For a high school senior applying to college, these two questions tucked away at the end of the Common Application under the innocuous label of “Other Required Information” can be jarring. After all, who wants to admit to an infraction that could torpedo one’s chances of admission to a top college?
Harvard College has for years asked potential applicants—and high school admissions counselors writing recommendations—such a question. According to Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73, however, an increasing number of secondary schools are withholding disciplinary records from Harvard. It is troublesome that these secondary schools feel compelled to hide this information: not only does it undermine the integrity of the student body at Harvard, but it strains the relationship between Harvard and the secondary school, which ultimately harms both.
The Harvard Admissions Office depends on accurate information from students, high schools, teachers, and others to select the incoming class. Without accurate disciplinary information, the Admissions Office is less able to choose the best candidates for admission.
High schools, however, may perceive that they stand to gain from withholding disciplinary information. Not only do high schools gain in reputation by sending a student to Harvard, but they face tremendous pressure from parents to help their children gain admission to top universities.
In the long run, however, such a policy will prove to be harmful to a secondary school. Not only is the withholding of knowledge of crimes and disciplinary violations morally bankrupt, but it undermines the relationship of mutual trust between Harvard and the secondary school. If the Admissions Office is unable to trust that the school will share disciplinary information of an applicant when relevant, a cloud of doubt is cast over the applications of all students from that secondary school—regardless of whether an applicant has committed an infraction and no matter how qualified an applicant is. Withholding disciplinary records may help a few students in the short-run, but it does so at a tremendous expense.
That being said, the root of the problem is the hyper-competitive culture of college admissions, which has bred the notion that only perfect, blemish-free applicants will be admitted. Harvard students know this is false. Some of our most interesting and accomplished peers have overcome mistakes in their pasts. The Admissions Office should do its part to communicate this to parents and high schools, so that parents do not put pressure on their secondary school to withhold their child’s record and secondary schools do not buckle under that pressure. We also hope that applicants will be honest, so that it does not come down to the high school’s disclosure of disciplinary infractions to expose a disciplinary issue.
Finally, we do not believe the threat of legal action against secondary schools that withhold information is a wise option. Moral and practical pressures should be sufficient, and taking admissions decisions to court—which McGrath Lewis suggested may be a possibility to the newspaper Greenwich Time—would set a bad precedent.
When a secondary school withholds disciplinary records, only students willing to present an inaccurate image of themselves are helped, while both the Harvard community and other applicants from that secondary school are hurt. We hope that high schools will see the flaws in a policy of withholding disciplinary information and change their ways.