Over 300 students have filed requests to view their admission files under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act since Jan. 15, according to Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler.
FERPA became a federal law in 1974 to guarantee students a right of access to their educational records and to protect those records from disclosure to third parties.
The flood of requests began after an anonymous satirical newsletter at Stanford University called the Fountain Hopper publicized a process for requesting admission files under FERPA.
Members of the Fountain Hopper did not respond to requests for comment.
The number of students who followed through with viewing their files as of April 13 was 137, according to a WASS calendar maintained by the Office of the Dean of the College called "FERPA File Review." In March, when the first appointments began, 97 students did so.
To view admission files, students must first submit a formal request for their records to the Office of Undergraduate Admission.Within 45 days, an administrator will contact the student and give permission to schedule an appointment in the WASS calendar.
Students have one hour to view their files at West College.
The file includes an introductory statement entitled "The Admissions Process," a packet called "Joint Statement for Candidates on Common Ivy League Admission Procedure," emails related to the student's FERPA request, the reader scorecard, the alumni interviewer's report, test score summary sheets, a copy of the high school transcript and recommendations that the student did not waive his rights to.
Interviewed students said they heard about the phenomenon from online articles and friends, and requested their files to gain insight into an opaque admission process and to learn why they were accepted to the University.
Emily Tu ’16 and Jacob Scheer ’15 said they wanted to revisit their high school trajectories by reviewing copies of their applications as well.
Anna Leader ’18, who lives in Luxembourg, said she hoped to help her sister, a junior at a school that rarely sends graduates to American colleges.
“I wanted to go find out if there was anything I could find out from records which would tell me what helped me get in so that I could tell her, since she's starting to panic about applications,” she said.
The admission process begins with a randomly selected first reader who summarizes everything he or she sees in the file, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye explained. The file then passes on to a second reader, the regional admission officer, who takes a broader perspective of how the student appears in the context of his or her educational background.
The most promising files go to committee for discussion and voting, Rapelye said.
“The question we’re always asking is, ‘Has this student taken advantage of everything in his or her setting?’ ” Rapelye said.
Based on interviews and a file review conducted by The Daily Princetonian, the first reader recommends an action for the second reader on a scale of four or five options, including “Unlikely,” “Only if Room,” “Strong Interest” and “High Priority.”
The second reader may disagree with the first reader.
Leigh Anne Schriever ’16 noted that her first reader had circled one option and that the second reader drew an arrow bumping her up to “admit.”
Evan Kratzer ’16 said his first reader looked more at his extracurriculars, while his second reader focused on his alumni interview and potential for creating projects on campus.
Several students expressed surprise at the low number of quantitative metrics.
“I thought it was notable that your SAT scores don’t come up at all on the two-page sheet that’s your summary of who you are, effectively,” Kratzer said.
On the other hand, Leader said her readers briefly mentioned her test scores as flawless.
“It just seemed like it was a requirement you have to clear before they look at other stuff, so if you hit a certain bar, then they’re just like, ‘Oh, her test scores are good enough, let’s think about other things that she does,’ and I’d like to know where that bar lies,” she said.
Leader said the readers were much nicer than she anticipated.
“I was expecting them to be really critical, because they get a lot of amazing applicants, so I didn’t think my application was particularly standout, but they seemed really positive,” she said.
Roger Van Peski ’18 said his readers predicted he would be a good math major who could branch out into other activities due to his well-roundedness.
“ ‘An interesting candidate, I’m sure Roger would be welcomed over in Fine Hall,’ ” he said his first reader wrote.
He said the second wrote, “ ‘While his ECAs [extracurriculars] are largely academic (and we don’t see any for 9th, before he enrolled at MSSM [his high school]), he has gotten involved in badminton, key club and student government. Roger has a lot of promise and seems like one to consider.’ ”
Tu said she was impressed by the solid grasp of her personality that the readers demonstrated in their summaries and said all of the comments were generous.
But for Scheer and Schriever, the files included some unfavorable remarks.
“Confident, self-assured and dedicated young man. His path from insecure 9thgrader to mature warrior … his commitments to all that he does and his potential contributions to the [Center for Jewish Life] are clear. But are they enough in the end?” Scheer said, paraphrasing his first reader’s comments.
The comments pointed out that, while he was a strong B.S.E. candidate, he was a B/B+ student in English and history.
Scheer paraphrased his second reader as having written, “Dale Carnegie-esque isn’t my cup of tea, but does seem like a young man who’s going places.”
Schriever said her interviewer had asked her to describe one of her greatest challenges to overcome. According to Schriever, her first reader wrote, “ ‘Self-described shy and quiet, star fourth paragraph,’ ” referencing the fourth paragraph of a report in which the interviewer expressed concern about Schriever’s answer. Schriever said she felt the reader’s comment implied a negative judgment.
The interview reports apparently played a significant role for several students, including Nathan Suek '17, Kratzer and Scheer.
“I had a suspicion that it was my interview that pushed me over the edge because I didn’t get into other universities of similar caliber,” Scheer said. “And my hunch actually turned out to be correct, that my interviewer wrote a raving description of me and said that she would highly recommend me to be a student here.”
Schriever said her readers focused on her underrepresented geographic origin and her very strong teacher recommendations.
“The second reader’s comment was, ‘Neat and ambitious young lady from a county from which we admit few, who seems to be yearning for a chance to be pushed harder. Not much more we could ask of her in context,’ ” she said.
The readers underlined parts of Schriever’s application that they found most interesting, such as her residence in rural New Jersey, her co-presidency in debate club and the low percentage of students from her high school that attend four-year colleges, she added.
Kratzer, who said he was curious about how his status as half-Asian and a legacy might factor into the admission process, noted he found no evidence of either issue influencing the decision.
Michael Yuan '15 said he thought during the application process that, as an Asian applicant, he needed to distance himself from stereotypes of being Asian.
“I didn’t really see them evaluate me in the context of me being Asian at all, so I’m still convinced that that happens, but I don’t know how,” he said.
When asked how the Office of Admission accepts similar percentages of students from certain demographics every year, Rapelye said readers apply institutional priorities, which are set by the president, the Board of Trustees and the faculty.
“A difference of five to 10 students in any one of our categories is actually a very big difference for us,” Rapelye said. “Ten more female engineers makes a big difference in our pool. It seems like a small number to you, but it’s not a small number for us. And that’s true of any of the institutional priorities we have."
Fowler added that the Office of Admission uses guiding principles rather than comparative practices.
“The students who apply here are so interesting and so well-rounded and so multifaceted that they cross so many different categories that the Office of Admission looks at every student as an individual, not as representing any particular category,” she said.
Suek said he was waitlisted after his first reader strongly recommended him, even though one of his friends was accepted regular decision after being marked as “Only if Room,” an inconsistency that confused him and made him wonder who gets the final say in admission decisions.
Suek, Schriever and Van Peski expressed interest in seeing transcriptions of the discussions about their applications.
However, committee conversations are not recorded and no written admission records exist aside from those provided through FERPA, Rapelye said.
If students waived their rights to see recommendations, the Office of Admission hired people to remove anything written about the letters, Rapelye noted. Any comments about other students were redacted, such as in an email from a guidance counselor updating the University about multiple applicants from one school, she added.
At an undetermined future date, the FERPA files will be destroyed. The University once had a longstanding policy of giving students’ essays, college application and transcript to the residential colleges for advising purposes, Rapelye explained. The Office of Admission would then destroy the reader workcards and everything else in the file at the end of every year, since the information would have been unnecessary and expensive to store.
However, eight years ago, the Office for Civil Rights began a compliance review, investigating the University after a student claimed that his admission process had been unfair. Rapelye said her office has kept its records throughout this timeline, but will return to the original policy barring any other resolution.
Stanford and Yale Law School have begun destroying their filessince the Fountain Hopper launched the FERPA phenomenon.
All of the interviewed students said they would recommend that curious classmates request their files.
“For a lot of people who wind up here, they don’t know why they’re here or feel that they don’t belong, and I think it’s a good affirmation for most people that they do belong here, and somebody had faith in them when they read these essays,” Schriever said.
Leader said reading the file can empower and reinvigorate students by reminding them they did great things in high school and that they will continue to do so. If students discover discouraging comments, they can just prove the admission officers’ expectations wrong by excelling on campus, she said.
“[My readers] both said, ‘Sounds like a great admit to the Class of 2018,’ which felt very nice. I left there feeling that I was supposed to be here,” Leader said.
On the other hand, several said that they found the contents underwhelming.
“There’s no harm in reading it. Just don’t go in with high expectations. I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to change my perspective on admissions decisions,’ and it really doesn’t,” Suek said, adding that he still finds the admission process very mysterious.
However, Rapelye and Fowler noted that the timing of the requests was particularly difficult.
“A lot of the requests have hit when admissions is at its height. It has been very hard for us. I wish I had been able to dedicate that time to other responsibilities,” Fowler said, adding that the admission files are no longer valuable or relevant.
The files have occupied both of her assistants’ time, she noted. A number of full-time employees have been hired to help manage the FERPA requests, Rapelye added.
Contrary to what students might believe, there is no secret to the admission process, Rapelye said.
“I realize you all may be somewhat interested, but the bottom line is we value all of you on this campus for what you are doing now, and when we admitted you we saw potential and promise for a strong performance,” she said. “What we care about is what you’re doing now.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify how students can request their admission records. They must first submit a formal request to theOffice of Undergraduate Admission, then they will be contacted within 45 days to schedule an appointment to view the files.