Does Legacy Status Affect Admission? It's All Relative.

Oh, legacy admission, you sneaky little detail. How is it that you manage to make so many happy while others loathe the idea of you? The mere thought of your impact has alumni counting down the years, months, days and seconds until they can exclaim alongside their children “WE got in!”...having known they would all along.

But is it really that easy? Is the application process a mere formality for those whose bloodline includes graduates of said institution? Or is “legacy status” simply a category used when buildings are emblazoned with the name of an alumnus? Can an otherwise under-qualified student get a “bump” in the admission review just for being the child or grandchild of a graduate? 

The answer: it depends.

“We honor a family’s commitment to the college and it is certainly a beneficial factor in our holistic review,” says Megan Starling, Associate Director of Admission at Rhodes College. “However, a student must have demonstrated the ability to succeed here to be admitted regardless of family connections. It would be a disservice to the whole family to admit a student who isn’t an academic fit. In the case that a student is not admitted to Rhodes, our alumni office personally notifies the family in advance.”

Katelyn Glaser, Senior Assistant Director of Admission at Washington and Jefferson College echoes these sentiments.

“At W&J, we love when students are legacies. It says a lot about a school when the parents or grandparents had such an impactful time on campus that they influence the next generation to apply,” says Glaser. “However, while we will definitely take into consideration if a student is a legacy when reviewing applications, it won’t be a primary deciding factor.”

Regardless of how heavily legacy status is weighed in the admission process, it’s important for students to remember that it’s their responsibility to let the admission office know that they have some sort of legacy ties to the institution.

“We love to recognize our alumni but oftentimes we don't know if a student is a legacy student unless they list the parent/grandparent on his or her application,” says Laren Wenzell, Associate Director of Admission at Ohio Wesleyan University. “It’s very important that students list it on the application or to mention it in their interview.”

It’s important that legacy students remember that, while they may have an additional “look” in the application review, they should make sure the college knows they also have a dedicated desire to attend the school.

“We practice demonstrated interest in our admission review so a student who hasn’t visited or been engaged in their search of Rhodes is unlikely to be admitted. This applies to legacy applicants as well,” says Starling. “A student shouldn’t take for granted that because mom or dad attended here, they don't need to visit or reach out to the admission counselor. A visit to campus for Homecoming when the applicant was 7 doesn’t count as demonstrated interest.” 

According to Glaser, “While we always enjoy hearing about legacies during the admission process, it should never be the only thing that ties a student to the college. We want to know that the school would be a great fit for you outside of your family connection.”

Now, the questions is: can this same set of standards regarding the role of legacy status in admission also be applied to the most selective schools in the country? We did some digging to uncover promoted policies of a few well-known institutions, and here’s what we found…

Some Schools Where Your Family Name Matters

Stanford

An article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine shared this information about how legacy students are reviewed by the admission office: 

It used to be that every application would be read twice. Now, only one reading is guaranteed, although—thanks, Mom and Dad—every legacy application still gets two sets of eyes. One of Stanford's biggest priorities, as it is at most universities, is the bond of legacy. The percentage of alumni children admitted to Stanford is roughly three times the overall percentage of acceptance: somewhere in the mid to high teens. Nevertheless, there are many more 'no's' than 'yesses' each year. It is, says Stanford Alumni Association President Howard Wolf, '80, "the point at which the University is most vulnerable in its relationship with its alumni."

That being said, Stanford’s Dean of Admission, Richard Shaw stresses in this piece that, while legacy applicants are given this special consideration, it “is only relevant if the student is competitive in all other aspects.”

Duke

According to information on the Duke Alumni Association website:

We advocate on behalf of all alumni children and grandchildren who apply for undergraduate admission; this is part of the service we provide to all alumni families and does not need to be requested or instigated by the family. While we do not directly review applications or make admissions decisions, we strive to provide information and guidance throughout the admissions process.

They include this “disclaimer”, as well:

Alumni affiliation by no means ensures admission to Duke. However, the university recognizes that applicants from alumni families possess a meaningful connection to Duke and its traditions. Admissions officers give special consideration to these applicants, including an additional round of review.

Emory

The folks at Emory clearly lay out on their alumni website the process that a legacy application goes through:

The undergraduate admission office values the legacy connections of applicants and encourages students to detail their university ties accurately on their applications. The admission staff and Emory Alumni Association (EAA) work closely to document legacy applicants through the admission-review process. During the initial application review, an applicant's legacy status is noted on the review sheet and admission evaluators are instructed to consider the affiliation. 

An interesting thing to note is the separate committee that Emory has to review legacy applicants:

In addition, during the committee-review process, there is a separate committee that does an additional review of legacy applicants. Finally, the deans of admission for Emory College and Oxford College closely monitor legacy decisions throughout the entire process. A legacy connection is considered as part of a student’s application, but it is no way a guarantee of admission in the highly selective pool of applicants.

A School Where You’re Admitted Solely on Your Own Merit

MIT

A few years ago on the MIT Admissions Blog, Assistant Director of Admission (and MIT Grad) Chris Peterson wanted to set the record straight on their policy regarding legacy in admission. We think he made his point pretty clear.

Selective college admissions is a zero sum game: every applicant admitted takes a space which could have gone to another student. Preferring a student whose parents attended a college not only takes away a spot from an equal or better student, it specifically takes away a spot from an equal or better student who overcame more by not having the advantages accrued by prior generations. And I can tell you, from having sat on countless committees, that we simply don't care if your parents (or aunt, or grandfather, or third cousin) went to MIT. In fact, one of the things most likely to elicit a gigantic facepalm is when a student namedrops some incredibly attenuated connection because they think it is going to help them get into MIT. There is only one way into (and out of) MIT, and that's the hard way. The people here value that.

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So there you have it, folks. It appears that at many institutions legacy can play a significant role in an application review. It is important for families to recognize the one caveat that many of the schools noted above: a student should have the academic qualifications that a college is looking for in their applicants. That being said, the one piece that isn’t so clear is to what extent a family’s category on the “Honor Roll of Donors” plays in the process, but we’re guessing it’s a pretty big role at some institutions. However, we don’t expect to see colleges sharing any type of donation-linked likelihood of admission matrix any time soon.