In short: don’t freak out. There are plenty of articles out there that will tell you how important it is to waive your FERPA rights on the Common App. While it’s true — understanding the FERPA waiver is an important part of the admissions process — forgetting to sign away your FERPA rights, we believe, is not an irreparable mistake. We’ve spoken with admissions representatives at several top-tier colleges on the matter and here’s what we’ve discovered…
What is FERPA?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that gives parents the right to access their children’s education records, seek to have the records amended, and have some control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information from the education records. Once a student turns 18 years old, or pursues postsecondary education at any age, these FERPA rights are transferred from the parents to the student. So, if you are in the process of applying to colleges, understanding and (most likely) waiving your FERPA rights is your responsibility!
FERPA is relevant to the college admissions process because your education records will include your application to the college where you eventually enroll. More specifically, FERPA gives you the right to review confidential letters of recommendation that were provided with your application after you enroll. You read that correctly: this is all a matter of whether you will be able to access your application materials after you’re already enrolled at a college.
A common misconception is that not waiving your FERPA rights means you will be able to review your letters of recommendation before submitting your application. This is not the case! Whether or not you get to look at your letters of recommendation before they are submitted is entirely between you and your recommenders. It is within their rights to share a letter of recommendation with the student privately if they so desire. However, in the academic world, recommendation letters tend to be kept confidential. Under no circumstances would it be appropriate to ask your recommender to read their letter.
What are the benefits of waiving my FERPA rights?
Admissions officers give the most weight to letters of recommendation that provide an honest and qualified assessment of the applicant. Failure to waive your FERPA rights could subtly signal to your recommenders or to the admissions officers that you don’t trust your recommender to write a strong and compelling letter for you. In the worst case scenario, the letter might be written in a less candid manner and interpreted as less genuine by the admissions team. In short, if a recommender knows that the student might read their letter at some point down the road, it may result in a more generic, less powerful letter.
That being said, as long as you’re thoughtful and intentional about choosing recommenders who are supportive mentors and know you well, you can likely rest assured that your recommenders only intend to support you by helping you get into college. Letters of recommendation are an integral part of an applicant’s profile. Waiving your FERPA rights is just one more step you can take to ensure that your recommendations are strong and candid.
What should I do if I forgot to waive my FERPA rights?
First of all, stay calm. We have spoken with admissions representatives at a variety of top-tier schools who understand that students may at some point decide that they would like to waive their FERPA rights, even if they did not do so initially. Several of the admissions officers said that if a student would like to update their FERPA waiver status, they can simply send an email to the admissions office stating that they would like to waive their FERPA rights. Other reps indicated that emailing a digitally signed copy of the Common App’s Teacher Evaluation Form, where a student can check the “I waive my right to review all recommendations and supporting documents submitted by me or on my behalf” box, would suffice in updating that student’s FERPA status.
At several other colleges, admissions reps were adamant that a student’s FERPA status does not impact their consideration of that student’s application, highlighting that the decision to waive (or not waive) FERPA rights is entirely between the student and their recommenders.
In summary: Don’t hesitate to call admissions offices directly! Be sure to get the scoop on how the FERPA waiver impacts the admissions process at each of the schools on your list. In general, if you make it known to an admissions team that you have no intention of gaining access to your application materials (primarily letters of recommendation) at any point during or after the admissions process, it is highly likely that they will have a protocol for allowing you to amend your FERPA status.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, we hope you find this information helpful and stress-relieving. Here at Sentia, we wish everyone a warm, safe, and healthy holiday season and a very Happy New Year! As always, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!