Omitting Negative Information on College Applications – Does it Help or Hurt Students?

To tell or not to tell. That is the question for any student applying to college with a less-than-stellar disciplinary record. Students, parents and guidance counselors worry about the effect disclosing negative information might have on the admissions process. If the student is a good kid who made one mistake, is it really necessary to strongly admonish him to reveal everything?

According to eminent social psychologist, researcher and author Elliot Aronson, PhD, failing to be honest can affect the student in ways that go far beyond admittance to college. Dr. Aronson’s award-winning research has proved many aspects of the theory of cognitive dissonance. That theory effectively explains much of the psychology behind marital discord, racial prejudice and public corruption. In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Dr. Aronson and coauthor Carol Tavris, PhD explain:

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.

Completing a college application is an undertaking fraught with cognitive dissonance if you’re a student with a past. What will you do? You know it’s wrong to lie, and worse if you certify you’ve told the truth. But if you tell the truth, you risk rejection by an institution you’d like to attend. Either course is uncomfortable. In the widely used textbook, Social Psychology, Dr. Aronson and his coauthors frame the dilemma in terms of cheating on a college exam:

Supposed that after a difficult struggle you decide to cheat. How do you reduce the dissonance?...It is likely that you would try to justify the action... You would adopt a more lenient attitude involving cheating, convincing yourself that it’s a victimless crime, that everybody does it and so it’s really not so bad.

In contrast, a student who decides not to cheat will reduce dissonance by convincing himself that cheating is unquestionably wrong; otherwise he would not risk an important grade to avoid it. His truthful actions actually make him a more truthful person.

Students who lie to get into college have started down a slippery slope, setting themselves up to lie and cheat in other situations as well. This can become a way of life. In matters of ethics, it truly is “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Many corrupt public figures started out honest, but then “lost their moral compass.” Anyone in a position to influence students should help them avoid that pitfall.

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