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Legacy Admissions: Does It Impact Your Chances? Why Does It Exist?

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What’s Covered:


Why not take every fair advantage in the college application process?  Before we delve into the potential impact of being a legacy candidate, let’s start the discussion by clarifying what is a legacy. 


“Legacy” refers to a familial connection in the admissions process. It is most often used to refer to a student whose parent(s) attended the school. That’s called a primary legacy. Secondary legacy refers to a close relative of the applicant, such as a sibling or a grandparent.


Does Legacy Status Increase Acceptance Odds?


In a 2018 survey of college admission leaders conducted by Inside Higher Ed in conjunction with researchers from Gallup, 32 percent of admissions directors at private institutions believe that legacy status is an appropriate admissions consideration. At public institutions, the figure drops to 16 percent. While 11 percent of admissions directors at colleges that do consider legacy status do not consider it appropriate to do so.


But, the question remains, how much does being a legacy improve your chance of being accepted into a college? How much does it factor into the application review process? The answer depends on a few considerations, including three critical ones: 


  • The strength of your legacy connection
  • The college you hope to attend
  • The strength of your candidacy for your college of choice


1. How strong is your legacy connection?


By strong, we mean two things. First, would you be a primary legacy or was it your great, great uncle who attended the school? The closer the relationship the better.


Second, how active is/was this legacy in their alma mater? What is the history of your relative’s involvement? Are/were they major donors? Have they/do they donate their time and expertise to the school, such as on boards, as alumni interviewers, or by hiring student interns? Admission offices solicit information from alumni relations about a legacy’s past donations and involvement. The stronger the connection, the more positive the impact. 


If you list a sibling at the school, admissions officers will likely review your brother or sister’s academic records to see if he or she is a strong student. They may also review your sibling’s application to compare the strength of their profile to yours.


2. What college are you hoping to attend?


As a 2018 Inside Higher Ed and Gallup survey reveals, schools vary on how legacy factors into their admission decisions—from not at all to tie-breaker to preferential treatment. 


Broadly speaking, the more selective the school, the more legacy helps. Most of the Ivy League schools and NESCAC Schools consider legacy in the application review process. These include:


  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • Columbia University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Brown University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Cornell University
  • Amherst College (stopped considering legacy as of October 2021)
  • Bates College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Colby College
  • Connecticut College
  • Hamilton College
  • Middlebury College
  • Trinity College
  • Tufts University
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College


So do many other schools, such as:


  • Boston College
  • Boston University
  • Carleton College
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dickinson College
  • Elon University
  • Hood College
  • Rhodes College
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Virginia.  


Not all elite schools, though, give weight to legacy. Caltech, Cooper Union, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington are among the group that does not.


For schools that value legacy, some, such as Stanford University and the University of North Carolina, are known to do so only for primary legacy candidates. Others, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, only consider legacy for early-decision candidates. 


A quick way to determine if a school values legacy is to check if it asks about your legacy status on its application. (The question is listed on the Common Application.) Of course, also search for the term legacy on the college’s website and talk to your school counselor and others who have insights into the school’s admission process.


3. How strong a candidate are you for the school?


No matter the university you have your sights set on, if the rigor of your course selection, GPA, extracurricular achievements, and standardized test scores (for schools that require them) are not on par with the school’s stats, the legacy status will not have a substantive impact. 


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Why Certain Colleges Value Legacy


There are logical reasons why some schools provide preferential treatment to legacy candidates. Perhaps the most important is that accepting a legacy keeps alumni engaged, and engaged alumni donate their time and money to their alma mater. Typically, alumni donations account for a large portion of an educational institution’s endowment. Engaged alumni strengthen the college community for current students and graduates, too.  


Yield is another reason some colleges value legacy. Colleges like to report a high yield or percent of accepted students who enroll, and legacies who feel a family connection to the school have one more reason to accept.


The Debate About Legacy


Not all administrators, professors, or college students believe legacy is a valid criterion for admission. The debate about the unfair advantage children of well-to-do parents have in the admission process has recently intensified with the high-profile scandal in which wealthy parents (including actors Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman) used bribery and cheating to get their children accepted into elite colleges. 


While legacy admission advantage is legal, the practice is under the spotlight. The Hechinger Report (HR), a national nonprofit newsroom focused exclusively on education, presents both sides of the issue. On one side are those who believe that legacy gives an edge to students from privileged families and discriminates against first-generation college students. 


On the other side, are those who acknowledge that admitting legacy students helps fund scholarships. The HR editor quotes the chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Angel B. Pérez, who states: If I am sitting in the [admissions] chair, I would not be doing away with legacy, because all of my goals to admit more low-income kids would be in jeopardy.”


Final Analysis


Keep in mind, the best way to boost your chances of acceptance is to evaluate your fit with each school on your list. Legacy status is only one measure and for most, not necessarily the most important to determine if a college is the right one for you.


Remember, you can estimate your chance for acceptance using Collegevine’s free chancing calculator. This tool factors in your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and more to calculate your odds of admission at hundreds of schools across the country.

Short Bio
Elizabeth graduated from Brown University with a degree in American Studies and has used the analytic and writing skills she developed in college in various marketing management positions, freelance writing gigs, and as an author of children's books and magazine articles. She has written for a range of clients serving college-age students, including several universities and publications. And she has supported a son and a daughter through the college and graduate school application and selection process.