Can You Go to College with a Criminal Record? Admissions Advice

It isn't easy explaining any weak point on your college application, especially something as large as a criminal charge. A Noodle expert shares one student's story and explains why a criminal record doesn't mean you can't go to college.

Applying to college (and getting in) has never been more necessary, nor has it ever been such a stressful experience for students and their families. This is why we started ApplyKit two years ago: to both demystify and streamline the entire application process from college discovery through application management. However, despite becoming experts in the college applications and admissions process, there are still times when we receive challenging questions from ApplyKit users regarding their applications. The most recent question: “How do I get into college if I have a criminal record?"

In a world where students are fighting for any edge on their applications, (“I became president of the National Honors Society when I was a freshman,” “I earned a perfect score on the ACT and also identified a grammatical error in the math section,” “I am an all-state chess player and built an orphanage in my hometown”), having “I served time in jail for underage drinking” seems like it would be the proverbial nail in the coffin of your university aspirations.

Fortunately, it isn’t.

A good friend of mine went to an excellent, highly selective school (hint: we have featured their gorgeous campus on our @CollegeMatchApp Twitter account). We were reminiscing about the shenanigans we had gotten into during high school. I was surprised to learn he had amassed a few criminal charges during his formative years.

“Wait … you went to X University. How did you get in despite having that on your record?”

“It wasn’t easy,” he told me. “I approached it as a person who made some mistakes and learned from them. I wasn’t going to run away from it or lie about it. I owned up to it and explained how I am a better person because of it.”

He went into further detail and outlined how he approached the situation. Here is how he handled it, and how you should if you are in the same situation:

Own up to it

The worst thing you can do is try to hide from it. If you try and sweep it under the rug, it will be discovered and that might ruin your admissions chances. When there is a 5,000-pound gorilla in the room, the best thing you can do is introduce it to everyone.

Turn the application weakness into a strength

This is a bit counterintuitive and, frankly, is not easy to do. However, if you are smart about it, you can leverage this mistake as a learning experience — an impetus for significant personal growth. We all know people make mistakes. We also know that people can identify with a good redemption story. So, write your essay about this incident. Fully and truthfully explain what happened. Do not blame anyone else; on the contrary, take ownership of your mistake. And finally, make this incident the focal point of your personal growth. How did it change your outlook on life? What did you learn? How have you become a better person by reflecting on these mistakes? An honest, thoughtful narrative can go a long way in strengthening your application.

Align your learnings with college's mission

For example, if the school you are applying to is a Jesuit school, chances are that they highly value individuals with self-awareness as this is a major principle of Jesuit education. Knowing this, you can align your story with this principle. Reflect on how this incident made you a more self-aware person and how that has contributed to your growth into a more mature person and given you direction for how to live your life moving forward.

A criminal record is not an easy thing to overcome, especially if the charges were severe. However, it is not necessarily a brick wall between you and college — it is more like a speed bump. By leveraging your mistakes as an opportunity for growth and personal development, you can make the admissions department of a school feel as though they play a role in your redemption story.

Further Reading:

How to Explain a Bad Grade to College Admissions

The Most Important Part of Your College Application

Getting into College Is Easier Than You Think

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