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When I was a freshman I got caught cheating on a homework (really just looked at a similar question online trying to figure out how and filled in the wrong number) and got a 0 on the assignment. I'm now working on grad school apps and am being asked if I ever had a sanction against me, if I've ever been found guilty of academic dishonesty, etc.

It's not on my transcript and I don't think they'd find out, but I don't feel right about lying here. Do I have any shot at getting in to a top grad school (CMU, MIT, Stanford, and Cornell are where I'm applying first). My understanding right now of this is good programs are basically off the table, now it's a question of how far down the ladder I have to go to find somewhere that doesn't just reject me right away. Is there any way to fix this or am I just screwed and not welcome in good academia? It seems like there's an attitude of "once a cheater, always a cheater" and people want nothing to do with somebody who was "convicted" of this.

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    When I was trained as an instructor-of-record, giving a 0 on an assignment is specifically a consequence we can assign that is not a sanction and doesn't bring the whole system down on a poor student. Feb 4, 2022 at 22:22
  • That's the screwed up part, the instructor said it would be a 0 to get a confession then changed and brought down the system. I confessed even though I wasn't sure I had really done anything wrong specifically to avoid dealing with an escalation to the system because at my school it is known as very harsh, then they reported to the system anyway after my confession. Feb 4, 2022 at 23:04
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    If it's not on your transcript, it didn't happen. Feb 5, 2022 at 1:45
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    Does this answer your question? Should I disclose my academic dishonesty on grad applications? Jul 5, 2023 at 12:57

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For most purposes you don't need to disclose such things as they were handled by the prior institution and the case is closed. Hopefully you learned not to do such stuff in future.

However, if directly asked whether you had been charged with an academic infraction, you should probably be honest. But, you can also, then say, that you are now a better person because of it.

A lot of people have things in their past that they aren't proud of. There is no reason to wear a t-shirt with a list.

Most institutions bury such things and keep them from external view, though they may keep records for a period to guard agains repeat behavior.

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  • Thanks. Yeah I'm definitely going to answer the question truthfully, lying on it seems like a shitty thing to do. I just think if I'm applying to serious top programs there will be enough students who have good credentials and don't have this past that they won't consider me. Feb 4, 2022 at 21:47
  • Hmmm, I'll bet that the competition, while fierce, doesn't consist of all angels. Let the past be the past. One of the past (assistant?) deans at a top school like the ones you name, started his college career by being called in to the then current dean's office on the first day and told NO MORE HACKING - GOT IT?. He was one of my mentors.
    – Buffy
    Feb 4, 2022 at 21:49
  • Do you know anybody who has gotten into a top program for CS like MIT, Cornell, Stanford, etc. with this on their application? I have never heard of it and always heard that it will destroy chances of getting into those programs. Feb 4, 2022 at 21:52
  • Don’t wear this hair shirt. Chalk it up to experience and don’t mention it on your application.
    – Rdd
    Feb 4, 2022 at 22:14
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    @DejectedApplicant Your choice, but I think you're letting your self-pity about a relatively minor incident wreck your chances of admission, and I don't think your peers will make the same mistake.
    – Rdd
    Feb 4, 2022 at 23:38
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Honesty is always the right answer. They've asked you a direct question; answer them directly and honestly.

If the question is something other than a straight "yes/no" and you have space to elaborate, then you can tell them what you learned from the experience.

It doesn't matter if they would catch you or not; it matters that you're honest and forthright.

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Whatever you do, it's advisable to make sure that you don't act on any misunderstanding. Different people and institutions can mean different things by the same words. Theoretical descriptions of standards don't always match common practice.

So I would suggest that before you finalise your action here, you try to get two kinds of information. The first would be to find out exactly what the people you are applying to mean by 'sanction', and any other relevant technical expression in the application process. There should hopefully be some sort of help function somewhere relevant, or a statement of policy.

The second kind of information would be (enlarging on a suggestion from an earlier answer post) to find out, if possible, where your previous infraction fits on a scale of seriousness. I can't tell for sure (and I don't recommend that you give more details here). There is a legal-moral maxim that the law is not concerned with trifles. While this may not yet be a legal matter, it seems a related moral matter. If your previous infraction is not on your academic record/transcript that might possibly be one indication that someone regarded it as trifling. The moral relevance is that there are people in the world who hold themselves to high standards, and others who hold themselves to much lower standards. We are all sharing (even if maybe that's not quite the right word) the same world. Based on good information, you might want to debate with yourself in terms of implications, and in three dimensions and time, what you consider the best action.

Then you can apply your judgment and conscience on the basis of your own good information and assessment.

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