Several months ago, I learned per this Buzzfeed article that an anonymous Stanford publication called The Fountain Hopper had figured out a way for students to legally gain access to their college admissions files. It has to do with requesting access under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which grants students the right to inspect and review the education records maintained by their school.
Just minutes after reading the Buzzfeed article, I submitted my own request to view my admissions files, which I was promised would include “comments by admissions officers, criticisms of applications, and information about how status as minorities, athletes, or legacies affected applications.” Unsurprisingly, hundreds of other students got the same bright idea when this article went viral (and the FoHo’s popularity skyrocketed,) and so the Admissions Office was positively flooded with requests.
This was made clear in the first email reply I received from the University Registrar.
“These processes take time and resources. We ask for your patience, and that you consider the administrative and logistical burden that a high volume of requests places on the university.”
Also in the same email:
You may also wish to consider that during Convocation, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw often welcomes new students with words to the effect that “we don’t make mistakes” in admissions and that “you are meant to be here.” But the path to Stanford is not easy and the admission process is rigorous and critical. So please ask yourself: What benefit do I seek from reviewing these additional admissions records? Will my life be better for having reviewed them?
This section of the email confused me. I understood why the registrar would try to deter students from requesting access in an effort to save university resources, but to me this section of the email alludes to the fact that students who look at their files might find something they are displeased to see. This, of course, only peaked my curiosity further.
The email also explained that I would have to schedule a 20-minute in-person appointment to view my confidential records.
I put off making the phone call to schedule my appointment for several weeks. I forgot about my request for a while– Exactly what the registrar was hoping for– as I became caught up in my academic and extracurricular responsibilities.
Then, 5 days ago, I received another email that stated:
You are receiving this letter because Stanford received a request from you to view your Office of Undergraduate Admission records. We followed up with you and provided information about […] how to schedule an appointment to see any confidential evaluative materials retained by the University. This email is to let you know that if we do not hear from you by 5:00 PM PDT on Monday, April 13th, we will consider your request to be closed.
My appointment was scheduled within minutes.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 – 9:40 AM
My alarm rings. I skipped the pump because I was up til 2 AM last night watching old BHS-TV videos from the glory days, c. 2013. Did you know my hair used to be an awful, brassy-orange? I jumped out of bed, zipped-up a sweatshirt over my bra (#college,) and was off.
I was told that my appointment would be held at 320 Panama Street. As I biked towards West campus, I soon discovered that 320 Panama Street is a creepy little mobile unit with no clear main entrance. Weird.
I eventually made my way inside and was greeted by a nice woman who asked for my signature and a photo ID. I found a seat and waited in a stale, plain– I guess you could call it a lobby?– for a few minutes while I waited for something to happen. I dabbled in some Yik Yak and attempted to make small talk to pass the time.
I asked the woman if she worked for the Admissions office. She replied that she did not. She explained to me that the Admissions office was already very busy looking over the prospective Class of 2019’s applications when the tsunami of FERPA requests came in, so they hired an outside agency to come in and help with the logistics. She worked for this outside agency. Interesting, I thought. More Yik Yak.
— Catherine Goetze (@CatherineGoetze) 10:10 AM – April 8, 2015
Ten minutes later I was chaperoned out of the “lobby” by another nice lady holding a yellow file folder. Let’s call her Brenda. As Brenda walked me through a maze of cubicles, she asked me to turn off my cell phone and keep my laptop in my bag. She explained that I’d be allowed to view my documents for exactly 20 minutes, and during that time I could write down whatever I wished on a separate sheet of paper, but photographs and audio recordings were strictly prohibited. She sat down with me in one of the cubicles and immediately started a timer for 20 minutes.
Brenda pulled several pieces of paper out of the folder and placed them in front of me. She briefly explained what each document was, exactly, and then sat back and let me go to town. Brenda stayed with me for the duration of my appointment to answer all of my questions. (Admissions officers use a lot of acronyms. Do you know what SPIV stands for? Self-Presentation and Intellectual Vitality. Thanks, Brenda.)
What I Saw
Viewing my documents was like entering a time machine. I was instantly transported right back to where I was when I got the “Congratulations” email. I felt the butterflies swarm in my belly again. I felt the overwhelming wave of emotion. The sheer joy. The excitement. The gratitude. I resisted getting emotional in this little gray cubicle with Brenda looking over my shoulder.
In those 20 minutes, I got to read a copy of my high school transcript (snore,) a copy of the docket report (meh,) and a copy of the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission work card (BINGO.) Because I waived my right to review teacher recommendations when I applied, I was not provided with them and all references to the recommendations were redacted from the materials I was given. (Ie. Sharpie’d and white’d-out.)
Here’s what I could infer about the application review process through these documents:
- As admissions officers look over your entire application, including essays, recommendations, and a “cheat sheet” called the “docket report,” they jot down their impressions, including whether or not they think you should be an (all-caps) “ADMIT,” on a “work card.”
- Up to 3 admissions officers, or “readers,” will fill out a work card, in which they write in plain English what they think about you. 2 readers looked at my application.
- The readers assign you several scores. Brenda told me that “1” is the best, but she doesn’t know the scale, so my scores are essentially meaningless. 😦 Scores are given in the following categories: Tests, High School Record, Support (Letters of Recommendation,) Non-Academic, Self-Presentation and Intellectual Vitality, and the reader’s overall recommendation.
- Cute little note: My SUID number was written at the top of all these documents. We got our ID numbers before we were even students ❤ ❤ ❤ IT WAS MEANT TO BEEEE
I found the “cheat sheet” that the readers use when going over applications particularly interesting. Here are the exact statistics readers have on the docket:
- Ethnicity – Ethnicity was coded on the docket. Nowhere does it say “White European” or “Filipino” for me, but it does say 5E and 2P. Interesting.
- Diversity – This is a Yes or No on the docket. Very interesting.
- SU6 – A unique score generated by Stanford; essentially the unweighted GPA of your last 6 semesters of high school.
- Rigor – Possible entries are again coded. For example, I got an “MD” for “most demanding.” I don’t know what all the possible options are.
- Rank – High School ranking. N/A for Barrington students.
- P% – Percentile ranking in your high school class. Again, N/A for Barrington.
- SAT and subscores
- ACT and subscores
- Initial Aid – I was surprised to find this on the docket. I guess Stanford isn’t truly need-blind after all?
- GEN1 – Yes or No for whether or not an applicant is a first generation student
- Affiliation – i.e. Legacy: Were you parents trees or nah? I’d be interested to find out if siblings get noted on here. Hmm…
- Talent/Sport – Mine was blank. Makes me wonder how high achieving somebody has to be in a talent or sport for it to qualify to appear in this section.
- SAT Subject tests
- AP tests
- TOEFL – (Test of English as a Foreign Language. N/A for native speakers.)
- Interview score – N/A for non-interviewees like myself.
But what do they say about you?
Many of my peers were hesitant to request to see their admissions documents when the FoHo article got out. (This surprised me, but we’re getting to that.) Several people felt that whatever the university would grant students the right to see would not be substantive enough to warrant the efforts they would have to take (scheduling an appointment, etc.) to come in and view them. This was one of my worries as well. I didn’t want to bike all the way over to West campus and find my way through a creepy mobile unit just to see my high school transcript with a big “ADMIT” stamp on it.
Thankfully, the work cards revealed all that I could have hoped for and more.
In plain, colloquial English, I got to read two full pages worth (!) of why my readers thought I deserved to be admitted to this university. No “SPIV’s” or “5E’s” or “SU6’s.” Just plain old: “This is why I believe Catherine deserves to be admitted.” Their comments were thoroughly and thoughtfully written. I have always been under the impression that with upwards of 42,000 applicants every year, Stanford admissions officers realistically probably only skim application contents. According to what I saw, this is far from the truth. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that at some point in the process– which could very well be after several rounds of elimination so I won’t jump to any conclusions here– multiple people delve into the contents of your application and very carefully and sincerely consider you as a candidate.
No, really, Cath. Just tell us what they said.
Nice things, Dear Reader. All nice things. Which leads me to the last leg of this post, which I would like to address to all my fellow Stanford classmates who have not yet requested to see their admissions documents for whatever reason:
Dear all my fellow Stanford classmates who have not yet requested to see your admissions documents for whatever reason,
It’s all too easy to feel like a little fish in a big pond at a school like Stanford. We are constantly surrounded by the brightest minds in the world. We live with them, we eat lunch with them, we go to class with them. WE CANNOT ESCAPE THEM. Their passion, their intellect, and their dashing good looks blind us at every turn, and can make us feel inferior by comparison.
“How did I get in here? I think my admissions officer made a mistake. I’m here on accident. They messed up. I don’t belong here.“
BULLSHIT. Let’s try that paragraph again.
Here at Stanford, we are all big, beautiful, smart, kick-ass fish swimming in a pond filled with fluoride-infused water that’s been imported from the white sand beaches of Maui and triple purified through the latest reverse osmosis technologies. We are CONSTANTLY surrounded by the brightest minds IN THE WORLD!!! We live with them, we eat lunch with them, we go to CLASS with them!!! We cannot escape them because we ARE them. Our passion, our intellect, and our downright BLINDING good looks are the reason we BELONG here at this heaven on earth of an academic institution.
We were all members of the most selective class in American college admissions history. (That is, until all these freaking high schoolers decided to apply and become the class of 2019. Ugh.) Only 5.07% of us made it! We got to keep our SUIDs! And here’s the best part about it: Each of our decisions were completely intentional. If my admissions documents taught me anything, it’s that I belong right here and nowhere else. I earned my spot in the Stanford class of 2018. And you did too.
So despite whatever reason you didn’t want to see your files, whether it was because you were afraid that you would find you’re only here because of your race, legacy status, socio-economic class, or because you thought your documents wouldn’t be substantive enough to warrant the effort, I urge you to reconsider. I am confident that you will find nothing but empowering, reaffirming words that will inspire you to make the most of your Stanford journey. Every student on this campus deserves to feel like they belong. We are all talented in our own unique way, and the admissions staff saw that. They saw something special in us. They believed we would go on to do great things. They believed in us.
As the minutes ticking down from 20 during my appointment quickly approached zero, I shuffled through the documents to make sure I had copied down every last detail on my separate sheet of paper. Just before the timer rang, I noticed a screenshot of a little text box with a drop-down menu on the very last summary document. The selected option from the drop-down menu: “ADMIT.” An ear-to-ear smile spread across my face when I saw this. “This is the box,” I thought. “This is the box that somebody clicked on 14 months ago and changed my life forever.”
So, Dear Reader, if you have ever felt like you weren’t “good enough,” or like the admissions office “made a mistake,” I encourage you to make your appointment. We all belong here, my friend. And viewing your admissions documents will make you believe it like never before.
The deadline to arrange your 20-minute appointment is this upcoming Monday, April 13 at 5:00 PM PDT. You can make an appointment by calling 855-852-6407.