As we’ve previously reported, the alma mater of the likes of Chelsea Clinton as well as Malia and Sasha Obama — the Bethesda, Maryland-based Sidwell Friends School — has made headlines in recent weeks, headlines for all the wrong reasons. First there was the report that two of the school’s three college counselors had resigned because of the behavior of some Sidwell Friends parents — including attempting to sabotage other students navigating the admissions process, recording conversations with school counselors, etc. And then a court case came to light in which a former Sidwell Friends student, Dayo Adetu, and her parents sued the school for allegedly discriminating against her based on her race. Well, the unwanted attention on the school hasn’t died down just yet. An editorial by Jim Jump for Inside Higher Ed shines the spotlight on the upper crust school once again. And while the piece is a good read, there is one point in the piece in particular that we thought we should bring to the attention of our readers.
Students and Parents Aren’t Privy to What’s Written in Letters of Recommendation
In reference to the Adetu suit against Sidwell Friends, Jump writes in his piece entitled “Ethical College Admissions: What Parents Won’t Accept,” “The dispute began over Adetu’s grades in two math courses. As part of a settlement agreement reached between the two parties, Sidwell Friends agreed to recalculate grades in the two courses without guarantee of a grade change. The school also agreed not to make negative or disparaging statements about the student to any third party. That was the genesis of the lawsuit and how it relates to college admission. The Adetus sued Sidwell Friends for breach of the agreement based on the fact that Dayo Adetu was the only one of the 126 seniors in her graduating class not to receive at least one unqualified college acceptance, despite applying to 13 colleges and universities. The Adetus interpreted that as proof that Sidwell Friends had sabotaged Dayo’s college process and therefore breached the settlement.”
As our readers know, applicants are asked to waive their FERPA right to see what their teachers and counselor write about them in their letters of recommendation. And if these rights aren’t waived, well, you can bet that college admissions officers will be skeptically reading between each and every word in those recommendations. What did the teacher really mean by this word? What is the teacher not saying? Why did this applicant not feel comfortable waiving their FERPA rights? What does the applicant have to hide? You get the picture.
Sometimes What’s Not Said In Letters of Recommendation Says A Lot Too
So we’re not exactly shocked that a student who sued her own high school for alleged discrimination not only didn’t get into the colleges of her dreams when she applied as a high school senior but came to suspect that her letter writers hurt her case for admission. After all, the settlement agreement from her suit didn’t ensure that her teachers and counselor would write glowing recommendations. The settlement agreement simply aimed to ensure that the teachers and counselor couldn’t write “negative or disparaging statements.” Not writing negative or disparaging statements is a far cry from writing a glowing letter of recommendation…wouldn’t you say?
Herein lies the life lesson for all: don’t sue your school and then expect that the action won’t adversely impact your case for college admission. It sounds to us like that settlement agreement wasn’t worth the paper it was written on since it didn’t ensure the student would receive great recommendations — only that she wouldn’t be disparaged in said letters. When a student is seeking admission to our nation’s most elite universities — as this student certainly was — letters of recommendation that aren’t glowing can torpedo a candidacy.