Curious about what it means to be a college legacy? Who exactly counts as a legacy? How much does it help you when it comes to admissions? And what if you’re not a legacy?
In this article, we’ll discuss what exactly a college legacy is, and what to do whether you’re a legacy or not.
College Legacy 101
A “legacy” is someone who is related to an alumnus of a school. A legacy is usually a child of a graduate. More distant relations (aunts, uncles, cousins) rarely count. (Grandparents sometimes, but not always, count.) To take an example, if your mom graduated from Harvard College, you would be considered a Harvard legacy. If your uncle graduated from Harvard Law School, you would not be considered a Harvard legacy.
So basically, if one or both of your parents graduated from a school, you would be considered a legacy there. Remember that undergraduate admissions offices are most interested if your parents also went there for their undergraduate degrees. If your parents got a professional degree from a school it's less likely you would be counted as a legacy during the undergraduate admissions process.
Legacy status is valued by colleges mainly for economic and community-building reasons. The belief is that when schools admit children of alumni, those alumni are more likely to stay involved with the school (going to reunions, serving on committees) and donate money. They also believe that legacies will also be very active alumni due to their family connection with the school. In short, colleges believe admitting legacies is a way to not only keep alumni involved, but ensure a new generation of active alumni.
However, even though there are many perceived benefits to admitting legacies, they’re not even close to a majority of the student body at top schools. Furthermore, being a legacy is far from being a guarantor of admission at a top school.
In most cases, being a legacy not going to transform a candidate’s chances of admission. If a student is below a school’s SAT/ACT and GPA ranges and has no meaningful extracurricular involvement, being a legacy won’t get them in. Or as a Harvard admissions officer once put it in a 2004 article, “Legacy can cure the sick, but it can’t raise the dead.”
Being a legacy is often referred to as a “push,” “plus,” or “tie-breaker.” If a candidate is “on the bubble,” being a legacy could tip them over the edge.
In fact, Harvard says on their admissions website, “Among a group of similarly distinguished applicants, the daughters and sons of Harvard College alumni/ae may receive an additional look.”
In other words, being a legacy could be a tipping factor in admissions. It’s far from a guarantee of admission, and won’t get an otherwise underwhelming candidate into a school.
But this varies by school. Some schools value legacies more than others, or give them more weight at different points of the admissions process. We’ll explore some of that variation in this article.
We’ll go over three examples of top schools (Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT) to explore in what ways legacy status will (or won’t) affect your admission chances. We chose these three schools because they’re interesting case studies when it comes to legacy status.
We’ll also review which schools out of the top 25 (according to US News) favor legacies, based on quotes from their admissions and/or alumni websites.
Finally, we will give advice for legacies and non-legacies alike. So whether you’re a legacy or not, keep reading to give yourself an edge in the admissions process.
Examples of Legacy Policy
In this section, we'll explore the different legacy policies at Harvard, Penn, and MIT. We choose these examples because they reveal some of the sharp differences that can exist when it comes to legacy policies at top schools.
Harvard College: “An Additional Look”
Harvard is a school that values legacies, at least to a degree. As we mentioned above, Harvard says in their admissions FAQ that the sons and daughters of Harvard alumni would get “an additional look” if they couldn’t decide between otherwise comparable candidates.
But how much does this “extra look” matter?
According to the Class of 2018 survey, 16% of students at Harvard have at least one parent who is an alumnus. And according to a 2011 article in the Harvard Crimson, legacies are admitted at a rate of 30%. Given Harvard’s acceptance rates hover just below 6%, that seems like more than just an “additional look” – that’s a pretty big advantage!
That said, children of Harvard alumni are more likely to have grown up with more money, gone to better schools, and received superior college counseling, meaning that their legacy status may have more inadvertently caused them to get in, rather than being the deciding factor. That probably explains the huge disparity between the 30% admit rate for legacies compared to the 6% overall rate.
However, if you’re a Harvard legacy, you can expect this “additional look” to be an extra factor in your favor if, based on your stats, you would already be competitive at Harvard.
University of Pennsylvania: Legacy Matters, but Matters More When You Apply Early
The University of Pennsylvania notes right on their admissions website that “Children and grandchildren of alumni will receive the most consideration for their affiliation with the University during Early Decision.”
We get two pieces of information here. First, at Penn, having a grandparent who is an alum will grant you legacy status, where Harvard seems to only care if your parents went there. But also, if you’re a legacy, you’ll get the biggest boost if you apply to Penn early (note that at Penn, early admission is binding).
However, legacies get a pretty significant admission boost at Penn. According to an article in their alumni magazine, legacies get in at a rate of 40% plus. That’s four times the overall admission rate of 9.9%. (About 13% of the Class of 2018 has legacy status.)
Furthermore, alumni get additional admissions resources. According to the article, “Other admissions resources for alumni include monthly “First Friday Drop-In Hours,” which are information sessions especially for alumni, faculty, and staff and their children held on campus, and the “Inside Penn Admissions” page, www.admissions.upenn.edu/inside.”
So even though legacies are particularly favored during early decision at Penn, between the additional resources for alumni and that high admit rate, being a legacy seems to be a significant boost.
MIT: "We Don't Do Legacy"
In sharp contrast to Harvard and Penn, being a legacy will not help you a bit at MIT. This makes MIT unusual among other top schools, as they explain in blog post that sharply criticizes legacy admissions:
“It is, indeed, unusual for a school like MIT to have no preference for legacies. But one of the things that makes MIT special is the fact that it is meritocratic to its cultural core. In fact, I think if we tried to move towards legacy admissions we might face an alumni revolt. There is only one way into (and out of) MIT, and that's the hard way. The people here value that.”
MIT prides itself on being as meritocratic as possible, so they don’t consider the legacy status of students applying. So even if both your parents graduated from MIT, that won’t help you get in!
That makes for a more level playing field for candidates applying to MIT, even though it’s a very tough field to play on. (Read the most recent admission stats for MIT over at their website.)
The Top 25: Who Cares About Legacy?
We’ve seen some pretty different policies regarding legacy admissions at three top schools. So out of the top 25 schools, which ones place value on legacy students?
It turns out, most of them do. Only a small handful of top schools (including MIT) don’t value legacies. Get a complete breakdown of the top 25 below.
Colleges that Do Value Legacies
These are the colleges in the top 25 that grant at least some favoritism to legacies during the admissions process. This varies from just taking the information into account as part of a holistic application review to specifically reaching out to alumni families and providing additional resources.
From the Brown Daily Herald: "Having a parent who attended Brown comes into play when applicants “are essentially equivalent,” in which case admission officers “will tilt toward the candidate whose parents attended the college,” Miller said. Admission officers give “small” consideration to grandparent legacy status and “almost no” weight to sibling legacy cases, he added."
Again, we see that legacy status is a "tilt" or "push" in an applicant's favor.
Carnegie Mellon offers special events for legacies and their families, including preferential seating at graduation.
Columbia has a policy quite similar to Harvard's: "When an applicant is extremely competitive and compares favorably with other similarly talented candidates, being the daughter or son of a Columbia University graduate (from any Columbia school or college) may be a slight advantage in the admission process."
From the Cornell Daily Sun: "According to statistics released by Cornell, 15 percent of Cornell’s entire undergraduate population is comprised of legacy students. This figure is higher than percentages at many of Cornell’s Ivy League counterparts."
The Dartmouth alumni magazine says, "We give all legacy applicants at least one additional review in this process. The dramatic increase in selectivity that we’ve experienced makes the admissions process more competitive for everyone, but our legacy applicants are admitted at a rate that’s roughly two-and-a-half times greater than the overall rate of admission. It’s never easy to turn away the children of Dartmouth alumni."
From the Duke alumni website: “The Admissions Office reads each student’s application twice. But for alumni-affiliated applications, the office provides an additional review to ensure no detail is missed. Being from an alumni family itself is a factor that admissions officers consider, knowing that such applicants would enter with a special understanding of Duke and its traditions. However, alumni affiliation is far from a guarantee of admission, since family applicants must compete among Duke’s highly competitive pool of applicants.”
From an email with the admissions office: "The Office of Undergraduate Admissions values the legacy connections of applicants and encourages students to detail their university ties accurately on their application....The Admission staff works closely with the Emory Alumni Association (EAA) to document legacy applicants through the admission-review 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."
We called the admissions office and got this information: "In early action we don't review legacy, during regular decision we will…. it's not a huge factor, it's something that we will notice as part of an overall holistic review process."
So in contrast to Penn, which gives most weight to legacies during early decision, if you apply to Georgetown, legacy status will only be considered under regular decision.
As discussed above, Harvard will give legacy applicants "an additional look" and admits them at a higher rate than non-legacy candidates.
We spoke to the admissions staff at Johns Hopkins to ask about how legacy status will affect an application. "It doesn't make a difference if you apply early or regular, you need to make sure that you correctly note your legacy status on the application. We'll look at it, it's not going to have a lot of weight."
From an email with the admissions office: "During the application process we do take into consideration whether a student has a sibling, parent, or grandparent that graduated from Northwestern. However, it is important to note that no admission decision will ever be made solely based on legacy status. In other words, this is just one additional positive piece of information that we look at, but will not be the deciding factor."
From the Notre Dame Observer: "The number of admitted legacy children remains higher than at most elite colleges, Bishop said. Twenty-four percent of this year’s admitted class is a legacy compared to about 12 percent at most top 10 schools, he said, but this is because legacy applicants tend to be very qualified."
From an article in the Daily Princetonian: “The acceptance rate for alumni children and step-children has wavered without a specific trend between 35 and 42 percent since the Class of 2000, with the Class of 2018 hitting a record low of 30.8 percent, according to the Princeton Profiles.”
Recall Princeton's regular admission rate is well below 10%, so the "low" of 30.8% is still quite high.
From an email with the admissions office: "There is no specific benefit that is implemented across the board for the children of alumni. Often, legacy status is viewed favorably, but that is mainly a function of a student knowing about Rice-specific opportunities and being able to effectively communicate their interest in Rice through the supplement and visits to campus."
Legacies are admitted at three times the rate of other applicants, according to a Stanford Magazine article, and admission is also dependent on how engaged the alumni have been with the university.
University of Chicago
“Legacy status is something that we can consider, but in a holistic admissions process, it is one of many many factors that will be a part of our decision-making process—and would not be something that could overcome an otherwise lackluster application.”
University of Pennsylvania
As we discussed above, the University of Pennsylvania favors legacy applicants and provides extra services to legacy families.
University of Southern California
We called USC and spoke an an admissions representative: "We certainly want to know you have a parent who graduated from USC…that piece of information would certainly be of interest for us."
USC only has a regular decision plan, and an earlier deadline for scholarships (December 1st). Legacy status will not factor at all into scholarship consideration.
University of Virginia
University of Virginia has an admission liaison program set up to help children of alumni navigate the admissions process. This is notable since they’re a public university, and public universities are much less likely to notice and favor legacy ties. (University of Michigan favors legacies as well.)
From the Vanderbilt Admissions FAQs: "the admissions office has received no mandate from the university administration to grant preference to the children or siblings of Vanderbilt alumni. When a student‘s record closely mirrors those of other students being offered admission, legacy status may be taken into consideration."
So similar to the Harvard policy we discussed, legacy status could be a tipping factor if the admissions committee can't decide between similar candidates.
Washington University in Saint Louis
From an email with the adissions office: "We take into account that your family has ties to the university, however, we still evaluate each student on the merits of their own application."
From a New York Times article: ““We turn away 80 percent of our legacies, and we feel it every day,” Mr. Brenzel said, adding that he rejected more offspring of the school’s Sterling donors than he accepted this year (Sterling donors are among the most generous contributors to Yale). He argued that legacies scored 20 points higher on the SAT than the rest of the class as a whole. “
Still, 20% of legacies getting in is still a much higher rate than the average admission rate at Yale, which last year reached a low of 6.3%.
Colleges That Don't Value Legacies
These schools offer zero consideration or additional help to children of alumni in the admissions process.
From a 2010 article: "throughout its history Caltech has never been interested in reaching out in any special way to alumni children, and according to one estimate, less than 2 percent of its current undergraduate students have a parent who attended the university. This compares with many other elite private colleges and universities where legacy students comprise as much as 10-15 percent of each entering class (at Notre Dame the figure is close to one-quarter)."
Additionally, Caltech is often mentioned alongside MIT as a "top research school" with no legacy preference.
As we dicussed above, MIT, grants no weight to legacy status during application review.
How to Maximize Your Admissions Chances, Legacy or Not
Even though so many top (and mostly private) colleges favor legacies, it's important to remember that legacies are usually only 10-25% of the overall class, and usually closer to 10% or 15%.
The boost you get from being a legacy isn’t any bigger than the boost you would get from having an excellent SAT/ACT score or an intriguing “spike” in your application (which we’ll discuss below).
The bottom line, then, is to have the best application possible – legacy or not. With that in mind, here is how to deal with your legacy/ non-legacy status when you apply.
If You’re a Legacy…
First, find out what your parents’ alma maters’ policies are regarding legacies. This could affect your admissions strategy. For example, if your parent went to Penn, you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re going to take full advantage of that by applying early decision.
However, note that by applying early decision to Penn, you’re committing to go there if admitted (which you have a stronger chance of if you’re a legacy!). Which brings me to my second point – you shouldn’t apply to a school just because you’re a legacy.
Colleges are looking for your genuine interest in a school. True, you may be naturally interested in your parents’ schools since you’ve heard a lot about them growing up, but remember that the final decision rests with you.
If you’re only applying because you’re a legacy and don’t indicate genuine excitement for the school, admissions offices can pick up on that. Furthermore, even if you get in, you don’t want to end up at a school you’re not super excited about.
Finally, remember that even with legacy admission rates between 20 and 50%, that still means many colleges are turning away more than half of legacies who apply. You’re not getting an automatic pass from admissions officers just for being a legacy. There is no substitute for a high SAT/ACT score, strong GPA, and interesting application.
If You’re Not a Legacy…
First of all, you can’t do anything to change your legacy or non-legacy status, so I recommend spending approximately zero minutes stressing about it.
But seriously, keep in mind even in schools that favor legacies, they’re never a majority of the class. Usually legacies are between 10 and 25% of the undergraduate population. That means between 75 and 90% of the class are not legacies, so you’re in good company.
At the end of the day, admissions officers are looking for top students – legacies are desirable, but so are students with top scores, great grades, and a very impressive extracurricular (a “spike” as we call it around here).
So rather than worry about your lack of legacy status, you should focus on being as competitive as possible. That includes maximizing your SAT/ACT score!
Tip the scales in your favor.
Also spend a good deal of time on the “Why [x] College” essay. Most colleges will have a space on their applications – whether it’s a short response or a full essay – for you to explain what exactly it is that draws you to that college. Since you’re not a legacy, you won’t be able to talk about visiting the campus as a child or hearing your parents’ fond memories of the school – but that might be for the better.
Make sure you have concrete, specific, and compelling reasons as to why you want to go to that particular college, and state them clearly! Your essay talking about how excited you are to explore the computer science department and work with certain professors or participate in certain programs will likely look much better than a legacy’s essay about their fond childhood memories of visiting the main quad.
At the end of the day, legacy status is a factor out of your control. Your GPA, SAT/ACT score, extracurricular activities, and essays are entirely within your control. So focus on being a strong applicant!
Legacy admissions is a pretty controversial topic in college admissions. In fact, it may be one of the most controversial topics currently!
We didn’t want to get embroiled in the debate, which is why we’re not taking a side on whether legacy admissions are a good idea or not. We wanted to focus on practical advice for you, given that the system is what it is.
That said, if you want to read more about legacy admissions, how they work, how colleges benefit, and whether or not that’s a good thing, you can check out the articles below.
First of all, learn more about why some colleges value legacy ties so much. Next, get an in-depth look at the admissions process at Stanford as well as how legacies seem to be favored (“The percentage of alumni children admitted to Stanford is roughly three times the overall percentage of acceptance: somewhere in the mid to high teens"). Also learn about the other side – what happens when a legacy kid doesn’t get in.
Finally, here is a link to a study that found legacy applicants have vastly increased odds of admission, which has been quoted in many op-eds against the practice, including The New York Times and The Harvard Crimson.
Not a legacy? Not a problem. Read about how to make yourself a student that even Harvard and Stanford will fight over.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.