Past actions vs. current words

My cynical side always does some eye-rolling when a public figure profusely apologizes after being caught in a crime, cover-up, or other scandal. Of course you’re sorry now. You got caught. You’re being forced to answer for what you did. And the only way to have any chance of emerging and continuing your career is to fall on the sword in public. It’s apology by necessity.

Students, it’s important that you don’t come off that way when you apply to college.

Many college applications ask students if they’ve ever been subject to any disciplinary action at school. If your answer to that question is yes, the only thing worse than making excuses and expressing no remorse at all is to use your college application as your first recognizable expression of apology.

For example, let’s say a student makes the questionable decision to participate in a senior prank that involved creating a mess on his school campus, one that had to be cleaned up as a result. That student then gets caught.  He makes excuses and claims he was just a passive participant rather than the initiator. The parents wage war with the school to suppress the infraction, citing potential damage to his college admissibility. But in spite of the family’s efforts, the student gets suspended for two days. And it becomes clear that he’ll need to explain his actions on his college application.

How much weight will an expression of remorse really carry then? Can an admissions reader actually believe this student regretted his actions before he was forced to stand up and own them?

Past actions speak louder than current words. An apology expressed today, especially one that’s not expressed to the person(s) affected, isn’t about making amends for the past. It’s about preserving your own future. That’s a difficult thing for someone to ignore.

Instead, imagine if the student had not only accepted his punishment, but also immediately visited—without parents in tow—the school janitor who had to clean it up, stood in front of him, and apologized face-to-face for the mess he’d taken part in creating. That’s a real apology in real time.

Now that admissions officer is reading about a completely different kid.

Teenagers make mistakes. Yes, some infractions are far worse than others. But parents, as frustrated or even heartbroken as you might be if your student ends up in a similar scenario, and as much as I understand your instinct to protect your college applicant’s good standing, please don’t undermine the work you’ve done to raise a good human being. Ensure that your son or daughter not only stands up and accepts responsibility for their role, but also expresses remorse to the people who were negatively affected.

Apologies carry less oomph in the future than they do at the time of the crime.