These days, it seems like college was a different lifetime. And yet, between work deadlines, life in suburbia, and taking care of a family, I occasionally get reminded of those carefree days – usually within the context of a young client who’d like to forget them. 

Can College Life Bench the Next National Security Workforce?

I’d estimate that a healthy third of my clients who are first-time security clearance applicants facing a denial are under the age of 25. Some were required to obtain a clearance as part of a coveted internship, perhaps at the State Department in an overseas embassy. Others are recent or soon-to-be graduates pursuing their first full-time job. The circumstances vary, but the common theme among them is the devastation upon learning that the career they’ve been working toward and dreaming about isn’t going to commence on the timeline they’d envisioned. That’s not to say it won’t ever happen, but rather that they’re facing a few years on the proverbial bench before trying again. When you’re young and ambitious, a few years can seem like forever. 

What Happens in College Doesn’t Just Stay There if you Want a Clearance

Unfortunately, that career pause is often self-inflicted by poor choices made during college. It’s easy to think of college like Las Vegas – a “what happens there stays there” kind of place – when you’re in the moment. But the truth is that, just like Vegas, the fantasyland notion is a myth. Poor choices like drug use, vandalism, excessive drinking, and even academic integrity issues will follow you until such time that you can demonstrate cessation of the behavior, separation from the places and bad influences involved in it, and subsequent maturation.

Envision Your College Choices in the Eyes of An Adjudicator

On the other hand, if you haven’t yet applied for your first security clearance, there may still be time to avert a denial with some proactive efforts. I encourage any college student planning to pursue a clearance to first take stock of their current situation and assess how a background investigator or adjudicator might view it. For example:

  • Even if you don’t personally use illegal drugs (to include marijuana) or misuse prescription drugs, do you live with roommates who do? If so, now would be the time to find new ones. 
  • If you’ve been experimenting with illegal drugs (to include marijuana) or misusing prescription drugs, plan accordingly: the absolute bare minimum amount of time since the last use should be one full year to avoid being considered a current substance abuser ineligible for a clearance. 
  • Some leniency for past drug experimentation is often extended in situations where the use was confined to college, but you’ll still likely need a full year of abstinence under your belt.

Drugs Aren’t the Only Thing Tripping up the Clearance Process

If you’ve been enjoying the party scene perhaps a bit too much, understand that excessive alcohol consumption derails just as many young applicants as drug use. Be prepared to answer the question of when you were last intoxicated – again, hopefully at least a year prior. And if you’ve been hospitalized or arrested for intoxication, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of corrective action like obtaining an evaluation by a substance abuse counselor, entering a treatment program if recommended, and significantly dialing back your alcohol consumption or ceasing it entirely. This is true whether the past drinking was demonstrative of “typical” alcoholism or binge drinking. The latter derails many college students who don’t realize it will be viewed as a problem by security officials. If you’re not familiar with binge drinking, look it up and assess whether you meet the criteria. 

Social Circles Can Impact Your Life After College

It has been said that you are the company you keep, so take a look around and assess whether the people you socialize with are promoting a version of college that’s positive and healthy, or whether they’re dragging you down. I’ve seen plenty of otherwise good college students ensnared in petty criminal conduct like vandalism, trespassing, and shoplifting. Usually, its group behavior – but you may be the only one who suffers career repercussions because of it. 

Good Grades Aren’t Required, but Integrity Is

Finally, all college students and recent graduates should be aware that security clearance background investigators are required to check with the applicant’s college or university Dean of Students for academic integrity issues. Cheating on a test might seem like a minor issue now, but it can actually snowball into a much larger integrity concern in the eyes of security officials. Almost everything else can be mitigated with the passage of time, but integrity issues strike at the heart of your character and thus tend to be harder to shed than most.

Don’t Sabotage your career before you leave the College Life behind

There’s no doubt that college is an exciting time, but one that also offers plenty of landmines for those who are seeking a national security career and who aren’t prepared to avoid bad influences or temptations. Avoid self-sabotaging your career before even starting it by keeping your eyes on the prize, practicing moderation where appropriate, and acting as though your conduct is being observed by those who you love and respect most – even if you’re thousands of miles away from them. If you’ve already made mistakes, know that it may take time to re-earn the government’s trust, but most applicants can eventually do it by implementing lifestyle changes that demonstrate past concerns about substance abuse, judgment, reliability, or similar issues are no longer operative.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at