Should I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation?

February 16, 2024

should i waive my right to see letters of recommendation

Should I waive my right to see my letters of recommendation? The short answer: YES. You should definitely waive your right to see letters of recommendation. Read on to learn how and why to waive your right of access to recommendations.

First, though, know that we get it. The college process is full of uncertainty. Am I applying to the “right” schools? Is my application strong enough? Are my test scores high enough? Will I receive enough financial aid? In the face of all the unknowns, it is only natural to be curious and/or anxious about the content of your letters of recommendation. For that reason, you might be tempted not to waive your right to see the letters of recommendation. Resist this impulse! Not only are there strong reasons to waive your right to see letters of recommendation, but even if you don’t waive your right you will not be granted access until after you are admitted to a college and have chosen to attend. In short, there is no real benefit to claiming the right to access, but a lot to lose.

 Requesting Letters of Recommendation

The easiest way to assuage any uncertainty you have about waiving your right to see letters of recommendation is to be thoughtful and thorough about this aspect of your application. Before asking for letters, research how to ask for letters for recommendation. You’ll want to consider the following:

  • Recommendation Requirements: Requirements can vary greatly by school. Determine in advance how many and what types of letters you will need.
  • Timeline: Give your recommenders plenty of time to consider your request and write your letters.
  • Recommender Relevance: Select recommenders who have taught, mentored, or otherwise worked with you within the past two years. Moreover, at least one letter of recommendation should come from a teacher in your academic area(s) of interest.
  • Adequate Information: After making your requests, provide a resume and a statement of purpose. Check out sample letters of recommendation and consider whether there is anything in particular you want your recommender to highlight. Strong letters tend to provide specific examples, so make sure your recommender has adequate information from which to draw. This is not the time to be modest—state your accomplishments!

Should I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation? (Continued)

  • Perhaps it goes without saying, but be courteous and authentic when asking for letters of recommendation. Be considerate of your recommender’s time and energy by:
    • Approaching them at a good time (i.e. not as they’re rushing out the door or about to start class). Relatedly, ask in person if possible.
    • Explaining why you are asking them specifically for letters (“I know I produced strong work in your class, and I believe you would be able to speak to my skills and work ethic.”)
    • Not assuming they will write for you. If you’ve put some thought into potential recommenders and are making requests well in advance, it is unlikely they will decline. However, there are plenty of valid reasons (many that have nothing to do with you!) that a potential recommender will opt not to write a letter of recommendation. They might have personal or medical circumstances that prevent them from granting the necessary attention to the letter, or they feel that another recommender would be more appropriate. Be understanding, and avoid making assumptions.
    • Check in periodically. You should not pester your recommenders, but it is appropriate to ask if they need additional information from you, give them updates, or remind them of deadlines. Be sure to circle back when you receive acceptance letters and when you decide which school to attend. Don’t stop communicating the second they agree to be a recommender.
    • Express gratitude. No need to overdo it, but be genuine and consistent. Thank them when they agree to write the letter and after they’ve submitted it.

Should I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation? (Continued)

If you’ve chosen your recommenders well, and approached the process with care, they will want to write strong letters of recommendation for you—ones that avoid generalities and platitudes. They’re on your team! Likewise, they will most likely have more experience with letters of recommendation than you, particularly if they are a seasoned educator or counselor. Trust them and trust yourself.

Do Letters of Recommendation Matter?

The short answer is yes, letters of recommendation matter. This is true especially for those institutions that are test-blind or test-optional, as more weight is placed on other data points and the more individualized aspects of the application. Moreover, letters speak to both a student’s academic accomplishments and their character. Letters grant insight into you as a person, not just you as an applicant. They’re humanizing, and can offer information not found elsewhere in your application. Colleges are looking for potential members of a student body and campus community, not just a student.

For this reason, you’ll want your letters of recommendation to be candid and insightful, and you do not want to give college admissions officers any reason to doubt you or your recommenders. Admissions officers read hundreds—sometimes even thousands—of letters each application cycle. Generic or formulaic letters are easy to identify, as are signs of a recommender’s discomfort or hesitancy.

Why Should I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation?

There are two main reasons to waive your right to see your letters of recommendation: 1) the message it sends to your recommenders, and 2) the message it sends to college admissions officers.

Refusing to waive your right to access letters signals to your recommenders that you don’t trust them or that you intend to micromanage the process. Either implication can cause the recommender to write a more generic letter, or even result in them opting not to write a letter at all. As discussed above, it’s already advisable to ask for letters from people with whom you have good relationships, and to be involved in the process of shaping the letter. Even if you never see the final letter, it is likely that you will still have a good idea of its tone and contents.

Similarly, admissions officers value letters that are candid and personalized. If you do not waive your right to see your letters, it might signal to admissions officers that you don’t trust your recommenders—leading them to be more wary of both you and the letters.

Finally, even if you waive your right of access, it is not uncommon for recommenders to share the letters with you anyway. If you’ve chosen your recommenders well, they will both want to help you and demonstrate that they’re proud of you. For those reasons, they might choose to show you drafts or the final versions of their recommendation letters. They may even ask for feedback. That said, it must be their choice! Don’t expect that they will share the letters with you in advance or at the time of submission, and certainly do not ask to see the letters at any point during the process.

How Do I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation?

Waiving your right to see letters of recommendations is easy—perhaps the easiest part of the entire application process. You will waive your right of access to letters of recommendation on the FERPA waiver section of your applications.

What’s FERPA? FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which was passed to protect the privacy of students’ educational records. FERPA both gives parents and students over 18 years of age the right to access their records and requires that parents or students grant permission before educational information is released to a third party.

How does this relate to letters of recommendation? FERPA gives students over the age of 18 the right to request access to their letters of application. However, you can only access your letters of recommendation after you’ve received your acceptance letter and chosen to enroll in a college. This means that if you are rejected from or choose not to attend a college, you will not be able to access your letters of recommendation regardless of whether you’ve waived your right to see them.

Should I Waive My Right to See Letters of Recommendation? (Continued)

When you add a college to your Common Application, you’ll be able to invite your recommender(s) under the “Recommenders and FERPA” section. Before you send those invites, you’ll be prompted to read the FERPA “Waiver of Access” and submit a response by selecting either “I waive my right” or “I do NOT waive my right.” Both recommenders and college admissions officers will be informed of your response.

Hence, there’s really no reason, beyond curiosity, not to waive your right to see your letters of recommendation. To reiterate: even if you don’t waive your right, you will not be able to access the letter until after the college application and enrollment process is over. And, truthfully, you won’t really care about your letters of recommendation after you’ve enrolled in college. You’ll be busy celebrating, selecting classes, choosing extracurriculars, making new friends, etc.! The letters will have served their purpose, and it will no longer matter what your recommenders wrote.

Final Thoughts on Waiving Your Right to See Letters of Recommendation

Technically, your response to the FERPA waiver is up to you, and you cannot officially be penalized for your response. However, there’s nothing to gain by refusing to waive your right. Rather, you risk alienating your recommenders and casting doubt on the letters themselves. Confidentiality is expected—both by recommenders and college admissions officers—and refusing to waive your FERPA right gives a negative impression to all parties involved.

Instead of fretting over the FERPA waiver, do the work to secure great letters of recommendation in the first place.