Know Your Rights: How To View Your College Admissions File


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College admissions, as any Smart Girl knows, are shrouded in mystery. While some colleges (such as California’s CSU system) claim to use an “algorithm”, most admissions decisions are made “holistically”. While this benefits some students by allowing them to be judged not on their numbers, but on their overall story, the “holistic” approach also leads to countless questions for students. Exactly which part of the puzzle causes one student to be admitted, while another, with nearly identical numbers, is rejected? How do factors like race and socioeconomic background come into play? The lack of transparency has always led to questions of fairness–Harvard University is currently fighting a lawsuit that claims the university discriminates against Asian American applicants. A new development could clear the air for students.

You have the right to see why you were admitted to college
Earlier this year, Stanford students discovered a federal law that could turn this system upside down, putting power in the hands of the students. Under the law, college students can ask their universities for copies of their admission records, and the universities must comply within 45 days. “Admission records” includes assessments written by admissions officers and sometimes even recommendation letters. Molly Hensley-Clancy has written an excellent article detailing the contents of her “confidential admissions file” from Yale University.


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How does this work?
It’s important to know that you can only read the admissions file for the school where you are currently enrolled–so no, you’ll probably never know why Harvard rejected you. If you’re still interested, you simply request access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This is the same law that prevents anyone from viewing your educational records without your consent, but in this case it also requires schools to allow you to view your own educational records. Under FERPA, even the “confidential” evaluations and matrix scores assigned to students legally belong to students. Schools have 45 days to comply. Stanford’s Fountain Hopper, an anonymous publication that spearheaded the movement, has published a sample request letter for students to send to their colleges. Of course, there has been some backlash from colleges. Both Yale and Stanford university have changed their admissions record system, which effectively “scrubs clean” the records that students legally own. Stanford, at the center of the controversy, even sent a mass email discouraging students from viewing their own admissions records, claiming that they hold little benefit for already-enrolled students. Stanford also only allows students 20 minutes to view their files (even though they legally belong to the students) and forbids making any copies or photographs of the files, according to the Fountain Hopper.

What this means for Smart Girls
Now that the secretive bubble of college admissions has been partially popped, universities will be forced to reveal any discriminatory or unfair admissions practices. In her article, Hensley-Clancy, who is white and middle class, states that she was given special admissions consideration because her high school was in an inner-city, less privileged, under-funded district. Admissions notes support the idea that Hensley-Clancy, while an excellent candidate, was also admitted to Yale partially because she would be a “token” inner-city student that would reflect well on the university. Supporters of the Fountain Hopper point out that examining these “confidential” records can shed light on claims of discrimination such as those central to the Harvard lawsuit. While it is true that individual students will probably benefit little from reading their files after the fact–after all, if you’re one of the 5% of applicants accepted to Stanford, why question it?–this movement as a whole can lead to more transparency in the secretive world of elite college admissions, giving Smart Girls from less privileged backgrounds a fairer shot at their dream schools.

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Sarah delos Santos

Student by day, freelancer by night, obsessed with cats 24/7. I believe in peace, professionalism, and the power of positive thinking.