Why does ONSF need a FERPA form?
When letters of recommendation are sent to ONSF they become part of your educational record. The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives you the right to inspect your educational record unless you have expressly waived your right to do so. (A FERPA request of this kind is like a FOIA request).
Thus, whenever ONSF receives and files letters as part of a scholarship/fellowship nomination process, we must have a FERPA form on file stating whether or not you waive access to your letters.
Does my letter writer need to sign and submit a FERPA form?
No. The FERPA form informs ONSF whether you have waived the right to access your letters of recommendation. However, your letter writers also need to know your selection before submitting their letter - in other words, the letter writer needs to know whether the letter is confidential or not.
Some scholarships require that the letter writer submit a FERPA form signed by you along with the letter to ensure that this communication has taken place. However, this places an extra burden on the letter writer to receive and attach a separate form. Instead, the ONSF FERPA form sends you an automated reply via email that indicates your selection. This reply should be forwarded to your recommenders to inform them of your FERPA decision. It also includes the hyperlink for recommenders to submit their letter of recommendation.
Why confidential letters?
ONSF does not require that you waive access to your letters of recommendation. However, some letter writers may only agree to write and submit a letter if it is confidential. Why would they require confidentiality? Typically this is not because they will say anything bad about you. You have selected letter writers who think highly of you and have agreed to write in support of your application. However, strong letters of recommendation often contain comparative information that letter writers would not want to be publicly available.
For example, if a letter says that you are the best student in your cohort within a particular department, the letter writer may not want that information to be passed indirectly to other students within the department. On the other hand, a letter writer may think very highly of you and provide a strong recommendation in other respects, but rank you as the second strongest student in your cohort. For this reason, confidential letters are usually considered more candid and official by committees.
If ONSF receives a letter that is negative - especially if it contains evidence of implicit bias or other problematic language - we may reach out directly to the letter writer to initiate a conversation, or may suggest that you seek an alternate letter without revealing specific information that would break the confidentiality of the letter writer. (Note, however, that there are other reasons that we will ask you to seek an alternate letter writer, so don’t assume that this is because the letter writer said something negative about you.)
If you have concerns either about waiving access to your letters in general or about a particular letter, please contact Henry Dyson for an individual conversation.
When should I submit my FERPA form?
You should submit the form as soon as the letter writer has verbally agreed to write a letter, but before it is submitted.
Your ONSF FERPA form can be submitted electronically and can be found on your application Canvas site or module. Students applying to opportunties that require multiple letters of recommendation should submit one ONSF FERPA form per application as opposed to per recommender.
Please email ONSF at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions regarding FERPA forms or policies.