Aug. 14, 2020
I've heard that students can see their college admissions files through a FERPA request and I would like to do this. I was denied from most of the schools where I applied, despite very strong stats and rec letters, and something isn't adding up. I'd like to know the reasons listed in my file. How do I do this?
"The Dean" agrees that it would be fascinating to get a gander at the notes that admission folks made while they assessed your applications (and then denied you), but FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) will not grant you this permission. Under the rules of FERPA, you are only allowed to access your records at an institution where you are a student, so this will torpedo your quest to find out what admission officials at colleges that rejected you might have said. You can, however, access your file at the college you attend. But the rub here is that, if you waived your rights to see your teacher and counselor recommendations when you applied, these will have been expunged from your file. The vast majority of college applicants waive these rights because they've been told that teachers and counselors may not provide honest assessments if they think a student will be reading these references later, and thus admission officials don't put much credibility in references if the rights to view them haven't been waived.
If, however, you did not waive your rights to view your references at the time that you applied, then you can see your entire file at the college you chose, and negative (or even lukewarm) comments in these references might have had some impact on your verdicts at the schools that said no, assuming that the references that you sent with each application were the same. It's possible, too, that the college you attend will have saved the admission counselor notes in your file.
Thus, even if your letters of reference were expunged, you may find that admission-officer comments will remain and could shed some light on what the references included ("Math teacher says 'bright but often lazy!'"). But don't count on it. In addition, comments made by admission folks at your current school ("So many typos in that essay") may be similar to those made at the colleges that turned you down, and this could help explain why you got bad news elsewhere. (But most likely, you won't find these sorts of comments, or — if you do — you'll drive yourself nuts trying to decide if comparable comments at other colleges were the cause of your rejections).
Colleges have different protocols for accessing records, so start with your admission office to learn how the process works at your school. Most of the information in the file you obtain will be all the stuff you already know — your grades, test scores, course selections, etc. If your references were confidential, there will be a lack of any juicy stuff worth seeking, but it is still your right to look. However, although the college where you enrolled is obligated to show you your file, the college officials are the ones who decide what material is maintained. In recent years, with a growing number of students becoming curious about their admission dossiers and requesting access, some colleges are saving fewer documents than they might have saved in the past. So steel yourself for disappointment if you seek out your file, because it may not offer a lot of inside scoop.
Finally, keep in mind that if you applied to highly competitive colleges and if you were to gain access to your records, chances are good that you'd see few negatives — maybe none at all. The majority of candidates who are turned away from the most sought-after institutions have done pretty much everything "right," and the comments in their files will reflect this. But such schools don't have room for all of their outstanding applicants, and there's a reason that admission offices at these places have been nicknamed "rejection offices."
Even so, it would be great to be a fly on the wall and hear what your evaluators had to say ... or at least to find out from your personal records. But, unfortunately, the law does not give you the green light to do so.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at email@example.com.
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