In my junior year I was caught cheating. I took in extra papers in an exam and tried to look up information on them (honestly, this was deliberate cheating). I have received the following sanctions:

  • Grade zero for the course
  • My Bachelor degree will be conferred one year after my graduation

I retook the course and got an A afterwards. On my transcript there is a mark indicating a retaken course (but not dishonesty). I decided to learn from this and move on afterwards. I made no mistakes after that. I maintained a GPA of 3.8/4.0 (or top 5%), produced several manuscripts on submission in my undergraduate research and TAed several times with nice experiences. I'm also sure my recommendation letters will be strong (at least OK).

I fear that someone who knows this history can report this to my school even if I get admitted, which is more disastrous, so I must state this clearly in my applications. However, it is still a tough job for me to approach my academic dishonesty in graduate study application (I have graduated this year and plan to apply this year also).

Question: I will be asked if I have been sanctioned because of academic dishonesty. I decide to answer ``yes'' honestly. But how should I explain it? Will this be fatal to my chances of admission? Should I talk to my adviser (who does not know my mistake) to address my changes in the recommendation letter?

(I am not a US citizen but I plan to apply for programs in the US.)

1 Answer 1


It's the cover-up that kills you.

You are right to be honest about your sanction for academic dishonesty. In terms of explaining it, just be honest about what happened, your motivation, etc., but also be prepared to talk about how your attitude and approach to such matters has changed since this incident. For a graduate study application, I would be surprised if this incident is fatal to your application. Cheating during an exam in junior year is bad, but we understand that students sometimes come into university in an immature state, and they learn and grow from there. If you are honest about the incident (and especially if you volunteer it in a situation where it is not otherwise recorded) then that will go a long way to showing a change in attitude to such matters.

In regard to your suggestion that you disclose this matter to your present advisor, that seems like a reasonable idea to me. If you disclose the incident and let your advisor know how you've grown since then, it is likely that your advisor can make an assessment and recommendation that takes account of this. If you don't disclose the issue to your advisor, and the advisor provides a letter of recommendation, there is a danger that the recommendation will be seen as inadequate, due to the lack of information available to the writer.

There's an old saying about incidents like these: "It's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover-up." (I think this comes from Richard Nixon, but not certain.) What we mean about this is that people are often reasonably forgiving of an initial lapse in ethics, but they are much less forgiving when an initial lapse is compounded by further dishonesty in hiding the incident. I can't really make any promises as to how a potential advisor will react to your disclosure, but I can say that if it were me, I would not be put off supervising a student who has done this early in their university education and then grown and developed the integrity to disclose the problem and behave differently in future.

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