How to Tell Colleges About Your Mistakes

Photograph of a "Wrong Way" sign that symbolizes your mistakes as a high school student, which you need to explain during the college admissions process.

Photo by Jack Zalium.

News flash! You’re not perfect.

You know it. Your parents know it, and every admission counselor reading your application knows it.

So, how do you handle your imperfections when it comes to applying to college?

Some issues don’t need to be shared. The fact that your bedroom looks like a pile of old Mayan Ruins doesn’t really impact your ability to do work at the college level, so you can feel free to keep that to yourself (though your mom might really appreciate a little effort here).

Other issues, however, may need to be shared, and sometimes, being honest can help you in the admission process. If the issue has any implications on a college’s ability to judge your work at the college level or your ability to positively contribute to their sense of community, you might want to consider sharing it.

Here are some often encountered scenarios and how you might handle them:

1. Your grades drop for a semester

You have clearly not done your best work and your GPA is negatively affected.

But, there’s more to the story. Your grade fluctuation was due to a health issue (or a death in the family, or some other very stressful event). Subsequently, your grades come back up to their normal level, but your GPA is lower than it might have been had you not had this hiccup in your academic career.

This is a perfect example of a situation in which you would want to explain this aberration to admissions officers. They understand that these things happen, and you may give them just enough reason to look a little harder at your grades without that one semester included. Many schools, given proper information and good reason, are willing to be a little flexible.

2. You were caught doing something you shouldn’t have

Teenagers often make choices that they sometimes wish they hadn’t. It’s a part of growing up.

If you were caught doing something you shouldn’t have been and it’s on your record (for example, you were suspended for drinking at the football game or school dance), you might want to explain this. The very important part here is to not only explain the error of your ways, but explain what you learned from it.

And, you should learn from it.

Getting caught for making the same mistake repeatedly is significantly harder to overlook than the student who makes a mistake and can show she has changed her ways.

3. You have been distracted from school

You might also choose to explain anything that keeps you from working to your maximum potential. Your grades might be okay, but borderline for a particular college.

Perhaps you are an underachiever or perhaps you have competing priorities that you must balance. Your single mom works late in the day and you’re responsible for the after school care of your siblings. You have a part-time job, the money from which is essential to the functioning of your family, or one of your parents is suffering from a serious illness.

Sharing your challenges won’t necessarily get you in the front door of a college for which you are not otherwise qualified, but it may affect the way a college sees you.

The bottom line is that colleges are likely to be more understanding if they understand your circumstances.

While it’s very difficult to put a positive spin on some things, being honest about your mistakes and challenges can tell colleges a lot about you, some of which can be very positive.

Remember to always be honest about yourself, and that it’s usually better to show understanding and growth from your past mistakes than to try to cover them up or avoid them altogether.


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