What Is a College Legacy? What If You're Not a Legacy?


Many high school students are curious about what it means to be a college legacy. Exactly who 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 discuss what a college legacy is, which top schools favor legacies, and what you should do—regardless of whether or not you’re a legacy!


What Is a College Legacy? Overview

First off, what exactly is a college legacy? A legacy is someone who is related to an alumnus of a school—usually a child of a graduate. More distant relations (such as aunts, uncles, and cousins) rarely count. Grandparents sometimes, but not always, count.

To take an example, if your mom graduated from Harvard College, you'd be considered a Harvard legacy. However, if your uncle graduated from Harvard Law School, you would not be considered a Harvard legacy. Basically, if one or both of your parents graduated from a school, you would be considered a legacy there.

Note, though, that undergraduate admissions offices will be most interested if your parents went there for their undergraduate degrees. If your parents instead got professional degrees and not their undergraduate degrees from the school, it's less likely you'd 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 will be more likely to stay involved with the school (such as by going to reunions, serving on committees, etc.) and donate money to it. Many schools also believe that legacies will be very active alumni due to their family connection with the school. In short, colleges believe that admitting legacies is a way to not only keep alumni involved but also to ensure a new generation of active alumni.


How Much Does Legacy Status Matter?

Even though there are many perceived benefits to admitting legacies, legacies aren't 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 magically transform a candidate’s chances of admission. If a student's standardized test scores and GPA are below a school’s averages and the student has no meaningful extracurricular involvement, being a legacy won’t guarantee admission.

As a Harvard admissions officer once said, "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 him or her over the edge. 

In fact, here's what Harvard says about legacies on its 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. That said, it’s still far from a guarantee of admission and won’t get an otherwise unimpressive candidate into a school.

But this varies by school. Some schools value legacies more than others do, or give them more weight at different points in the admissions process. We’ll explore some of this variation soon.




Examples of College Legacy Policies: Harvard, Penn, and MIT

In this section, we’ll go over three examples of top schools to explore in what ways legacy status can (and won't) affect your admission chances. The schools we'll be looking at are as follows:

  • Harvard
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • MIT

We chose 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 FAQ that the sons and daughters of Harvard alumni will get "an additional look" if the admissions committee can't decide between otherwise comparable candidates.

But how much does this "extra look" matter?

According to a class of 2021 survey, 17.5% 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 that Harvard’s acceptance rate hovers just below 6%, this seems like more than just an "additional look"—it's actually 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 more likely inadvertently caused them to get in rather than acting as the deciding factor. This also helps to explain the huge disparity between the 30% admit rate for legacies and the 6% overall admit rate.

All in all, if you’re a Harvard legacy, expect this "additional look" to be a factor in your favor if, based on your stats, you'd already be competitive at Harvard.




Penn: Legacy Matters, but Matters More When You Apply Early

The University of Pennsylvania notes on its admissions website, "An applicant’s affiliation with Penn, either by being children or grandchildren of alumni, is given the most consideration through 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 early (note that at Penn, early admission is binding).

Legacies get a pretty significant admission boost at Penn. According to an article published in their alumni magazine, legacies get into Penn at a rate higher than 40%. That’s four times the overall admission rate of 10%! (For the class of 2021, 16% are legacies.)

Furthermore, alumni get additional admissions resources. Here's what the article above says about this:

"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."

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 plus.




MIT: "We Don't Do Legacy"

In 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 explained in post by MIT Admissions 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."

*Emphasis mine

MIT prides itself on being as meritocratic as possible, so they don’t consider the legacy status of students applying. Even if both your parents graduated from MIT, it won’t help you get in!

This makes for a more level playing field for students who apply to MIT, even though it’s still a very tough field to play on!



The Top 25: Which Colleges Care About Legacy?

We’ve seen some pretty different policies regarding legacy admissions at three top schools. So out of the top 25 schools (according to US News), which ones place value on legacy students?

As 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 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 them with additional resources.



Here's what a 2014 article in the Brown Daily Herald says about legacy: 

"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

Carnegie Mellon offers special events for legacies and their families, including preferential seating at graduation. Note that Carnegie Mellon uses a rather broad definition of legacies, defining them as "those students who have family members that also graduated from CMU, including parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and other known relatives" (bold emphasis mine).



Columbia has a legacy policy that's similar to Harvard's:

"When an applicant is competitive and compares favorably with other similarly talented candidates, being a "legacy" candidate may be a slight advantage in the admission process. A "legacy" candidate is defined as the child of a Columbia College or Columbia Engineering graduate."



Here's what the Cornell Daily Sun says about legacies (bold emphasis mine):

"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."



Dartmouth Alumni Magazine says the following about legacies (bold emphasis mine):

"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."





Here is what the Duke alumni website says in regard to legacy (bold emphasis mine):

"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."



Here's what Emory has to say about how it values legacies, as written on its alumni website:

"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. 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.

Note that legacies at Emory are those who are the children, grandchildren, and/or siblings of Emory graduates and/or currently enrolled students. 



We called the admissions office and got this information about legacies: 

"In early action we don't review legacy; during regular decision we will. ... It's not a huge factor [but] it's something that we will notice as part of an overall holistic review process."

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.

Furthermore, here's what a 2017 article in Georgetown's newspaper The Hoya reported about legacy:

"While the Office of Undergraduate Admissions does not actively recruit legacy students, it does consider family ties to the university when evaluating students of equal academic standing, and gives preference to students with legacy status in those cases."



As discussed above, Harvard will give legacy applicants "an additional look" and admits them at a higher rate than it does non-legacy candidates.


Johns Hopkins

We spoke to the admissions staff at Johns Hopkins to ask about how legacy status will affect an application. Here was their response:

"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 [but] it's not going to have a lot of weight." 



Here's what was written an email from Northwestern's 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."


Notre Dame

Here's what an article published in Notre Dame's The Observer says about legacies:

"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."



Here's what a 2015 article in the Daily Princetonian reports about legacy:

"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 that Princeton's regular admission rate is just 7%, so this "low" of 30.8% is still quite high.



Here's what we received in an email from Rice's 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."



Stanford has had an interesting journey with how they publicize their legacy admissions policy vs how the policy is applied in practice. An older article on the Stanford Magazine openly admitted that legacies are admitted at three times the rate of other applicants, and that admission is also dependent on how engaged the alumni have been with the university.

However, in recent years Stanford has changed their broader public stance, stating that "In our holistic review process, these applicants are evaluated based on the totality of their attributes and accomplishments, as all other applicants to the university are. If an applicant to Stanford is not highly competitive academically, an existing family connection or historical giving to the university mean nothing in the process." Despite this somewhat ambiguous answer to the question "is Stanford legacy admission a thing?", the actual answer can be found in Stanford's Common Data Set, where as of the 2023-2024 school year yes, a student's alumni/ae relation (aka legacy) is still considered as a factor for admission to Stanford.




University of Chicago

Here's what UChicago said on its Tumblr account in regard to legacy:

"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, Penn favors legacy applicants and offers extra services to legacy families.


University of Southern California

We called USC and spoke with an admissions representative who told us the following:

"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 1). Legacy status will not factor at all into scholarship consideration.

In addition, here's what a 2017 article on USC's undergraduate admission blog says about legacy:

"Roughly 19 percent of the first-year students joining USC for the 2017-2018 school year are Scions. But, legacy status is, on its own, not going to be the deciding factor in the evaluation of a student’s application. There are many factors that we are considering when making our decisions, and legacy status is just one part of that."


University of Virginia

The University of Virginia has an admission liaison program set up to help children of alumni navigate the admissions process. This is noteworthy since UVA is a public university, and public universities are much less likely to notice and favor legacy ties. (The University of Michigan favors legacies as well.)



This is what Vanderbilt's FAQ page has to say about legacy:

"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."

Similar to Harvard's policy, legacy status could be a tipping factor if the admissions committee can't decide between two or more similar candidates. 


Washington University in St. Louis

We contacted the admissions office at Washington University and received this reply:

"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."



Here's what a New York Times article has written about Yale's legacy policy:

"'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 currently hovers at just 7%.


Colleges That Do NOT Value Legacies

These schools offer zero consideration or additional help to children of alumni in the admissions process.



This is what a 2010 article had to say about Caltech's policies on legacies:

"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 discussed above, MIT grants no weight to legacy status during application review.


UC Berkeley

Like both Caltech and MIT, UC Berkeley does not consider legacy status during the undergraduate admissions process. 



UCLA is similar to Caltech and UC Berkeley in that it abolished legacy favoritism long ago and has no legacy policy currently in place.





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—typically closer to 10% or 15%.

The boost you'd get from being a legacy isn’t any bigger than the one you'd get from having an excellent SAT/ACT score or an intriguing "spike" in your application (which we’ll discuss below).

The bottom line is to have the best application possible—legacy or not. With that in mind, here's how to deal with your legacy/non-legacy status when you apply to colleges:


If You Are a Legacy …

First off, find out what your parents’ alma maters’ policies are regarding legacies. This could affect your admissions strategy.

For example, if one of your parents went to Penn, you’re going to have to decide whether you want to take full advantage of your legacy status by applying early decision. Note, however, that applying early decision means you’re committing to go there if admitted (which you have a stronger chance of if you’re a legacy!).




This brings me to my second point: don't apply to a school just because you’re a legacy.

Colleges are looking for genuine interest in the school. True, you might be naturally interested in your parents’ alma maters since you likely heard a lot about them while growing up. But the final decision rests with you.

If you’re only applying because you’re a legacy and don’t indicate your genuine excitement for the school, admissions offices will pick up on that. Furthermore, even if you do 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 20and 50%, this still means many colleges are turning away more than half of legacies who apply. In other words, you’re not getting an automatic pass from admissions officers just by being a legacy. In the end, there is no substitute for a high SAT/ACT score, a strong GPA, and an overall compelling application.


If You Are 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.

On a more serious note, though, don't forget that even at schools that favor legacies, legacies are never the majority in an incoming class. Rather, they usually account for between 10% and 25% of the undergraduate population. This means 75-90% of the students in a class are not legacies, so you’re in good company.

At the end of the day, admissions officers are looking for top students. And though legacies are desirable, so are students with top scores, great grades, and impressive extracurriculars (a "spike," as we call it around here).

Rather than worry about your lack of legacy status, 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 your "Why this college?" essay. Most schools have space on their applications—whether it’s a short response or long essay—for you to explain what exactly it is that draws you to this 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 for why you want to go to this particular school, and state them clearly! Ultimately, an essay that discusses how excited you are to explore the computer science department and work with certain professors will likely look a lot better than a legacy’s essay about her fond childhood memories of visiting the main quad.

At the end of the day, legacy status is a factor out of your control. That said, your GPA, SAT/ACT score, extracurricular activities, and essays are entirely within your control. So try to focus on those—and on being a strong applicant!


Further Reading on College Legacy

Legacy admissions is a pretty controversial topic at colleges, and we didn’t want to get embroiled in the debate, which is why we’re not taking a side in regard to whether legacy admissions are a good idea or not. Rather, our aim was to focus on practical advice for you, given that the system is what it is.

If you want to read more about legacy admissions, including how they work, how colleges benefit from them, and whether this system is good or bad, here are some articles to check out.

First of all, I suggest learning more about why some colleges value legacy ties so much.

Next, get an in-depth look at the admissions process at Stanford and see how legacies seem to be favored. Also, learn about the other side—what happens when a legacy kid doesn’t get in?

Finally, here is a study that found legacy applicants have vastly increased odds of admission. This study has been quoted in many op-eds against the practice, including those published in The New York Times and The Harvard Crimson.


What’s Next?

Not a legacy? Not a problem. Read about how to make yourself a student that even Harvard and Stanford will fight over.

Have you taken the SAT or ACT yet? Learn the best time in your high school career to take the SAT (ACT version here).

Thinking about an SAT/ACT retake? Learn the top nine ACT English strategies you should use as well as the best methods and strategies for SAT Writing.



Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
About the Author
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Halle Edwards

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.

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