The point of this article is not to tell you that you shouldn’t engage in disorderly conduct, petty theft, or other minor (or major) infractions (though you really shouldn’t…); what we want to discuss here is how you should overcome the obstacle of a criminal record when approached with the application question: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain.”
If you did something stupid, something deserving of a conviction or suspension, how do you prove to an admissions committee that you are worthy of their acceptance?
First, don’t try to hide a conviction. Clients often ask me if they really need to bring up their troubled past, and I tell them they do. Admissions committees (and the firms they hire) conduct background checks on applicants, and an unexplained discrepancy gives them an easy reason to reject your application or withdraw an offer of admission. So, when asked, own up to your behavior on your application.
Don’t make excuses. The biggest struggle I face when helping troubled clients is getting them to move past their tendency to justify their behavior: their writing tends to get overlong with explanations. Even very subtle self-serving statements can be read by an admissions committee as failure to take responsibility for your behavior. Leave out the excuses and directly address what you did.
Don’t go overboard addressing the infraction. The second biggest struggle I face is keeping clients from turning their applications into overblown mea culpas. A client once came to me having written two required essays and an optional essay all addressing a mistake from the past—too much! Often, a well-written response to an application’s “failure” essay question is enough.
Do show that you learned your lesson and that your past behavior won’t happen again. This step tends to be less of a struggle for clients, because usually they can show remorse, they can show the actions they took to atone for their behavior, and they can show how they matured from their experiences. Often such clients become heavily involved with their community, counseling others who tend toward their same behavior and managing to turn their failure into a success benefitting others.
Perfect execution of these suggestions certainly will increase your chances of admission, but they may not be enough to gain you acceptance to a top school. So avoid having to deal with this situation altogether: think twice and three times before you do something that you could regret for a very long time.