As you fill out college applications, you’ll come across a question labeled “Waiver of Access (FERPA).” It’ll ask whether you want to waive your right of access to your letters of recommendation. The question might sound complicated, but it’s much simpler than you think.
In this guide, we’ll explain what FERPA rights are and why you should waive them. Plus, we’ll share some step-by-step tips to make your letter of recommendation process smooth and stress-free!
What Are FERPA Rights?
FERPA is an acronym for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. It’s a federal law that protects the privacy of your educational records. Parents and students who are 18 or older have the right to review the student’s records and request changes if they believe information is misleading or inaccurate.
Schools must have permission from the parent or an eligible student to release these records to third parties. There are some exceptions, such as health and safety emergencies or compliance with a judicial order.
Under FERPA, students who are 18 or older (most students enrolled in college) have the right to review confidential letters of recommendation. This right applies only after you have enrolled at a college. FERPA does not give you the right to review letters of recommendation before they’re sent. It also doesn’t allow you to access letters sent to a college that rejected you, or a college you choose not to attend.
What Is the FERPA Waiver?
The FERPA Waiver appears on the Common App and other college applications. It asks you whether you’d like to waive your right to access your letters of recommendation. You simply select “I waive my right” or “I do NOT waive my right.”
If you waive your right, you won’t be allowed to access your letters of recommendation. If you don’t waive your right, you’ll be able to request access and read the letters if your college saves them post-enrollment.
Should You Waive Your FERPA Right?
The short answer to the question, “Should I waive my FERPA right?” is Yes.
Admissions officers want to know that your letters of recommendation provide honest feedback about you. Waiving your right shows colleges that you don’t plan on reading your letters, which gives them more confidence that your letters are truthful and genuine. They know your recommenders won’t be influenced by the belief that you’ll see their letters in the future.
In addition, not waiving your right may make some of your recommenders uncomfortable. It can also suggest that you don’t fully trust your recommenders. The letter of recommendation process is meant to be confidential and based on trust, so waiving your FERPA right honors this tradition. (Some teachers will show you the letter to get your feedback, but you shouldn’t expect this to happen.)
Technically, what you do with your FERPA waiver is up to you. It can’t officially be held against you. But it could leave a negative impression on both your recommenders and college admissions officers. Your letters might not mean as much if they aren’t accompanied by a FERPA waiver.
Plus, how much will you really care about your letters of recommendation after you’re enrolled in college? You were admitted, so they must have been pretty good! By the time you’re on campus taking classes, making friends, and participating in all kinds of college activities, your high school letters of recommendation will probably be the last thing on your mind.
There’s no real benefit to seeing your letters of recommendation after you’re already enrolled in college. Meanwhile, not waiving your FERPA right could make a bad impression and cause admissions officers to question the reliability of your letters. It’s better to go ahead and select, “I waive my right” and trust that you’ve chosen your recommenders wisely.
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Should I Worry About My Recommendation Letters?
If you’re still feeling uneasy about waiving your FERPA right, try to relax. Your teachers and counselors are on your side; they want to see you succeed. When you decide who to ask for recommendations, ask people with whom you have a good relationship. Ask, “Are you comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation for me?”
If for some reason they can’t write you a good letter of recommendation, they’ll say no. And if they say yes, trust that they’ll write a positive, insightful letter that makes you shine.
How to Get Great Recommendation Letters from Teachers
To help you feel even more comfortable with your letters of recommendation, follow these step-by-step tips. Use this process, and you’re sure to get glowing letters of recommendation. No need to think twice about waiving your FERPA right!
Choose the Right People
The first step to a great letter of recommendation is knowing who to ask. Some colleges have very specific guidelines about who should write your letter(s), so carefully review and follow all instructions.
If you aren’t limited by the school’s guidelines, ask someone who:
- Taught you recently
- Teaches a core subject (e.g., English, mathematics, science) or a subject related to your future major/career
- Has a good relationship with you
- Knows you well enough to write a strong letter
- Can attest to your work ethic, intelligence, talents, etc.
When possible, ask a teacher who also knows you outside of the classroom. For instance, perhaps they sponsor an organization you’re part of or coach one of your teams. The better your teacher knows you, the stronger your letter will be. It’ll have more personal touches that make it more compelling and persuasive.
Ask in Advance
Once you’ve decided who to ask, make sure you ask well in advance. Remember the following:
- Teachers have stressful, busy jobs.
- Your teachers will probably receive requests for letters of recommendation from multiple students.
- Most students will ask for letters of recommendation around the same time.
- The best letters of recommendation your teacher writes will likely be the first few, before they’ve had to write a dozen similar letters.
Give your teachers at least four weeks to write your letter of recommendation. If you know the teacher is popular, it’s better to ask even earlier. In addition, some teachers will have letter of recommendation policies, such as a cap on how many letters they write or a deadline for requests. Make sure you follow all policies exactly.
Ask in Person
Some students ask teachers for letters of recommendation via email. Even worse, some simply add a recommender to the Common App without asking. Instead, make sure you ask in person. It’s polite and considerate, and it will ensure your recommender isn’t feeling insulted while writing your letter.
Choose a time when the teacher isn’t busy, and you can chat one-on-one. For instance, don’t ask just as your teacher is getting ready to start class, or while they’re surrounded by several other students. You don’t want them to feel rushed or put on the spot.
Stop by before or after class, and ask, “Do you have five minutes to talk?” If it’s hard to find the right time, email the teacher in advance to schedule a few minutes to discuss college. Remember to phrase the question as: “Are you comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation for me?” If your teacher seems hesitant, choose someone else.
If the teacher gives you an enthusiastic “yes,” let them know you’ll email your resume. Ask if there’s any additional information they would like you to provide. And remember to thank them for their willingness to help!
In most cases, letters of recommendation are submitted electronically. If your teacher will need to mail the letter, it’s your responsibility to provide a stamped and addressed envelope.
Provide a Brag Sheet
After confirming with your teacher, send an email providing your resume or “brag sheet.” The email helpfully reminds the teacher about your conversation, and it offers useful information that will make for a strong letter of recommendation.
Begin the email by again thanking your teacher for the letter of recommendation. Then briefly list the schools you’re applying to, their deadlines, and your future plans (e.g., major, minor, and career goals). If one of the schools is your first choice, you can mention this in the email too.
Next, include information about your academic performance and your performance in the particular teacher’s class. This may seem silly, but keep in mind that your teacher probably has over 100 students. Providing clear information will help your teacher write a detailed and memorable letter of recommendation.
You might want to mention:
- Your grade in the teacher’s class and your overall GPA
- Test scores (if you have them)
- Favorite projects, accomplishments, lessons, and/or memories from their class (and how you contributed)
- Personal qualities, strengths, or passions you’d like the teacher to emphasize in your letter
- Obstacles or challenges you’ve overcome, if applicable (This one is particularly important if you feel your grades aren’t a reflection of your abilities. Without making excuses or complaining, give a straightforward explanation of any relevant challenges you’ve faced.)
Make sure you attach your resume, also known as a brag sheet, to the email. Your resume should include honors, awards, and other accomplishments, as well as the extracurricular activities and volunteer work you’ve participated in. Mention the date range for each activity, as well as any special contributions you made or leadership roles you held. If you have work experience, include that in your resume as well.
Conclude your email with a statement like, “Thank you again, I truly appreciate your help! Let me know if you have any questions, or if there’s any additional information I can provide.” An appreciative and thorough email puts you on the path to an excellent letter of recommendation. You’ve made it easy for the recommender to write the letter, and you’ve remained considerate throughout the process!
With a week or two left before the deadline, it’s acceptable to send a brief follow up email to your recommender(s). Say something like, “I’m following up on my letter of recommendation for [deadline]. Is there any other information I can provide? I know it’s a super busy time of year for you, so I can’t thank you enough for all your support!”
You can also have this conversation in person, but putting it in writing helps your teacher remember what you’ve discussed. If your teacher doesn’t respond within a few days, ask in person if they received your email. Again, ask one-on-one when they aren’t extremely busy.
After that, try not to stress too much. You don’t want to annoy your teacher or indicate that you don’t trust them to submit the letter. They agreed to help you, and they will. You’ve followed up and made the deadlines clear, so trust your recommenders to do the rest.
Also, keep in mind that the information on college application portals is not always current. Updates can take up to two weeks, so the college may have already received your letter of recommendation, even if the portal says otherwise.
Say Thank You
Once the letter of recommendation is submitted, write your teacher a nice thank you note. After you’ve decided on a college, let your recommender(s) know where you’re going, and thank them again for helping you get there.
Final Thoughts: FERPA Waiver
In short, the FERPA waiver is asking you whether you want to see your college recommendation letters after you’re enrolled in college. Waive this right, and you’ll never see the letters. Don’t waive it, and you’ll get to read your letters later—but college application officers may place less trust in the honesty and candidness of your letters of recommendation.
Our recommendation is to waive your FERPA right. Your goal right now is to get into the college(s) of your choice. Once you’re there, it’s not going to matter to you what your high school teachers wrote in your letters of recommendation. Offering colleges a reason to trust your letters of recommendation gives your letters more weight. This benefits you, while reading your letters after enrollment does not.
Plus, there’s no reason to feel uneasy or worried about your letters. Follow the process we’ve outlined in this guide, and your recommenders will have all the time, information, and positive feelings they need to write a top-notch letter for you.
Use our tips, check the box, and rest easy that your letters of recommendation are sure to impress!