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what is the deal with the family educational rights and privacy act of 1974?
November 9, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm applying to graduate school. Apparently I have the right, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (34 CFR 99.12), to examine letters of recommendation written about me. Every application I've filled out so far has asked me if I'd like to waive this right, should I?

I'm applying to MFA programs in creative writing, if that makes any difference. I've already declined to waive this right on most of my applications, but now I'm worried that maybe I should go back and change it.
posted by Hoenikker to Education (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, you should change it. Waiving this right means that the people reading your references feel more able to trust that they are being completely honest. Assuming the referees have no reason to write negative things about you, this is for the best.
posted by lollusc at 2:52 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Definitely waive it. You're technically allowed to look at these recommendation letters, but the programs you're applying to will know that you haven't waived the right to look at these letters. They may then discount the value of good letters of recommendation as they're hoping to get an unbiased look at what your recommenders think of you, without you looking over their shoulder. You did the right thing.
posted by peacheater at 2:52 PM on November 9, 2011


Oh woops, I misread, you've declined to waive this right -- go back and change this if possible.
posted by peacheater at 2:53 PM on November 9, 2011


Anecdotal -- I did not waive this right when I recently applied to transfer to an Ivy League school to finish my B.A. I got in. Perhaps it may be better, but I seriously doubt whether or not you waived your right here is going to be the deciding factor of you getting in or not.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:05 PM on November 9, 2011


Perhaps DoubeLune's intuition is correct, but there is no reason to put this to the test. Waive the right, and your letter readers will have confidence that your letters are not written with you in mind as a reader.
posted by found missing at 3:08 PM on November 9, 2011


Yes, you should change it. There's really no reason that you need to see a rec letter, and it's certainly abnormal not to waive it. Your professors will have a reaction somewhere between rolling their eyes and refusing to write any letter at all when they find out you did not waive the right.
posted by deadweightloss at 3:08 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Waive it. (My recommenders have generally sent me copies of the letters unrequested but from what I've read that's unusual.)
posted by gingerest at 3:14 PM on November 9, 2011


I have written a number of letters of recommendation over the years and have never seen anyone that didn't waive that right. Not waiving it will definitely be noticed by some people. In theory it shouldn't make any difference as to how they interpret the letter, but in practice some people may hold it against you.

In general people who wouldn't write you a good letter should decline to write one rather than trash you behind your back, so waiving your right shouldn't hurt you there.
posted by TedW at 3:17 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I seriously doubt whether or not you waived your right here is going to be the deciding factor of you getting in or not.

If a student refuses to waive the right I write boilerplate recommendations. I don't write bad recommendations, but I don't spend a lot of time on them either.

I explain in advance to all my students that it is in their best interest to waive the right because the writer will feel free to write more candidly and openly. For instance, I wouldn't feel comfortable comparing you to other students or talking about my own career if I knew you would see the letter.

You wouldn't be able to tell the difference in what I write about you, and maybe I wouldn't even know how I censored myself. But I guarantee the readers would be able to tell the difference between a candid and more generally positive letter.

You should let your writers know you waived the right to see the recommendations. It will change how the write, if they care about you.

Finally, I and my colleagues write only letters if we feel comfortable writing about a student. There are outlier horror stories of course, but it is not in your interest to see the letters.
posted by vincele at 3:22 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Data point: at the high school level, most of my students seem not to waive it, either intentionally or because they just don't know. As somebody who writes them, it certainly makes it harder for me to be completely honest, even at times where I think it would help the student's cause (though I certainly wouldn't agree to write one for somebody who I wasn't going to say good things about, anyway).
posted by Dr.Enormous at 3:23 PM on November 9, 2011


Why did you decide not to waive your rights to the letter? Are there any extenuating circumstances that influenced your decision? If not, I would suggest waiving your rights as a professional courtesy. Writing recommendations takes a lot of time, and it would be a nice gesture to demonstrate that you trust those writing on your behalf to do a good job (just like you hope that they trust you to do good future work). As you move to graduate work, consider thinking of yourself more in professional terms than student terms.
posted by rapidadverbssuck at 3:41 PM on November 9, 2011


Why did you decide not to waive your rights to the letter?

None of the applications offered any pros or cons to why I should waive the right, and my default choice is just to keep any rights I have for myself. If congress thinks enough about this that they passed a law about it, well then I figured maybe it was a right I should have.

If a student refuses to waive the right I write boilerplate recommendations.

Thanks vincele, this really helps put this in perspective for me. I've gone and changed the option where I could, and I emailed my letter writers to let them know I've corrected a choice made in ignorance.
posted by Hoenikker at 4:12 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know anybody who has applied to graduate school who hasn't waived this right, and I can tell you that the few times I wrote recommendations for students who chose to see them, I felt extremely awkward about it and it probably came through in my letter. I don't know how it comes across to letter readers but I would wonder how much input the student had on the letter. (I actually wondered that anyway though.)
posted by sm1tten at 4:16 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've served on a grad school admissions committee. Often, judgments get made along very fine lines, and someone who didn't waive would stand out, I think.
posted by paultopia at 4:20 PM on November 9, 2011


(not, that is, in a good way)
posted by paultopia at 4:21 PM on November 9, 2011


I didn't waive my rights.....but I was only able and willing to read most(one instructor gave me a copy) after I was accepted into the program and asked to look at them. I would not have felt comfortable asking to read them at the time they were written.
posted by brujita at 4:30 PM on November 9, 2011


None of the applications offered any pros or cons to why I should waive the right, and my default choice is just to keep any rights I have for myself. If congress thinks enough about this that they passed a law about it, well then I figured maybe it was a right I should have.

This was why I didn't waive my right... I didn't ask, nor do I plan on asking, to see the letters. It's a good thing I got in or I might now be wondering if that made the difference.

Hopefully you asked for recommendations from professors you trust to write good letters regardless.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:35 PM on November 9, 2011


If congress thinks enough about this that they passed a law about it, well then I figured maybe it was a right I should have.

It's kind of an unintentional side effect, AIUI - FERPA guarantees students have the right to see their records. The intent wasn't that they could see letters of recommendation; the intent was to protect your ability to see, say, why you got a C in a course, or what is in your permanent file ... but that's the effect it has, hence the waiver.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:07 PM on November 9, 2011


I've interviewed two candidates for two different jobs, for two different institutions where one of the letters of recommendation out of three was extremely negative. And in both cases, I wished that the person hadn't waived their right to see the letter, because it would have meant that they would not have sent the damaging application package.

So while in general, I think waiving the right is a good move to allow for your referrer's candor, if you think there is a real chance that you'll get a negative or neutral letter, you may want to hold out and not waive the right.

Of course, the much better option is only to approach references who you are certain will write you a positive letter. You can do this by asking if the prospective letter writer feels comfortable writing you a positive recommendation, not just 'a letter' or 'a recommendation.'
posted by yellowcandy at 10:27 PM on November 9, 2011


Silly question: why do the people writing the letters know whether you have waived this right or not? And why would that affect the writer's candor?
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on November 10, 2011


Silly question: why do the people writing the letters know whether you have waived this right or not? And why would that affect the writer's candor?

I can't speak to other situations, but in my case I am writing letters to residency or fellowship programs where they are usually using a standardized system called ERAS run by the AAMC. As part of the process the applicant fills out a form requesting a letter of recommendation noting (among other things) whether or not they have waived this right; in turn, I am supposed to note in my letter whether or not they have waived this right. Knowing that the subject of the letter will be able to read it may or may not affect the letter writer's candor (as mentioned a few times above, the best response if you can't write a good recommendation is to decline to write one at all), but it may also make the recipients of the letter wonder how forthcoming the writer is being. That latter aspect is probably the bigger concern.
posted by TedW at 7:07 AM on November 10, 2011


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