How to Handle a Criminal Conviction in Your College Application

A question from a reader:

My son has a felony conviction.  During a drunken night out two years ago, he and some friends broke into several homes in our neighborhood.  He was arrested and then he pled guilty in a plea bargain agreement in which he paid $3,000 in restitution and was given 5 years probation.  Since then, he has attended a community college, has a GPA of 3.82 and is a member of an honor society there.  He has also curbed his drinking.  In short, he's turned it all around.  Now he's applying to four year colleges, including Emory, Wake Forest, and University of Virginia.  He's afraid of how the conviction will impact his chance of being admitted and getting financial aid.  What should he do?   

Congratulations to your son in turning it around.  He should be proud of that accomplishment.  Most of us have episodes in our past that we would prefer we didn't.  But, the best way forward is always to learn from our mistakes and then move on.

Your son is right that his criminal conviction adds an additional hurdle to admission, but it is possible that he can clear that hurdle.  In order to do that, he needs to make a persuasive case that he is a compelling applicant who made a big mistake in the past, but that he has learned from it and will be a positive contributor to the college if admitted. 

So first, he should concentrate on preparing a great application that highlights all of his academic and other achievements.  He will have to check a box somewhere that he has a criminal conviction, but he should not make it the "center" of his application.  For example, he should write a personal essay that focuses on something positive about him, not on the circumstances surrounding his criminal conviction.

Although it should not be the center of his application, he should address the criminal conviction in a supplemental essay.  The first part of the essay should be a straightforward, forthright presentation of the facts.  No excuse making, no "totally unfair" etc.  The second part of the essay should be how he has changed his behavior since the conviction and his commitment to never doing something illegal or wrong again.  The third and final part of the essay should be what he has learned from the whole experience.

Beyond the supplemental essay, he should consider what he can do that will reinforce his application and confirm that he has turned it around.  For example, he could obtain a recommendation from someone who can affirm that he has changed his behavior and learned from the experience -- his probation officer, a teacher who knew him before/after, a dean at the community college would all be possibilities for this recommendation.  If he is given an opportunity to interview, he should take it and be prepared to address his criminal conviction during the interview.  A personal encounter can be very persuasive.

I will note that the fact that your son has not yet completed his probation may work against him; the incident is not fully "behind" him.  If he is not admitted in his first round, I'd encourage him to enroll in a less selective four year college, get his undergraduate degree and then consider a more selective school for graduate study, when he has an even deeper record of high performance, has completed his probation, and is even further away in time from the conviction.

In terms of financial aid, your son will be eligible based on the rules governing each college's financial aid.  It is probably unlikely that he will be a competitive candidate for merit based scholarships, but he may very well be awarded need-based scholarships, loans, or work-study aid.  I would counsel him to first seek admission and then worry about financial aid.

Good luck to him!

If you have a question about how to address a difficult situation in the admissions process, we'd love to hear from you.  Post a comment!


Alison Cooper Chisolm has worked in admissions at Southern Methodist University, the University of Chicago, and most recently Dartmouth College. She is a graduate of Yale College and the University of Virginia Law School. As part of the Ivey Consulting team, Alison works with college applicants and their families as they navigate the college admissions process. Read more about Alison here