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Several years ago I applied to a bunch of universities, many of which rejected or waitlisted me. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about transparency in the college admissions process, including this lawsuit against Harvard and this video about Yale. In the latter case, the student also later wrote an article asserting that people can look at old application materials under FERPA - though typically only for schools they attended. (*I am not attesting to the quality of or agreement with the resources; I'm merely citing their existence.)

I recently remembered this and wanted to see if I could do the same out of curiosity. However, I have two questions regarding this.

  1. Can people do this for schools to which they were not accepted? I read that they might only honor your request if you were admitted. (If this is the case, then is this stipulated in FERPA? And how can they “choose” not to honor the law unless this is the case?)

  2. What is the retention period? I would think that if I applied over four years ago, they might not have my record on file...?

Edit: For clarity, I DO have closure and am extremely content with the outcome. I cleaned up the original question and corrected my wording to provide more context. Thank you to everyone who answered.

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    I can't find it stated explicitly in the regulations, but there are several passages that seem to suggest you only have a right to view records from institutions you actually attended. E.g. section 99.5 (c) which says you don't even have the right to view your application records if you applied to a different component of an institution you were already attending. – Nate Eldredge Aug 22 at 17:19
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    I'm also not aware of any legal requirement to retain such records, so an institution may very well destroy them as soon as the decision is made. For that matter, they may not even make any meaningful records in the first place; the admission committee could discuss the application's merits verbally and only record the final decision of admit or reject. – Nate Eldredge Aug 22 at 17:20
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    On the other hand, it costs nothing to file a request, so you could always try and see if you get lucky. – Nate Eldredge Aug 22 at 17:23
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    This sounds to me like the opposite of moving toward closure! You're going to reopen these rejections from years ago and use a fine comb to figure out what went wrong. This is understandable and very human. But if closure is what you're looking for you need to look within yourself. That's where it'll come from... Making your peace with the past regardless of the details. Good luck! – user2705196 Aug 22 at 17:36
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    For highly selective universities, getting accepted becomes a pretty random process even for highly qualified applicants. Even if you had details there might be no value in that information. – Jon Custer Aug 22 at 19:37
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Can people [request their records under FERPA] for schools to which they were not accepted?

No. From the FERPA text, education records are defined as:

those records that are:

(1) Directly related to a student; and

(2) Maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.

and a student is defined as:

any individual who is or has been in attendance at an educational agency or institution and regarding whom the agency or institution maintains education records.

Since you have never been in attendance at the schools who rejected you, you have are a not considered their student and FERPA does not accord you any protections.

This accords with most "plain English" descriptions. For example, it agrees with this description from PrepScholar and this explanation from USC.

As Nate points out in the comments: "section 99.5 (c)...says you don't even have the right to view your application records if you applied to a different component of an institution you were already attending." So there is no loophole if you applied to grad school at your undergraduate institution.

There is therefore no question of "choosing not to honor the law" -- rather, the law does not impose any obligations on the school until a student-university relationship is formed.

What is the retention period? I would think that if I applied over four years ago, they might not have my record on file...?

FERPA does not specify any retention period. As noted here, however, state law may impose certain retention requirements.

In a larger sense, the goal of FERPA is protect privacy and allow students to correct errors in their educational record. It is not concerned with the admissions process directly (until the point where admissions documents become part of the student's educational record).

I agree with the commenters suggesting that you would do better to ask professors you know to review your application materials and give you feedback. I admit I am also a little concerned that you are still seeking "closure" five years later, but that is perhaps a separate matter.

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  • While I appreciate the sentiment, you need not be concerned. The insinuation that I can’t let go of the past is due to a misunderstanding (and my admittedly poor word choice). I edited my original post to (hopefully) clarify my intention. Thank you for the thorough and well-structured answer. – eurieka Aug 23 at 19:00

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