If you get caught cheating on a test, drinking before a football game, or doing anything else that invites disciplinary action from your school, there’s a good chance it’s going to come up when you apply to college, as both you and your counselor will have to answer questions on your application about whether or not you’ve ever been disciplined or suspended from school. But here are some important steps to take long before then.
1. Don’t make excuses; accept responsibility.
When you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t have been doing, there’s usually no excusing your way out of it. It doesn’t matter if you think the rule is unfair. It doesn’t matter if everybody was doing it, too, or if it wasn’t your idea. The fact is that you knew the rules, you broke them, and you got caught. So don’t make excuses or otherwise shirk responsibility. Owning up to your actions, especially if it’s clear how sorry you are, goes a long way in showing that this was a mistake you regret.
2. Don’t involve your parents more than you need to.
Some parents leap into action when their kid is in trouble. Many won’t allow their student to speak while meeting with the counselor or vice principal. I’ve seen parents march their attorney down to the school to try to prevent the school from mentioning the kid’s infraction to colleges (it didn’t work). Your goal is to show colleges that you are a mature, responsible adult who’s capable of making good decisions on your own. Don’t hide behind your parents. Talk for yourself. Look your counselor and vice principal in the eye. Be a mature adult who’s made a mistake you regret, not a sullen teenager who gets in trouble and waits for your parents to sort it out.
3. Gladly accept your punishment.
This is part maturity, part college admissions strategy. First, if you broke an important rule at school, you deserve to be punished. Don’t fight it. Just accept it. The fact is that the more severe the punishment, the more likely colleges will believe that you have more than paid your debt to your school society. If your choice to drink before a school dance got you sent home, suspended, and kicked out of your position on student government, you’ve taken your due punishment and a college would be more likely to focus on your good potential than they will on your one bad decision.
Your counselor doesn’t want to spend time dealing with this issue. Your parents don’t want to be called down to the school. Your friends, teammates or coworkers might even have experienced some fallout because of your mistake. Apologize to all of them. A sincere apology, one that shows that you really understand and regret how this affected other people, will only make it easier for them to forgive you.
5. Think about how this ordeal is making you feel.
I don’t mean a teenage version of, “You go sit in your room and think about what you did!” Were you embarrassed? Disappointed? What did it feel like to tell your parents what you’d done? All of these emotions are worth remembering so that you can later describe to colleges how this infraction made you feel. One of our counselors had a student who described to her how mortifying it was to be led out of a school dance—drunk—in front of everyone and escorted to her waiting parents’ car. Our counselor’s advice: take all that shame and put it on the page. Our student’s response to the colleges made it clear that she was mortified both then and now about her bad decision. She was accepted by most of her colleges. Expressions of well-deserved shame or regret help everyone involved remember that you’re a human who’s not at all enjoying the outcome you’ve created for yourself and for others.