A group of Stanford students have found a way to crack open the secretive world of elite college admissions.
A group of Stanford students have discovered a way to access their own confidential admissions files — including comments by admissions officers, criticisms of their applications, and information about how their status as minorities, athletes, or legacies affected their applications.
The staff of an anonymous Stanford publication called The Fountain Hopper is encouraging thousands of students at Stanford and other universities nationwide to request their own files, potentially cracking open the secretive and controversial world of elite colleges admissions.
College admissions is a topic that has been hotly contested lately — a recent lawsuit filed against Harvard University alleges that the school discriminates against Asian applicants. The details of how, exactly, private schools like Harvard consider race have long been shrouded in secrecy — but could be laid bare if Harvard students follow the methods of the Stanford students at the Fountain Hopper, gaining access to everything admissions officers have written about them.
The Stanford students’ method is shockingly simple: requesting access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which mandates that schools provide students access to their own educational records.
Almost nobody knows, however, that FERPA can provide students with access to their own highly secretive admissions files. The Fountain Hopper staffers sent out an email to Stanford students last night encouraging them to request their own admissions documents; they estimate that as many as 700 students have already filed their own requests, creating what could be a trove of data about how the country’s most selective university selects its students.
Documents viewed by BuzzFeed News show that Stanford students were able to view the evaluative essays written about them by admissions officers and numerical valuations assigned to their personal qualities, as well as descriptions of interviews and recommendation letters. The documents are labeled “confidential.” But under FERPA, they legally belong to students. While most applicants waive their rights to view their recommendation letters, the same does not apply to what is written about them by their school’s admissions office.
“It caused such a stir on campus,” said Tristan Navarro, a freshman at Stanford.
Navarro said sent in a FERPA request for his admissions records after he received the Fountain Hopper’s email Thursday night. The next morning, he said, a confused representative from Stanford’s IT Services department told Navarro they had been flooded with FERPA requests overnight. An admissions representative, Navarro said, told him that the office planned to honor the requests within the 45 days required by law.
The Fountain Hopper’s staffers said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that they hope the documents shed light on Stanford’s process. “We think that admission to a University such as Stanford is a process that is biased towards those that are in the know,” they wrote in an email. “Everyone has a right to know what goes on in the black box.”
Just 5% of almost 40,000 students were admitted to Stanford in 2014, the lowest admissions rate of any university in the country. Stanford declined to comment.
Here’s how to gain access to your own admissions records.
Just contact the admissions office at your university and request access under FERPA to any documents they have, which they are legally obligated to provide within 45 days. This is the language suggested by Stanford’s Fountain Hopper:
Pursuant to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g), I write to request access to and a copy of all documents held by the Stanford University Office of Undergraduate Admission, including without limitation a complete copy of any admissions records kept in my name in any and all university offices, including the Undergraduate Admission Workcard and all associated content (including without limitation the qualitative and quantitative assessments of any ‘readers’, demographics data, interview records) ; any e-mails, notes, memoranda, video, audio, or other documentary material maintained by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
FERPA prohibits the imposition of a fee to review documents (per 34 CFR Sec. 99.11(b)).
If you choose to redact any portion of any documents responsive to this request, please provide a written explanation for the redaction including a reference to the specific statutory exemption(s) upon which you rely. Also, please provide all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I understand that I may have previously waived FERPA rights pertaining to recommendations provided through the Common Application. Be advised that, if selected, this waiver pertains solely to recommendations provided through the Common Application system.
As per 34 CFR Sec. 99.10(b), these records must be made available for my inspection within 45 days of this request.
I look forward to receiving a full response within 45 calendar days.
Most schools only consider FERPA requests for admissions records from admitted students, however. You will likely be out of luck at schools from which you were rejected.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News in New York. In 2015, Hensley-Clancy won an award from the Edwin Gould Foundation for her reporting on the business of education.