An email from Penn’s Office of Admissions — containing a link to a secure portal — appeared in College freshman Srinivas Mandyam’s inbox.
He had requested his admission file. Mandyam wanted to know how admissions officers evaluated him when he applied to Penn.
“I was really curious about what went through the minds of the admissions people when they decided to let me in here,” Mandyam said. “Maybe this could shed some light.”
A Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act provision grants enrolled students access to their educational records within 45 days of matriculating. The FERPA mandate gained publicity after a student-run Stanford University newsletter published an article two years ago outlining the steps students should take to view their admissions files.
Mandyam requested his admissions file by email in mid-October and received it through a secure link in mid-November. While he expected to come across comments by admissions officers, he only saw his application — without any written notes — and four numbers.
“The problem was the numbers had no context, so I didn’t know what they were out of,” Mandyam said. “It could be out of 10 or out of different numerical scales, for all I know.”
Since each admissions office can interpret the phrase “educational records” differently, they have some discretion over what to include in the files provided to students. Brown, Columbia and Yale have removed most or all internal admissions documents from the files students can review.
1986 Wharton graduate Laurie Kopp Weingarten, co-founder and director of One-Stop College Counseling, knows several students who — like Mandyam — did not know how to interpret the numbers in their educational files.
“Some of the colleges are now destroying the records, and the ones that aren’t, that are still showing, they’re coded in a way that don’t help you. They have numbers but you don’t know the scale was,” Weingarten said.
Weingarten urges student to not view their application records.
“I really just can’t imagine a scenario where I recommend a student read their file,” Weingarten said. “I know a bunch of kids who’ve read their files, and almost none of them had been thrilled with what they read.”
One student from Yale who pulled her admissions file before Yale destroyed them found that an admissions officer called her essay “cheesy” and another one even confused her with someone else, referencing a summer job she didn’t have.
For Mandyam, the four numbers in his admissions record confirmed the preconceptions he initially held about the admissions process.
“I went into the college application process with the mindset of, as much as you try, there’s still a huge element of randomness in the outcome of your college decision,” Mandyam said. “I wanted to believe that there was some major thing that differentiated college decisions from randomness.”
“The fact that this is how they choose to distill their judgment of an applicant, I’m not sure if this is what I would do if I’m in the position of the admissions office,” he said.