College Applications: How to Address Red Flags

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

College Applications: How to Address Red Flags

App Red FlagAs the academic year winds down, students finishing their junior year may be looking to get a head start on the college application process. Almost every student gets nervous about college applications, but for students who have to explain an infraction, grade dip, or extenuating circumstances, there’s an even higher level of anxiety. Are you afraid that a “red flag” on your file will drop it straight into the ‘denial’ pile? Make an appointment with your guidance counselor or with an independent college counselor to address any red flags on your application in an articulate, comprehensive, and responsible way.

Start by determining if you fall into one of the following categories:

Disciplinary Infractions: These include expulsions, suspensions, and probations. Not all disciplinary infractions are created equal. There is a wide spectrum, from tardiness, to dress code violations, to underage drinking, to academic dishonesty.

Grade Dip: Did you flunk or get a D in more then one class?  Does a cursory glance at your transcript show a sudden nose-dive in grades or a slew of unexplained absences?

Curricular Changes: Did you drop a major subject, switch class levels, or have a dramatic change in your schedule or course load?

School Breaks: Did you miss a semester or a whole year of school? Did you change schools at a critical juncture? Did these events negatively affect your coursework and/or grades?

If you have experienced any of the above, you may be required or invited to explain the circumstances in your college applications. Many colleges, including those on The Common Application, provide an ‘additional information’ section to address these situations.

Here are some tips you should keep in mind when composing your explanation:

Be Honest: If you did something wrong, admit it. Be forthright and clear about what happened. Reflect on the sequence of events and acknowledge your role in them. Don’t make up excuses or try to minimize what happened. Nothing frustrates an admission officer more than a smug student who doesn’t admit their shortcomings.

Take Responsibility: Admissions officers understand that teenagers make mistakes.  However, the mark of maturity is your ability to take ownership for your actions and to learn from your mistakes. Do not blame your high school, teachers, friends, or classmates for what happened. Of course, there are often other mitigating factors and in many disciplinary cases, you may feel victimized or unfairly treated. However, your college application is not the place to vent or deflect blame.

Share Your Motivations: If you were caught drinking, were you caught up in the drama of homecoming? If you plagiarized, did you pull three all-nighters in a row and cave under the pressure? Did something that began as a prank go horribly wrong? Of course, none of this changes the fact that you made a mistake or maybe a series of errors in judgment, but they begin to contextualize your frame of mind.

Turn a New Leaf: How did the event(s) ultimately impact you? At the end of the day, the admission officer wants to know that you are cognizant of the full impact of what you did, and that you have learned from the experience. Tell them how you have grown up; give evidence of your improving responsibility and self-discipline. Have you arrived on time every day this semester, become a peer mentor, or enrolled in counseling or behavior management? Have your grades improved? Give them the confidence that you have become a more responsible person/student and will continue to respect the rules of your high school and college communities.

Extenuating Circumstances

There are many reasons a student might drop a major subject or have a problematic transcript. Perhaps you changed schools and could no longer get into honors classes.  Maybe you contracted mono, resulting in a grade drop or a semester off. Were you diagnosed with a learning disability and only now learning to address your academic challenges? Admission officers are human (believe it or not!) and want to know the context of your high school experience. Give full information about your situation, but don’t try to ‘milk it’ or play the sympathy card.

Finally, ask your high school teachers and counselors for letters to support your story. Ask your college counselor to address your disciplinary or curricular problems in his/her letter. If you have a medical issue, ask your doctor or psychologist to send in a brief note of explanation.

While you can’t erase these concerns, if you follow these suggestions, at least you have acknowledged and addressed them honestly. Ultimately an admissions officer will know that you have grown from the experiences and have a mature outlook on your college life.

Want a customized, strategic action plan for addressing the Red Flags in your college application? Contact us today

Related Topics

11th Grade, 12th Grade, College Application Tips

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