How can I view my graduate applications' recommendation letters?
April 30, 2008 8:51 PM   Subscribe

Is the university wrong about my right to view graduate application recommendation letters?

I applied to graduate school at a well-known university in December and did not waive my right to view my recommendation letters. I was rejected and I want to see the letters to decide if I should ask these professors again in my next year applications. There are many websites that say if you don't waive your right to view the letters, you can request them from the school. They mention the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) but I don't see the clause in there regarding your right to view recommendation letters.

I contacted the school and they said the FERPA guidelines say the recommendations are university property and can only be viewed by matriculated students. I don't understand what's the point of having the right to view the recommendation letters if this is true. Also, there is no other mention of this anywhere else.

The web seems to only give me articles about why you should waive your right to view your letters, but nothing about actually viewing them if you don't sign the waiver.

Posting anonymously because I don't want admissions to trace my email/application to my metafilter account, in case I follow someone's specific advice.
posted by anonymous to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In order to have rights to see the letters, you must be an accepted and enrolled student at the school you applied to, not your current school.
posted by stevechemist at 8:54 PM on April 30, 2008

If it is a state university, you might be able to apply to get the information under freedom of information laws. But I'm guessing it isn't.
posted by grouse at 9:01 PM on April 30, 2008

For next time, an anecdote: When a friend applied to grad school, half of the schools required the letters sent directly and half didn't. He asked his profs for a letter to a school that was of the latter category and that he didn't actually plan to apply to. Then he read the letter. And then he suddenly decided to apply to the school of his choice.
posted by meerkatty at 9:05 PM on April 30, 2008

You could also talk to the professors providing the letters and ask if you could get a copy so you can better plan your next application. Maybe the protocol for grad school is different (I never applied) but when I got professional recommendations from academic contacts they didn't give a shit about me reading what they wrote (in at least one case - though I'm sure they meant well - I was glad I read it before anyone else had a chance to).
posted by nanojath at 9:13 PM on April 30, 2008

(Plus people who write you a positive letter are a lot more likely to be happy to give you a copy, so you can at least eliminate some of the suspects).
posted by nanojath at 9:15 PM on April 30, 2008

Another avenue:
You could ask your professors candidly whether they felt they could give you their "unqualified support". Another option is to ask another professor -- for example the director of undergraduate studies in your department -- if he/she could speak to those profs privately and ask them if they gave you unqualified recommendations or if they had any reservations. (This depends on your relationship with them, but many would be willing to discuss this with people they've written for.) If they had reservations, you want to know if there is anything you could do to remedy those (eg write a new writing sample before the next round of applications), or if you would be better off asking someone else to write for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:18 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is the university wrong? Almost certainly not. The only way to get a definitive answer is to hire a lawyer and sue them, if you have a hundred thousand or so that you can't think of anything better to do with. The probability that you will offer an argument that is so amazingly cogent that they immediately mend their ways is exactly zero.

Also, it's quite possible that because you didn't waive your viewing rights, your professors wrote only objective, verifiable statements about your performance, or about what you did and didn't do, and that consequently your letters were almost entirely free of opinion statements praising you.

And yes, the right way to do this is to tell your recommenders that you got dinged and ask them whether they think you should ask different people for letters next year, and/or how you should change your application strategy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:29 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding stevechemist. At the large US state university I went to for grad school, students were allowed to see their letters after they were enrolled as students but not before.
posted by shazzam at 11:31 PM on April 30, 2008

Perhaps this question turns on what counts as an educational record under FERPA.

It makes sense that, if you are not a student at a university, you have no "educational record" there. I applied to a ton of schools for grad school and law school, schools to which I was not admitted, and it doesn't make sense to think that I have records there that I am entitled to view. Can you imagine the burden on universities like, say, Harvard, that accept 6% of their applicants, if all the bozos who got rejected had a right to demand to see various elements of their defunct Harvard application file? It simply does not make sense to assert that you have a right to view a file at a university to which you applied but were not admitted.
posted by jayder at 11:51 PM on April 30, 2008

I'm a professor, and though I'm not a FERPA expert, I encounter it and am familiar with it, at least how it's applied at my University.

My understanding is that the definition of "educational record" that we use specifically excludes students that haven't been in attendance. Even if you have matriculated, you won't be able to do a FERPA request until you've begun to attend classes.

For a more definitive answer, search for the University's FERPA guidelines; they're usually posted somewhere in the website.

It seems to me that the waiver is meant specifically to shield recommenders from the FERPA requests of students after they matriculate -- it's moot in the case of someone who doesn't get in.
posted by cgs06 at 2:57 AM on May 1, 2008

I once was the keeper of graduate admission files for an academic department at a university. A couple of times I had rejected applicants show up at my door and ask to see their file. Sure, I said. What the hell did I care? And why would the university care? If they did, they didn't tell me, anyway.
posted by Dec One at 5:01 AM on May 1, 2008

Perhaps enroll in a continuing ed class, then ask. That way, at least you'd be a student at the school.
posted by maxpower at 5:39 AM on May 1, 2008

I agree with ROU_Xenophobe. I was advised by several professors to waive my right to see the letters. You will likely get a better letter of recommendation (if deserved).
posted by bolognius maximus at 5:48 AM on May 1, 2008

I'm with meerkatty, a friend of mine also used this method. The letters were sent to him with a signature across the seal as required, but strangely he decided that he was not going to apply to a certain school. Opened the letters, saw all was well, and applied to several more schools.
posted by genefinder at 6:17 AM on May 1, 2008

Thirding ROU_Xenophobe. If you don't waive your right to see the letters, they are viewed by the graduate school as "not being completely honest".

How to solve the dilemma of "How do I know if they'll write me a positive reference then?" You ask your references to write with a slightly different question: "Can you write me a POSITIVE reference for graduate school?"

Also, if you didn't do this before, you should supply all your references with a resume. They'll do a better job of showing your qualifications if you do this. Otherwise, all they have to go on is their memory, and most professors have to juggle so many cats in their daily lives that memory can be sketchy.

For the record, I AM a professor.
posted by lleachie at 6:20 AM on May 1, 2008

Perhaps enroll in a continuing ed class, then ask. That way, at least you'd be a student at the school.
99.5. (c) An individual who is or has been a student at an educational institution and who applies for admission at another component of that institution does not have the rights under this part with respect to records maintained by that other component, including records maintained in connection with the student's application for admission, unless the student is accepted and attends that other component of the institution.
Given that they're specifically excluding this situation in the rules, it doesn't seem likely to me that an institution would grant access to the admission records of someone who was never affiliated with any component of that institution.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:25 AM on May 1, 2008

I'm not a FERPA expert. I have however been asked to write letters of recommendation for students. It is my experience that if a professor does not have a very, very high opinion of you they will either refuse to write a letter or make it clear that they will be providing a less than enthusiastic recommendation. So, unless you have some cause for concern beyond the rejection, e.g. one of your professor's seemed really reluctant to write a letter for you in the first place, the letters themselves probably aren't the real problem.

Have you asked the institution that you applied to, or an adviser that the school you're in now, to suggest which parts of your application packet could be improved on in the coming year?
posted by oddman at 7:30 AM on May 1, 2008

« Older How can I get automate my daily news searches?   |   Where to best experience Election Day? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.