Here's the bad news: With their disclosure questions, colleges are basically expecting you to have gone to law school. And you haven't even gone to college yet! Crazy. So they're putting the burden on you to figure out what all these legal terms mean, and whether they apply to you. The GOOD news is that we've got plenty of advice for you below.
If you think any of these disclosure questions might apply to you, it's important that you gather all the documentation you have about any given incident so that you know what official language is involved. Do talk to a lawyer or a trusted grown-up to make sure you interpret the language correctly. It's also important not to under-disclose (you can lose your admissions offer if you do that) or over-disclose (which doesn't help you!). If you're still unsure, the safest thing is to disclose. Please understand that we aren't giving — and can't give — legal advice, not least because these things can vary from state to state and from one legal jurisdiction to another. (For example, a speeding ticket might be just a citation in some states, but a misdemeanor in others. You'll have to sweat these details.)
The best way to determine whether any of these terms apply to you is to order any paperwork related to your criminal case. In most states you have a right to order your criminal record (it may cost you a little bit of money and it's possible that you will have to appear in person to receive the copy). You can also request copies of the court file (sometimes called a "docket") relating to your case. This can sometimes become more complicated if the incident took place when you were a minor. Once you have gathered all of the paperwork you can consult with a lawyer (which is the same thing as an attorney) to see if there is a so-called "charging document" accusing you of a crime.
A charge is generally a formal accusation of a crime. A charge is usually brought by way of some "charging document." Charging documents include criminal complaints, indictments, or an information. It is not essential that you know the definitions of complaint, indictment, or information. The important thing to determine is whether one of these documents was ever filed accusing you of a crime. Note that even if the matter was dismissed, expunged, or sealed, it is possible that you were still "charged" with a criminal offense.
A guilty plea means you went through a formal, in-court process where you waived your rights and accepted responsibility by pleading guilty or you pleaded no contest. You would probably remember having done so. Note that if you were convicted based on an "Alford Plea" or a "Kennedy Plea," that probably also constitutes a guilty plea, so do include those as "guilty pleas" to be safe.
See more below in "Convictions."
A conviction means you had a trial (by a judge or a jury) that resulted in a finding that you were guilty of one or more charges. In disclosure questions, look for language that requires language if you have been "convicted" or "adjudicated guilty" or "found guilty." This judgment can come by way of a plea of guilty or a finding after a trial. If you'd stood trial as a defendant in a criminal case, it's a good bet that you had legal counsel, know the outcome of the case, and remember the details of the event.
IMPORTANT: For most applicants, the question of criminal convictions arises if they have been charged with a criminal offense and resolved the case in some way short of going to trial or pleading and being found guilty/being convicted. While some applicants may have pled guilty to a criminal offense (and therefore were "convicted" of the charge), a number of applicants have resolved a criminal matter by some other method that involves a combination of punishment and a partial admission of responsibility. The nature and circumstances of those resolutions varies considerably among states. Pleas can include:
These types of adjudications often involve a nominal punishment of some kind, including a fine, a diversion program (most often for driving offenses or incidents involving alcohol or drugs), community service, or a probationary period.
You should assume that a "deferred judgment and sentence" does not become a conviction until the deferred judgment and sentence is revoked.
Many juveniles end up in so-called "diversionary programs," and in most cases, that means you weren’t convicted. In most cases, a "diversionary program" is designed to prevent a person from having either to plead guilty or to go through a trial that could result in a conviction. The theory of these programs is that in exchange for agreeing to do community service or some other alternative punishment, the person is "diverted" from the traditional legal process that might result in a conviction.
If you participated in a diversionary program, you were most likely not convicted, but you should check the specifics of your diversionary program, because there is a chance that there was also a conviction in addition to the diversionary program.
Many jurisdictions have a process for "sealing" a criminal record, an act that closes the criminal record from public view unless it is sought by a court order. In other places a record can be "expunged" from the public rolls. "Expunging" is considered more permanent than "sealing" a record, and has the effect of eliminating or eradicating the record (with a few exceptions).
Sealing or expunging a record is usually done by either (1) the passage of time or (2) a motion or request by someone made before a court or magistrate. The laws of each jurisdiction determine if, and how, records are sealed or expunged in that jurisdiction. For some jurisdictions, juvenile cases are expunged after a set period of time, such as when the defendant reaches the age of 18. In other cases, a person can move to seal his or her record after a set number of years have passed from the date the case concluded.
There is great confusion surrounding the notion of sealing or expunging a record, and many people believe — incorrectly — that if their case resulted in something short of a conviction, it was automatically sealed or expunged, or that if they were a minor, then their case was automatically sealed or expunged. But that isn't always the case. Unless you have a document from a court indicating that your case was sealed or expunged, you should assume that neither applies to your case. Expungement and sealing of a record is not the default status for a case that has been concluded (even if the charges were dismissed).
Even if your case was sealed or expunged, you may still have to disclose the incident on your application. Sealing or expunging a criminal case can prevent it from appearing on a standard criminal record check, but by applying to school you likely waive any protection of that information because you agree to be honest on your application.