will handle the situation. Although such suspensions are usually reported on the final school transcript, which your son's college will receive, not all high schools choose to disclose disciplinary actions, even though the colleges do expect to receive such information. And some high schools will report it immediately .... not waiting for the end-of-year transcript.

So, first, you have to talk to your son's guidance counselor or principal (or whatever other administrator is the point person here) and ask if this will be disclosed to colleges. If the answer is yes, then you should also ask for specifics. Will the high school report say something like, "This is a good kid who got caught up in the excitement of a school trip and used poor judgment for the first time we've ever seen him do so," or will it be more like, "These students were told clearly that we have a zero-tolerance policy, which they flagrantly chose to ignore. Then they lied to cover-up their violation."

The spin that the school puts on the report could have an impact on how the college decides to proceed. Moreover, some colleges are more liberal when it comes to these sorts of things than others. So the outcome depends not only on the high school's reporting policy--which varies from school to school--but also on the college's policy, which also varies.

I imagine it's tempting to not talk to school officials about how--or if--they will report this to colleges, for fear that you may be "reminding" them to do so. But, trust me, that won't be the case. And, should you stick your head in the sand, then your son won't take the next important step.

If the school is reporting the suspension, your son must write a letter to the college explaining what he did. His letter should be contrite, accepting blame for his actions--not shifting it to classmates--and it should emphasize what he learned from the episode. He should also emphasize that he isn't a habitual user of alcohol (if this is indeed true. If not, then he should seek help for a problem that will only get worse in college if it exists already). If his record is clean until now and if his apology is convincing, he may be off the hook, but it really depends on the college in question.

I do empathize with your agony. The only silver lining is that it could be worse. Most colleges put senior drinking under the "Youthful Foibles" rubric (especially when a large group was involved, as happened here) while other offenses (e.g., cheating, bullying) cast aspersion on the applicant's character and are usually treated more harshly.