I screwed up, and don't want to do it again
April 30, 2009 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm reapplying to college six years after dropping out. I left, in part, because I had developed a drug problem. My application needs to include an essay which explains why I want to return, why my grades were below a 2.0 at the time I left, and why I will not repeat the same mistakes. Just how honest should I be?

The usual nonsense... fell in with a bad crowd, got into some hard drugs (we're not talking pot here), and in my case, married the leader of said bad crowd.

I muddled on for a few years splitting my life between partying all night and dragging myself through class every day, but my grades suffered and my GPA went from a 3.7 to a 1.8. Eventually I just stopped going.

Maybe a year after I left school I had a moment of clarity, realized I had destroyed my life, and stopped doing anything harder than the occasional beer on a weekend. I left my spouse not long after, and they died of an overdose not long after that.

So, fast forward a few years. I'm now your average college drop out. Haven't touched an illegal drug in years, and it's a rare month if I have more than a couple drinks total. I'm so squeaky clean my friends call me Lisa Simpson as a joke. I had a great job, was making good money, and got outsourced when the economy took a dump.
I realized that without a degree I'll never make the kind of money I did without going through years of lousy pay all over again. I've regretted the idiocy of my youth every day for the last six years, and would love a chance to go back and finish what I started.

So, when I reapply, just how honest should I be on the essay? Should I gloss over it with some non-specifics about spending more time having fun than studying and ending up married, or should I be honest and say my grades dropped and I left school because of the drugs?
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think full and forthright honesty would work here. I was compelled by your tale of redemption.

Are you enrolled in AA (or a similar program), by chance? That would help.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:43 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should be honest. It will help you demonstrate that you have changed--you failed because of a specific behavior, which you've now stopped.

Just put in your essay what you put in this post and I think you will have a very compelling application. Best of luck!
posted by phoenixy at 4:48 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding full honesty. Reapplying to college after your experience speaks for itself.

Honesty is particularly important when it comes to any questions about convictions. You can come clean about those and still have a chance of getting in. But if you lie and they find out once you're in, you're screwed. I think there's pretty good logic behind that policy, so I'd apply the concept to even more general questions about your history.
posted by motsque at 4:48 PM on April 30, 2009

A letter from your former employer stating that you are a good and reliable person would be useful.

But, I guess it depends on the college you are applying to. My friends application essay was all about how Frank Herbert's Dune taught him that you shouldn't trust anyone.

If you have a good track record since then, have good references, and write your essay well I don't think honesty could hurt you.
posted by munchingzombie at 4:48 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be honest; I think that you have nothing to worry about, as it's obvious that you have changed since. Have you spoken to any members of the committee that will be making a decision about your readmission?

Keep in mind that it is important that you have a very clear academic plan which lists exactly what courses you plant to take which semester, a degree plan, and an expected graduation date. I suggest you meet with academic advisers at your school (or just send an email, that's what they're there for), as you will most likely need their input to have your application for readmission processed.

Also, mention in your essay that you have through about how much time you will have to put aside for studying and how you plan to support yourself and your family while in school--it is a lot more likely that you will be taken seriously if you do so, showing that you have really considered what going back will be like rather than just doing it on a whim.
posted by halogen at 4:51 PM on April 30, 2009

Be honest. You have a compelling story. If you stick to generalities about having had too much fun, you won't stick out as someone who's really turned her life around.
posted by Dasein at 5:17 PM on April 30, 2009

I was also a college dropout, into very heavy drugs and a less than respectable lifestyle. My life was turned around after an overdose which should have probably killed me. When I decided to go back to college 12 years after my initial dropping out, I had to write many, many letters for acceptance and for scholarships. I was extremely detailed in my description of how my life declined and what made me turn it around. I was a bit nervous about the reaction I would get from my essays, but I think it saved me. I got literally every scholarship for which I applied, and the director of my program told me that he was impressed at my honesty and my determination to better myself. Definitely make a clear focus on your turnaround and what your aspirations are, but I think you should also be totally open about why you left school. Worked for me.
posted by Lullen at 5:28 PM on April 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think the 'non-specifics' you mention could make you sound flippant and noncommittal. There's a huge difference between spending more time partying than studying and becoming addicted to any substance, legal or illegal.

With a typical college entrance essay, you want your story to stand out from the thousands of other applicants. This sounds like an additional essay you're writing as a lapsed student, but I think the same principle holds true. There are plenty of people who drop out because they're not ready to be a full-time college student. Your story is different, and you should focus on what made your experience unique.
posted by easy_being_green at 5:36 PM on April 30, 2009

I'm going to buck the trend a little and say that you should be honest about substance abuse, addiction, and your new sobriety... but I don't think you should name the "not marijuana" that you were involved with and addicted to. I don't think it's anybody's business, and while I agree that it makes your recovery more impressive, that's not going to be true of everybody.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:41 PM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Should I gloss over it with some non-specifics about spending more time having fun than studying and ending up married,

Yes, because that's what happened, isn't it? What you described is a textbook case of "someone who partied too much and dropped out of school," and trying to garner sympathy points because you were taking "hard" stuff rather than marijuana and alcohol is silly, and will make you look like a flake.
posted by jayder at 6:41 PM on April 30, 2009

jayder, I don't think it's about garnering sympathy points, it's about doing what you have to do to get into school. I think it looks worse to say you partied and put your social life ahead of school than it is to say you were doing harder drugs. When I wrote my essays, I made it clear that my serious drug problem caused my failure, but I don't imagine me saying I just had too much fun would have the same effect. It's flaky to party too much and let social life get in the way. However, showing that a severe problem like drugs was the catalyst at least shows that you weren't just completely flaky; it shows that you were able to come back and be better than something that could have potentially killed you (not that I know the OP was that bad off, but it's always a possibility with harder drugs)
posted by Lullen at 7:14 PM on April 30, 2009

I think it depend son what field you want to go into. If it's something very conservative where a drug addiction could follow you around and you might be denied jobs because of it then personally, I wouldn't detail my addiction in writing. That goes triple if you have no criminal record.

If you don't care that this may come up again in your professional career or don't anticipate having a job where it's going to be an issue then go for it. It'll certainly be a lot easier to come clean up front and it may stay fairly contained. I wouldn't count on it staying between you and the admissions board though.

If you're unsure if this is something that might preclude you from a career in, say, teaching pre-schoolers ask around before you make your final decision.
posted by fshgrl at 7:27 PM on April 30, 2009

First, your not the only dude whoever dropped out of college to shoot dope and then went back, those are actually a dime a dozen. I was honest about this when I was going back to school and it worked in my favor, they hooked me up with sweet housing in a special quiet dorm that was a no-party zone so in my case honesty came with perks.
posted by The Straightener at 7:34 PM on April 30, 2009

If you're unsure if this is something that might preclude you from a career in, say, teaching pre-schoolers ask around before you make your final decision.

I am open about my addiction history and have recently worked in the public schools doing behavioral health work with children as young as 3rd grade. An addiction history even with medical stays for treatment has absolutely nothing to do with working with children, your state child abuse screening and FBI records do.
posted by The Straightener at 7:36 PM on April 30, 2009

No one want's to know about your drug problems or your lifestyle choices.

It's enough to take ownership of the fact that when you were younger you simply weren't disciplined/mature/focused/whatever enough to follow through.

Your situations isn't unique, btw... college admissions deal with returning students like yourself all the time.

Congratulations on going back to school! Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 8:05 PM on April 30, 2009

I've served on the readmissions committee at the university where I work, and we've seen more than a few cases like yours.

The best applications are those which are honest, and give a forthright and clear description of the events surrounding your departure. It's probable that there's someone on the committee who knows you or who has heard about you, so it's best not to hide or ignore your past problems. Also, as mentioned above, you have a compelling story, and it's the kind of thing that we like to hear.

The three most important things that I like to see in a readmission application are (1) an acknowledgement and ownership of past problems, (2) evidence of how you've overcome those problems, and (3) why it's not going to be a problem again. We need some proof that you're not going to fall into the same lifestyle that got you into so much difficulty last time. You've got a great story to tell, so don't hold back. As mentioned earlier, talk about how you've got a strong motivation to finish your education. Also, it's an excellent idea (and could even be required) to include letters from a supervisor, a counselor, a doctor, or anyone else who can attest to the new and improved you.

Many professors enjoy having older students return to the classroom, as they often provide the maturity and perspective that 19-year-olds lack. They're also usually the hardest workers in the class.

Good luck.
posted by math at 8:05 PM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

The essay is not really the place to be laying it all out like that - its part of your official record and it won't really be a secret. The fact that your anon here means your not that hot on shouting it out all over. The letter should cheerlead why you should go to that school. Have a friend help you write it - they will describe you in ways you never would - and there is lots of good advice and books out there for admission letters. In the letter I would just say: that was x, that I am y. It was six years ago. Brevity is key & a hallmark of someone who has sorted that issue out. Highlight the progress you've made (also: hey - it's great that you made that progress - I know sometimes you don't always hear that, and maybe it doesn't get said often enough - so genuinely good on ya. life can be a little hard sometimes). I wouldn't describe it as having too much fun - just a straight narrative that takes responsibility for it. Own it and then focus on the good stuff.

The admissions committee isn't going to be (or shouldn't be) all that interested in the sordid details - they are looking for folks that will be a good fit, perhaps contribute something to the dept. They appreciate motivated students - especially those that been out in the real world.

Contact someone in the department who sounds like they would be interesting & if possible go meet them. All of the professors CV's will likely be online - it will be pretty easy to spot the folks that you should contact (or ask someone who's recently done time at a U), and try to read something about or by the person you contact - its a great way to break the ice and they will usually like to talk about it. Checking out the department and meeting in person demonstrates real interest and will separate you from the crowd. They will expect you to have questions - so prepare some. If you are comfortable you can provide your in-depth background to the individual you meet in person. Project that you have a handle on your history - school can be tough and you should emphasize your perseverance and that you didn't / don't just give up. Good luck.
posted by zenon at 8:13 PM on April 30, 2009

I am in the "lay it all out there" camp, but do so in a way that demonstrates the emotional and spiritual growth that came from the experience. I never had any substance abuse issues but in my law school apps, I outlined all my family dysfunction and talked about how my experiences shaped me. There is certainly the danger of coming off sounding like, "Yeah, I smoked/snorted/drank too much and dropped out," or it can be "I've been three or four different people since that kid that started college X years ago and here's who I am now."
It's not about garnering sympathy as someone said upthread. It's about giving yourself a shot at a second chance.
Best to you.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:54 PM on April 30, 2009

I'm with Jayder in terms of the approach.

Your dropping does not appear to have been caused by a pathological drug addiction, but instead by a more generalized lack of maturity and willingness to defer fun in which drugs (or booze) was simply one element. This is all very common, and nothing to be embarassed about or even to make a huge deal about. The fact that you were married to some who clearly did have a pathological drug addiction is actually a more salient point for you to make about the disorder in your life first time around.

The key argument you need to make is how your life since then has developed and since then evidenced the maturity, ambition and discipline that you once lacked.

In addition to be fully honest, an approach this also avoids making your "recovery" the focus of the readmission decision. If "recovery" from addiction is allowed to be the focus, than you might face questions about whether (or not) you went to rehab, whether (or not) you currently 12-step, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that you do not completely abstain from alcohol even now. Your readmission might be made conditional upon 12-step attendance, therapy, and other inputs which in your case might not be constructive.
posted by MattD at 7:16 AM on May 1, 2009

I know this is late, but I wanted to return with some more advice, and that is, while I think you should tell your story, you should take care not to be long-winded or make the people reading these letters feel like you're giving them a life/sob story. I would be totally forthright, but what you want to come through is that you have been working for years to put your life right. You want that positivity - which is clearly there in you! - to come through, you don't want it to sound like a sympathy plea, you want to demonstrate that you'll make good on your second chance. Which I'm sure you will! Good luck!
posted by Dasein at 8:23 AM on May 1, 2009

I dropped out of college drunk off my butt. A few years later, I applied for admission to that same college.

They already knew I was a drunken bum. Among other things. So, I was honest about what happened, why I changed and how I changed. I got in. I heard through the grapevine (small school) that my honesty impressed them. Didn't hurt that professors that I'd stayed in contact with wrote me recommendations.

That never came back to bite me later, although I've not applied to a federal job or anything.

You don't need to give all the gory details, but a lot of kids go to college too early, leave, spend a few years washing dishes or doing double shifts as a minimum wage security guard, decide they want a future and change.
posted by QIbHom at 9:13 AM on May 1, 2009

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