It was early February, and a woman with short brown hair was leading me through a long, twisting hallway in the Student Activities Building. I held my coat in my arms, feeling stunned until we arrived at an empty office with just a chair and a sad, barren desk. Once inside, the woman directed me to sit at a small, round table as she took her place in the chair at the desk behind me, watching.
“You have one hour,” she said. It seemed like a short time to look at everything and take notes by hand, as phones were prohibited during this process. Before I could get a word in, a stack of papers was placed in front of me: my college admissions file.
I had this meeting in my calendar for a month, and I had been anxiously awaiting it. When the semester started back up in January, I heard whispers about University of Michigan students requesting to view their admissions file, sparked by a YouTube video uploaded by a student at the Ross School of Business. I was intrigued and wanted to investigate further, so I let myself fall into a dark hole of YouTube videos and Reddit threads. Similar videos existed of students from other schools reacting to their admissions files, and reactions across them were mixed — there were both positive and negative evaluations. Reddit threads vaguely described the process, with some users warning others about imposter syndrome. I felt apprehensive and considered avoiding this whole process, but my curiosity was too strong. When I came out of my mini investigation, I came to a decision: I was going to request to see my admissions file.
The ability to view college admissions files is nothing new. Through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — more commonly known as FERPA — schools are required to provide students who currently attend the school with access to their educational records if they request it. This includes law enforcement records, employment records and, of course, admissions files. Once a student requests these records, FERPA’s guidelines require the school to comply within 45 days.
Though FERPA was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1974, I didn’t know much about the process until stumbling upon Jack Liu’s video earlier this year. Last year, my senior year of high school, college seemed so far away. The possibility of seeing my admissions files was something I hadn’t thought about until I was on campus.
When I was in the process of applying, college admissions always seemed like a secretive process, but the lawsuit filed by a group of Asian American students against Harvard University re-opened the conversation around the college admissions process, especially since it has forced Harvard to reveal the factors that their admissions office considers. Additionally, ever since a group of anonymous Stanford University students came forward and urged others to request their records through FERPA in 2015, students have grown more curious — the University of California, Berkeley, for example, reported that they had experienced a spike in file requests shortly after the Stanford news. In recent years, there has been more and more coverage that details how FERPA allows students to request their admission files, which has likely led to a rise in requests.
The decision to see your file is a hot topic, too. While many students on the internet, like University of Pennsylvania student Christy Qiu, appear to recognize that the act of viewing their admissions files was revealing to an extent and promotes transparency, there are still those who caution people from doing so. Many of the comments I read on Reddit warned fellow students from viewing their files because it might lead to feeling demoralized. Seeing yourself on paper, evaluated by people who have most likely never met you, can be a disheartening process.
When I spoke to some University students about the admissions process, it was clear students felt similarly. “The college admissions process gave me a ton of anxiety,” LSA freshman Anya Dengerink-Van Til said. “I don’t want to reawaken those anxieties.”
I’ll admit that even though I felt confident about wanting to see my file, I was still nervous about it. There was definitely something terrifying about reading what people thought of me. After all, I find even regular criticism to be hard to accept at times; I even get hurt when my mom tells me she doesn’t like the sweater I’m wearing. But there was a part of me that feared something beyond criticism — a part of me that wondered if I was somehow lesser than those who had been accepted before me, especially because I had been deferred.
There was one thing that pushed me to go forward with seeing my application. I was far enough away from that version of myself to view the file somewhat objectively; even if it was only a year ago, I felt different from the girl who had filled out all those forms and written all those application essays. A year ago, I was insecure, and more than anything, I cared about how I looked in comparison to other students. I wanted to seem like the best. Passions came second. But a lot has changed between then and now. My mentality about school is completely different — I attend class because I want to learn, and I pick my organizations because I genuinely care about them.
Back at that small, round table, I flipped through the papers anxiously. Any actual evaluations made by the admissions office were at the bottom of the stack, compiled into two pages; the majority of the papers were printed pages of my Common Application. My extracurricular activities, grade point average and test scores were listed multiple times throughout the file, accompanied by a few handwritten comments. One admissions officer in particular had specifically pointed out two of my extracurriculars, in which I held a position of leadership in, specifically: Model United Nations as head delegate and National Honor Society as an officer. Both of these, from what I could tell, seemed to be good examples of leadership, which made me an “EXC stud.”: Excellent student.
This was something that struck me. In high school, Model UN was important to me. It was one of those clubs that helped me grow more confident with public-speaking, which I’d always felt insecure about. NHS, on the other hand, never felt personal to me. Sure, I was proud to have been elected as an officer by my class, but it felt obligatory — especially at the time — and I had never experienced personal growth in NHS like I had in Model UN.
Seeing those two extracurriculars next to each other as if they were equal felt absolutely bizarre to me. Yet, they were there, right in front of my eyes and printed in ink.
As I continued through the admissions officers’ evaluations, there was another comment that stuck out to me. Each admissions officer ranked me with a single digit number. It was printed next to my name, twice, above each section of their comments. To me, it was clear that it was a ranking. But there was no way of knowing what it meant. It didn’t say what the number was out of or if it was simply a doodle from a bored admissions officer. Was it meant to be a score? Why was I that number and not another one? And was it a good thing, or a bad thing? There was no way of telling, and the uncertainty terrified me.
For some time after, I lingered on the number that haunted my admissions file for a bit. The mystery behind the number was somewhat uncomfortable, but I quickly realized and accepted there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, I reasoned, at this point it’s not as if it matters. Seeing that number hadn’t changed anything about myself in the present, and it’s not as if they had actually ranked me as a person with those numbers. They had ranked me as an applicant — an amalgamation of test scores and clubs and leadership roles. Regardless of their comments, evaluations and rankings, I still have pride in who I am. I am still a thinker, a writer, a friend and a student. Regardless of admissions, I will continue to grow and establish my place here.