Suspension and Discipline Comments by Alyssa Sinclair

Suspensions and Discipline:
Comments from Alyssa Sinclair

by Alyssa Sinclair, Assistant Director, and the Middlebury College admissions staff

"Have you ever been dismissed or suspended from a school? If so, please send a detailed explanation on a separate page with your application." This is a request made by Middlebury College to each applicant for admission, and many other colleges ask a similar question. For some students it is as easy as placing an "x" on the line indicating a negative response. For others, who must place their cursor in the space next to "Yes," this question looms large. Students with a blemish on their disciplinary record wonder how much an affirmative answer will influence the deliberations of the admissions committee. They and their parents agonize over how much to tell and in what manner. The shortest and most straightforward advice we can offer is to tell the truth and tell it completely.

There are cases where students made poor decisions early in their high school careers and all recommendations point to a more mature student who learned from his mistakes. In these cases an admissions committee rarely finds reason to slow its pace for an in-depth discussion. Other scenarios shed light on more recent lapses and do bear careful scrutiny by the admissions committee; however, hearing in your own words what happened and what lessons you assimilated can assure a committee that great kids can, and do, sometimes make bad choices. More often than not, what influences a committee decision is not what a student did but how she handles it both at the time of the incident and throughout the admissions process. It is impossible to generalize and say that some types of misbehavior are more forgivable than others. Each case is assessed on its own merits, in the context of what is said about the applicant within the folder and, more importantly, what the applicant has to say for himself.

The same can be said of situations that arise after a student submits an application for admission. We have all heard tales of the senior class trip that ends with students being suspended. In these scenarios the students in question did answer honestly the application question - they had never been dismissed or suspended. It is still incumbent upon you to be forthright after filing your application, particularly if you applied and were admitted under a college's early decision program. Letters of admission are often contingent upon "successful completion of the senior year" and you should not assume that that refers only to your academics. If you are disciplined after submitting your application, or even after being admitted, you should inform the colleges involved.

No student wants to add to her application information that is unflattering, highlights a lapse in judgment or jeopardizes her admission; however, I can assure you that a well crafted explanation of the circumstances leading to disciplinary action will serve you far better than hoping the situation will go unnoticed. First and foremost, it is highly unlikely that the admissions staff reading your application and the committee deliberating over it will not pick up on some reference to your suspension. Even when schools forbid guidance counselors from mentioning disciplinary action, some brief mention made in a recommendation or a drop in grades due to time spent away from class work will send up a flag. Remember that even when students are admitted via early decision, colleges still assess their final transcripts. It is far better for you to be in control of the circumstances by which an admissions office is informed of your infraction. I can speak only on behalf of a small college, but any unexplained warning sign noticed within the admissions process or during final transcript evaluation results in a phone call to the school for clarification, whereas a carefully written explanation rests on its own merits and leaves no loose ends to be tied up by the admissions staff.

In the end, each part of your college application is an opportunity to present yourself in the best and most complete way possible. Despite the fact that informing a college of a disciplinary action highlights an error in judgment, it is the way you handle the topic that most matters. None of us is perfect and there are real people sitting on the admissions committee who know well that foibles and failings are as much part of learning as exams and GPAs. Don't underestimate the committee's ability to separate you from the event leading to your disciplinary action. More importantly don't sell yourself short; it is an adult skill to assume responsibility for one's actions and to account honestly for lapses in judgment. We ask you to answer our application question because we expect the best from you. So, too, should you expect the best of yourself.

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Alyssa Sinclair is Assistant Director of Admissions at Middlebury College.