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Should I Waive My Right to Review Recommendation Letters?

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Jul 29, 2015 9:00:00 AM

Letters of Recommendation

 

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Short answer: yes. Long answer: there's no need to worry about checking "yes" and waiving your right to see your letters of recommendation on the FERPA waiver section of your college applications.

This article will explain exactly what FERPA is, why you're being asked to waive it, and how it impacts your letters of recommendations. To be honest, the FERPA waiver will probably be the easiest part of filling out your college applications! 

 

What is FERPA?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), otherwise known as the Buckley Amendment, was passed to protect the privacy of students' educational records. It gives parents and students who are 18 years and older the right to access their records. It also requires that parents or eligible students give permission before their information is released to a third party, except in special circumstances like transferring schools or a health emergency. 

Since most students who enroll in college are 18 or older, FERPA gives them the right to request access to their letters of recommendation, wherever they might be stored along with the rest of their application materials. I like to picture all the applications of years past stored somewhere like the Hall of Prophecies in Harry Potter, except the endless shelves are filled with files instead of shiny glass orbs. 

There's one caveat to your FERPA-given right of access: you can only access your recommendation letters after you've gotten your admission letter of acceptance and chosen to enroll in a college. If you were rejected from or chose not to go to a certain school, then you won't be able to get your hands on those letters. 

Note how I said that FERPA gives you the right to access your letters of recommendation AFTER you enroll at a college. It really doesn't have anything to do with getting to read your letters before your recommenders send them. Some recommenders will let you see them, while others will keep them confidential.

The general assumption around reference letters is that they are confidential - this seems more honest in the eyes of admissions officers. Whether or not you see the letters before they're sent is not really what FERPA's about, when you get down to the specifics of it.

On the Common Application (or whatever application you're using), you'll be asked whether or not you want to waive your right to access your rec letters. Read on for a preview of what you'll see.


 

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of College Applications

 

Waiver of Access (FERPA) on the Common Application

Once you add a college to your Common Application, you'll see a tab show up to invite your recommender(s). Before you send those invites, you'll be prompted to read about your waiver of access and select a response. This is what you'll see:

 

"Waiver of Access (FERPA)

Under the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), you can review letters of recommendation and accompanying forms after you enroll at a postsecondary institution and only if that institution saves the documents post-enrollment.

Why should you consider waiving your right of access? Waiving your right lets colleges know that you will never try to read your recommendations. That in turn reassures colleges that your recommenders have provided support that is candid and truthful. While you are free to respond as you wish, if you choose not to waive your right, some recommenders may decline your request, and some colleges may disregard letters submitted on your behalf. Remember, even if you retain your right of access, you still won't be able to view any recommendations until after you have been admitted to and enrolled in a college. In other words, FERPA does not give you the right to inspect recommendations before they are sent to your colleges.

After you make your selection, you will be able to invite your counselor and recommenders. Once you make the first invitation, you will not be able to change your response to the waiver question. To ensure that you fully understand the implications of your selection, we urge you not to answer the waiver question until you have consulted with your guidance counselor or another school official.

For more information on FERPA follow this link: http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html"

Source: The Common Application

 

Sounds like serious stuff. In reality, it's pretty straightforward. FERPA lets you request access to your recommendation letters after getting in and enrolling in a school. By that point, months after you've applied, done the requisite period of nervous waiting, received the thick envelope and decided on a school, you probably aren't thinking about cracking into your admissions file to read exactly what Mr. Smith said about you back in December of senior year. You got in, so the rec letters had to have been pretty complimentary.  

Again, note that FERPA does not give you the right to see your letters of recommendations before they are sent. In the academic world, recommendation letters tend to be kept confidential. Your teacher or counselor may show you the letter and ask for your feedback or revisions, but this depends on the person. Even if you're burning with curiosity, you shouldn't pressure your recommenders to show you the letter. It could indicate that you don't trust them to provide you with a strong letter - and, if that's the case, you shouldn't choose them in the first place!

Since you can only respond to the waiver question on the Common App once, let's go over exactly why it's a good idea to waive access.

 

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"Waive" goodbye to FERPA - you don't need it this time.

 

Why It's a Good Idea to Waive Your FERPA Right

As I mentioned above, the typical expectation for letters of recommendation in college admissions is that they are kept confidential. Admissions officers give most weight to  letters that provide an honest and qualified assessment of the applicant. If you don't waive your FERPA right, you could accidentally signal to admissions officers that you don't trust your recommender or that the recommendation is less candid or genuine.

Your recommender might also get the subtle message that you don't trust him or her. The knowledge that you'll see the letter at some point in the future might cause your recommender to write a more generic letter, and thus be less powerful and effective in support of your candidacy. 

You won't be penalized for your response, but it's risky to check "no" since you don't know how admissions officers or your recommenders will interpret it. If you still feel uneasy about waiving your FERPA right, keep reading. In the next section, I'll explain why there's no need to worry about your recommendation letters, even if you never get the chance to read them.

 

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Keep your recommenders inside the circle of trust.

 

No Need to Worry About Recommendation Letters...

Perhaps easier said than done, but you really shouldn't stress about your letters of recommendation. Your teachers and counselor are there to help you - in fact, it's literally their job. They want to advocate for you and help you further your education. 

When you ask for a recommendation, you should ask your teachers if they can provide you with a strong letter of support. If they seem hesitant at all, then thank them for their time and ask somebody else. As long as you're thoughtful about choosing people with whom you have good relationships and who can write an insightful letter about you, then you don't have to worry about leaving the rest up to them. 

Apart from choosing recommenders who know you well, you can also have some say into shaping what goes into the letter. Most schools will give you a "brag sheet" where you can remind your recommenders of your interests, motivations, and goals. You and your parents can describe some significant experiences you've had or challenges you've overcome to help your recommenders make the strongest letter they can. So even if the letter stays confidential, you'll still have some sense of what likely went into it. 

At this point, hopefully you have a better sense of what the FERPA waiver is all about and why it's in your best interest to go ahead and agree to the waiver. Or maybe you've scrolled down to this point, thinking "too long; didn't read." Either way, you're in luck! Below are the key points I wanted to make, distilled into bullet points for your reading pleasure.

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Key Points About the FERPA Waiver

  • The FERPA waiver only waives your right to access your recommendation letters after you've been accepted to and enrolled in a college.
  • It's common practice for recommendation letters to be kept confidential in admissions procedures. Your recommenders may still let you see their letters before they send them - that's totally up to them. 
  • As long as you're thoughtful about choosing recommenders who are supportive and know you well (and help them out with a detailed brag sheet), you can rest easy knowing your recommenders want to support you and help you get into college.
  • The FERPA waiver is probably the easiest part of your application. Just go ahead and click yes!

 

What's Next?

While the FERPA waiver's easy, the rest of your application can get a bit more complicated. Read all about how to build a versatile college application that showcases your strengths and makes you stand out among the competition.

Is it that time of year when you're thinking about requesting letters of recommendation? This article breaks down how to request a letter of recommendation, step by step (coming soon).

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.



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