We’re all more or less familiar with what a college application looks like; they ask about your name, your address, your GPA, your extracurriculars, your test scores, your defining characteristics, your favorite movies, and so on. They might package some of their questions a little differently, but for most colleges, it’s all relatively similar — which shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. No matter which colleges you apply to, they’re all trying to do more or less the same basic thing: understand you better as a person and determine if you’d be a good fit for their institution. It is really that simple.

So then, why is there sometimes a question asking whether you know anyone who has attended this college? It seems somewhat irrelevant to knowing you better as a person, and it actually feels (for the lack of a better word) a little suspicious.

If you do a bit of digging around, though, you’ll find that this question has something to do with an idea called “legacy,” where certain applicants get an edge in admissions based on their connections to the alumni, faculty, or staff at a college.

 

“So you’re saying that some people can just get into college because of who they know.”

No, not exactly. First of all, not all schools have a legacy system — it’s usually a system more common at elite private schools in the United States. But for the schools that do have legacy, it is true that the acceptance rates of legacy applicants are significantly higher than that of non-legacy applicants.

For example, Stanford’s overall acceptance rate is 5.1%, but if either of your parents went to Stanford, this percentage triples for you. Similarly, Harvard’s acceptance rate for legacy applicants hovers at around 30% while its overall acceptance rate is only 5.9%. Princeton’s usual admissions rate is around 8%; yet, it accepted one in three legacy applicants in 2013.

Keep in mind, however, that what having legacy status affects are a student’s chances of getting in. It is possible for legacies to get rejected. If someone is handing the Stanford adcoms a 1400 SAT score, a 2.3 GPA, and only average ECs, there’s not very much that anyone can do to get that person admitted, legacy or not.

 

“Okay. But where do they draw the line? I think I had a fourth cousin who went to an Ivy…”

Well, you can technically put any relation you have on your application. Nobody’s going to stop you from telling these adcoms that your great-aunt’s adoptive son went to Columbia if that’s what makes you happy. But the effect of legacy decreases exponentially with each extra person you have to tack onto yourself to make the connection.

A 2011 study examining the legacy programs of 30 elite colleges found that applicants with either one or both parents as undergrad alumni benefited the most from legacy, with a 45.1% increase in their acceptance chances on average. These applicants are called primary legacies, and are usually given special precedence over all other legacy applicants.

However, if an applicant’s legacy relation is more distant, such as a cousin, a sibling, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle, the increase in acceptance chances he or she receives drops to 13.7%. These applicants are called secondary legacies, and are still given some special consideration over applicants who have no relation to the college, but nowhere near as much given to the primary legacies. The exact amount, again, varies with the closeness of the relation. Grandparents who went to Yale are more valuable legacies than a first cousin twice removed.

As a general trend, undergraduate legacy is given precedence over graduate legacy. Being related to the faculty of a university is typically not as strong a connection as having relations who are alumni, but it is usually stronger than being related to university staff. And having an alum relation who has been actively maintaining their connection to the college (through donations and attending events) is much more powerful than having an inactive alum relation.

 

“What happens to your application once they see that you know someone?”

Legacy applications undergo the general review process, just like all other applications. But they may take a few detours here and there depending on the specific college’s legacy policies.

First off, most colleges will take more time reviewing legacy applications. For instance, at Duke, many applications only get one look before the admissions decision is made — but being a legacy automatically guarantees an application a second pair of eyes.

And yes, schools actually do verify that the person an applicant claims to be related to exists (so you can’t just make someone up). At Stanford, once an application indicates some sort of legacy connection, it is sent over to alumni relations, who then look to see if the legacy relation exists in their database. Once they pull up this information, the adcoms will be able to see everything about this legacy relation, from his or her graduation year and major to the amount that he or she has donated.

At some schools, if the legacy relation is a sibling of a similar age, the adcoms will actually pull up that sibling’s entire academic record and evaluate the applicant in comparison to his or her sibling. So here’s a heads-up: it helps to have similar (or better) stats as a legacy sibling, and it also helps if a legacy sibling is actually doing well at college.

 

“Are there actually quantifiable differences between legacy applicants and non-legacies?”

Yes…and no. Legacy applicant pools, by and large, tend to be more Caucasian and wealthier than your average group of applicants. And contrary to what you may expect, they are not necessarily any “dumber” than the average applicant. The scores and grades of legacy admits tend to be at least median or above in the range of all admitted applicants.

 

“How many of a college’s total admits are legacies? ”

It’s hard to say. Many colleges don’t like to release exact numbers of their legacy admits and applicants, so we can only estimate, for the most part. And according to these estimates, legacies can comprise anywhere from 10% to 25% of the student population at schools that give special precedence to legacy applicants.

 

“But I don’t understand. Why is legacy a thing?”

The quick and dirty answer to this question is one word: money. Colleges — especially private colleges — derive a decent chunk of their endowment from alumni donations. And making admissions a little easier on the children of alums is an easy way to rekindle their relationship with alums and encourage donations.

There is an ongoing discussion about whether or not the legacy system should be abolished. Dissidents say that it only benefits the already privileged and perpetuates inequality; supporters say that it builds school spirit and tradition, and does not do as much harm as the dissidents think it does.

 

Either way, at the end of the day, the strongest factor in your admissions decision is still your own portfolio. Legacy may help, but it is most effective when your stats and circumstances are already close to what the college is looking for in its applicants. In that case, it’s what will finally get colleges to pull the trigger and accept you. Colleges will only admit applicants that they think have the potential to succeed at their institution, and if an applicant is far below that level — they’re going to have a really, really hard time getting in.

 

Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si