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Will High School Activism Hurt Your College Chances?

Students risked disciplinary action at nearly 3,000 high schools in the first nationwide walkout for gun policy reform in March.

But they most likely didn’t risk their hopes for college admission.

“Attention HS students: @AdelphiU fully supports your desire to stand up for your beliefs. Participation in non-violent demonstrations has never and will never affect your status as an applicant in any way.”

Adelphi University took to Twitter in February to assure students publicly that participation in nonviolent protests wouldn’t disqualify them from admission.

“There’s an obvious difference between standing up peacefully and demonstrating for beliefs, versus individuals who make a choice to destroy property or become violent in any way,” says Kristen Capezza, associate vice president for enrollment management at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

According to a database maintained by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, hundreds of colleges nationwide have expressed support for student activists on Twitter and their websites.

A second nationwide walkout is scheduled for April 20. Data suggest college-bound teens are motivated to make a difference. More than one in five first-time college freshmen said they demonstrated for a cause in the past year, according to the latest CIRP Freshman Survey from UCLA. More than one in four respondents said influencing the political structure is a “very important” or “essential” life goal.

“You never underestimate youth with a voice and energy,” says Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of Going Ivy, a college admissions consulting group in Phoenix. “If colleges see that you have that in high school, then they like that; it’s what they want on their campus.”

Student leaders and activists can frame their involvement in a way that can help, not hurt, their college admission chances. Experts explain how to do it.


The college essay is your best chance to tell colleges what you’ve done in support of a cause you care about and how you’ll contribute to their community. Colleges want students who solve problems and engage with others, says William Bugert, program manager for College Possible, an AmeriCorps organization that supports low-income students through college admission.

“Instead of just looking at activism as riots in the streets or a one-sided approach of telling people what you want, consider how you engage someone with an opposing view and work with them to come to a collaborative solution,” Bugert says.

You’ll also need to do more than list activities, experts say. Explain why you’re passionate about the cause.

“We don’t look for any sort of template for activism,” says Gariot P. Louima, dean of admission and external relations at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “What we look for in our admission process is a very authentic expression of who the student is.”

Louima says applicants have written about leading conversations on race and class; engaging in demonstrations to support undocumented students; involvement in their school’s LGBTQ group; or the impact of violence on their lives.


Free speech in school is guaranteed by a 1969 landmark decision by the Supreme Court. But the right to disrupt class isn’t legally covered. This gives schools grounds to discipline students for participating in walkouts. Any disciplinary action related to activism, such as suspension, needs to be disclosed to the colleges you’re applying to.

It’s in your best interest to be honest about what happened. Many colleges, including those that use the Common Application, a generic application that more than 750 schools accept, offer optional essay space where you can explain disciplinary action. Goodnow suggests using this space to explain why you were there; what you did; the consequence; regrets, if any; and what you learned from it.

“If this was something you believed in and you were suspended for peacefully demonstrating, that shows the character of the student and what their passions are,” Capezza says.


The leadership skills you demonstrated in organizing a protest may be just what a scholarship committee is looking for. You may need to find a niche scholarship that you qualify for, and if you win it, it can help you pay for college.

Look for scholarships with local civic organizations or inquire with your school’s guidance office. You may also search for scholarships awarded for civic engagement or leadership on databases such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder tool, Cappex or the College Board.

Typically, scholarship committees look for high school leaders who have organized events, opened dialogues and created opportunities for giving back to the community.

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