I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, but I’ve become a fan (obsessed stalker perhaps) of the show “Pretty Little Liars” on ABC Family. In rare moments of self-reflection, I acknowledge that this is not because of any deep redeeming literary value, and I understand (with some clarity) that the show in no way enhances my cognitive skills. But it’s SO fun.
The lives of the show’s characters, performed by a great cast, careen from one lie to another. As each cover up builds on the previous, a revelation of one lie to parents or close friends inevitably establishes a series of supporting lies, snaring other family and friends in a web of deceit creating groups united primarily by their need to perpetuate these falsehoods. While this makes for some entertaining viewing, I’m amazed at how often it also arises as a theme in the college admissions process.
Lies on College Applications
Most often, the perception of dishonesty on college applications involves a significant drop in a grade or grades. In response, students:
A. Provide rational responses that acknowledge personal responsibility for the lowered grade, also detailing changes made to improved grades and ways such outcomes will be avoided in the future.
B. Offer a series of excuses, potentially valid, but entirely unverifiable. Typically such applicants vow that once life becomes entirely fair again, good grades will inevitably result.
C. Concoct a description of circumstances justifying the situation with the skill of a seasoned fiction writer. If channeled in appropriate directions, these students could easily turn these narrative skills into a future writing career (if not of novels, at least of future ABC Family scripts).
Unfortunately for college admissions officers, it is often hard to distinguish between these responses. If circumstances (whether they be related to your health, family tragedy, or the routine consumption of your homework by the household pet) have had a negative influence on your grades, you need to carefully consider how your explanation is going to sound to college admissions officers. Keep your explanation simple, concise, and easy to follow. Most importantly, consider two pieces of information that are often lacking from these submissions: What you have learned from the situation and how you have managed to overcome it.
Look again at option A above. College admissions officers want to see that you understand your role in your grades and you take responsibility for them. Despite one teacher’s irrational campaign to destroy your life (an explanation I get at least several times each year), how you handle the situation is up to you. Admissions officers realize, as you should too, that you are LIKELY to encounter new and awful situations throughout college (potentially including a professor who has an irrational campaign to destroy your life). Regardless of the cause of your past challenges, explaining how you have learned to face such situations in the future is crucial.
This leads to the second piece of information most applicants miss, which would also be the best response: Showing improvement in your performance. As mentioned in my last post, this can happen even later in your senior year, but being able to write that you have found a way to be successful despite challenges is a much better piece of information than any reason for poor performance in the past. Oh, and please don’t ignore the issue. Most college admissions officers who read your application will wonder why you didn’t address the issue of a significant drop in grades on your transcript.
Apart from various explanations for bad grades, I am also often asked about whether or not applicants need to share other types of negative information. In other words, is a lie acceptable on the college application if it is a lie of omission? This ranges from wanting to cover up transgressions in school, weak grades from courses taken outside of school, criminal records, or any number of other issues that college admissions committees are likely to view negatively. Applicants and parents write to me desperate for permission to leave such information out of the application.
Nearly every application asks that you sign (or electronically acknowledge) that the information you are submitting is true, accurate, and COMPLETE. If you fail to do so, colleges can revoke your admission EVEN AFTER YOU HAVE ENROLLED!! Also, even if not caught, it makes you a big stinky Lying McLyerson.
Also worth knowing, you probably will get caught. Colleges find out this information in all kinds of ways, ranging from financial aid records to oversharing on social media. When it becomes clear that a student has lied on the application, schools will almost always take action. The risk just isn’t worth the potential incentive of avoiding additional scrutiny from the admissions committee. Getting admission, only to have it revoked, is far worse than being denied in the first place.
Truly shameless plug alert: Of course, how truthful, accurate and complete you are in your answers won’t matter if you miss your application deadline. Yes, thank you for asking, Mason’s application deadline is coming up this Saturday, January 15, 2011 -- so apply now, yes now. You can read the rest later. I’ll wait…
As I was saying: Whenever we catch an applicant in one of these omissions, I imagine that scene from the Princess Bride where Carol Kane is shouting, “Liar” at Billy Crystal. Now THAT would be a scene I’d love to see on “PLL,” right after the episode where the snarky admissions dean has a small but crucial guest-starring role. Hey, it could happen.
Be seeing you.