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Why Does the Common Application Ask Where my Parents Went to College?

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If you have started working on the Common Application, you may be wondering about the Family section, which asks several questions about your parents and siblings, including if and where they attended college. So why exactly do colleges want to know about the rest of your family’s education?




5 standing people with their heads cropped out of image


For starters, colleges are using this information for demographic purposes. Since they are looking for a diverse freshman class, they want to know the percentage of their students whose parents attended college, as well as the general background of the incoming class.


This information also offers greater insight into students’ applications. It is important to understand the applicants’ backgrounds in order to evaluate their applications fairly and contextually. Students who come from highly educated, affluent families have different circumstances and experiences compared to students whose parents did not attend or graduate college.


Furthermore, students whose parents did attend college are likely to have a better understanding of the admissions process, which in turn gives their children better insight into what admissions committees are expecting from them and their applications. These parents are also more likely to understand the importance of application boosters like extracurricular activities and summer programs, and may be more able — and willing — to pay for them.


In contrast, students who come from less affluent families and have parents who did not attend college may not have had as many opportunities afforded to them. Therefore, colleges may grant more leniency to students who come from families with less educated backgrounds when evaluating grades, test scores, and extracurricular involvement.


Some aspects of applications, such as whether or not candidates are underrepresented minorities (URM), give students a “hook” in the admissions process, offering them a boost that they might not have gotten otherwise.


Because first-generation college students often have fewer resources available to them during the application process, as well as throughout their high school experiences, admissions committees evaluate their applications differently. First-generation college students often enjoy a slight boost in their application because of the difficulties they may have faced in applying to college.


If you have a particularly compelling story about your parents’ education, you may want to expand on it in your essay, if it relates to the topic you have chosen or in the additional information section. For example, if one or both of your parents are immigrants, have low-paying jobs, or don’t speak English as their first language (or at all), colleges want to know, because it indicates that you have faced greater obstacles than some other applicants.


You may want to make your story the subject of your essay. The first topic choice in the Common Application asks about your background or identity, so if you have a meaningful story to share, this is an excellent place to do so.


Legacy Students and Development Cases


Graduates thowing caps in the air


Knowing where a student’s family members attended college can also be used to determine whether or not she is a legacy or development case. A legacy student is technically any relative of an alum. However, your legacy status is really only likely to make a difference if you are a child, grandchild, or sibling of an alum, with your parents’ alumni status offering the greatest impact on your application. A development case refers to the child or grandchild of a major donor to the college.


Being a legacy or development case also offers you a hook in the admissions process. Some schools, particularly private, top-tier colleges, give students with these statuses an extra edge. Keep in mind that if you are a legacy at a particular school, your admission is not guaranteed. You still need to have a strong profile comparable to other admitted students for top-tier schools.


However, a legacy status may be a deciding factor in the case of a borderline candidate. Additionally, some schools weigh legacy status more heavily than others. The scales are tipped even more in the applicant’s favor if both of her parents attended a certain college. This is because colleges want to reward family loyalty, as well as encourage donations, which parents and grandparents are more likely to give if their children and grandchildren continue to attend their alma mater.


Development cases have an even stronger edge in the admissions process. Like legacies, these students are typically flagged by admissions officers and set aside for closer review. It is worth noting that development cases don’t refer to applicants who simply come from affluent families. The applicant’s family must have made a large-scale donation — typically in the six-figure or higher range — to be considered a development case. However, most colleges won’t report ranges of donations or exact figures that influence admissions decisions.

Siblings’ Education


Three young people using laptops on grass


The Common Application asks some information about your siblings in addition to your parents. As with your parents, this information is gathered for demographic purposes. If you have an older sibling you attended a college to which you’re applying, this may also provide a hook in the admissions process, giving you a slight boost. However, a sibling’s legacy status is less impactful than a parent’s or grandparent’s.


Why does the Common App ask about my parents’ occupations?


 Family of six taking a selfie


As with your parents’ education, colleges want to know your parents’ occupations for demographic purposes. This also provides some insight into your background and circumstances. Think in broad or general terms when selected form the list of occupations, since a parent’s specific job may not be available as a choice. If you cannot find the occupation or category, select “Other.” If a parent is retired, choose the occupation she had while working, and choose “retired” under the employment status heading.


What if I don’t want to include my parents’ information?


Woman on bed typing on laptop


The Common Application asks some other demographic information about your parents, but only requires you to include their marital status relative to each other and with whom you make your permanent home. (For this question, you have the option of listing a guardian, that you are the ward of the court or state, or other if you do not live with either or both parents.) If you record your parents as divorced or widowed, you will also have the option of including stepparents’ information, but are not required to do so.


Next, the application will ask you information about each parent, including name, country of birth, occupation, and education level. You are not required to fill out any of this information if you don’t have it or don’t wish to do so. If that it is the case, select “I have limited information about this parent” under the first question in each parent section, “Parent 1 type” or “Parent 2 type.”


Think carefully about leaving out your parents’ information. There are few cases in which their information will hurt your application, and in many cases, it may help it. If you have some holes in your application due to family circumstances, this section may even help explain them.


Be sure to check out some of CollegeVine’s blog posts on other aspects of the Common App:



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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.