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Every university you apply to will display the following message in the letter of recommendation section of the application.* This gives you the choice to either waive or not waive your right to view the recommendation submitted by the professor (or whoever you asked).

That question above is asking, Do you waive the right to request access to the information provided by your references?

Have you wondered why this question is being asked?

We did.

A landmark law titled Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was signed into law by President Ford on August 21, 1974:*

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.

Surprisingly, the law went into effect without offering the chance to be heard by those who were impacted by its enactment. There were no public hearings asking for testimonials from the institutions it affected. The only reasoning offered* by the senator who enforced it was that it was in response to “the growing evidence of the abuse of student records across the nation.”

This shocked schools and universities across the nation.

One of the main concerns of the law were the letters of recommendation written by professors under the assumption of confidentiality thus far.

Did the students have the right to read them all under FERPA? What if the student wanted a sentence to be corrected? Can students sue the professor or the institution for wrongly stating a fact? Some of these questions were put to rest when amendments were made to the hastily enacted law on December 31, 1974. It barred students from accessing any letters written prior to January 1, 1975.

Since then, FERPA has undergone many revisions, offering more leeway for schools to disclose the personal information of students to certain entities (such as a school they transfer to or the law enforcement when requested under a subpoena).

Today, it is mandatory for universities to give you the choice to either view the recommendation or waive your right to view it.

We strongly feel you should waive your right to view it, i.e. choose yes in the screenshot shown earlier, for the following reasons:

  • Recommender’s view: Someone who you carefully chose and someone who agreed to recommend you is not a person who would write a bad letter (or hopefully, a badly written letter). Many recommenders would draw comparisons between you and other students in their letter.* If they know you can read that at a later date, they would resort to a rather vague and insipid letter with little specificity. By waiving your right and letting them know you did that, you also establish a level of trust with the other person, which will help your case further.

  • Institution’s view: The university gives you the right to view because they have to. It doesn’t mean they encourage that behavior. Not waiving your right can be seen as a mild red flag for universities who might reach one or more of the following conclusions:

    a. the letter is not candid since it was not written under the assumption of confidentiality,

    b. the student might have played a part in writing the letter, or

    c. the student must have a moral obligation to exercise this right.

If that isn’t enough reason, you might not learn what you’re looking for even when you read the letter, since it would be out of context. Unless you read all the other letters written by your recommender, any conclusion you draw would be inaccurate.

That is why we ask you to waive the right and choose yes for that question.

However, if you choose to view it for personal reasons, notify your recommender of this decision explicitly when you ask them to write you a letter.

Student Testimonials

The best strategy to get your recommendation is to first build good relationships with the people you work with, be it your supervisor or internship guide. From my experience, it is better to work with a young professor in a small group. I realized this through my association with an Assistant Professor at IIT Madras, under whom I interned twice. He was a great mentor with whom I built a strong relationship, and we ended up publishing a paper together. He also went so far as to assist me during my graduate applications.

The same holds true for my third-year summer internship in Germany. During this internship, I built a good relationship with my supervisor, who happened to be a post-doctorate in the group. He later went on to help me obtain recommendations from my professor and was very helpful in reviewing my SOPs. In short, it is all about developing a natural rapport with your professors and guides that will aid you in getting the required LORs.

—Saman Salike, University of California, Berkeley

I felt it was important for my recommendation letters to reflect on me holistically: including my achievements and career goals. If you feel the same, you need to communicate this transparently to your recommenders. I set up meetings with my recommenders and spoke about my future aspirations, what the program was about, and how it would lead me to achieve the destination. After the meetings, I sent them a written document where the aforementioned was elucidated along with a copy of my resume. I also provided details on what skills were necessary for the program and how I have displayed them in various scenarios. By doing all this, I made sure to equip them with the right information to write a good letter.

Honestly, writing a letter of recommendation is a time-consuming task and requires huge dedication on the part of the recommender. Hence, do not request for it at the last minute. Follow a step-by-step strategy that gives them the right information and sufficient time.

—Uchechukwu Ekeopara, Dartmouth College

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