How Legacy Admissions Work

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Legacy admission is the practice of giving preferential treatment to a college applicant because someone in his or her family attended the college. If you're wondering why the Common Application asks where your mom and dad went to college, it's because legacy status matters in the college admissions process.

How Much Does Legacy Status Matter?

Most college admissions officers will state that legacy status is only a tiny factor in making the final admissions decision.

You'll often hear that in a borderline case, legacy status might tip an admissions decision in the student's favor.

The reality, however, is that legacy status can be quite important. In some Ivy League schools, studies have shown that legacy students are twice as likely to be admitted as students without legacy status. This isn't information that most colleges want to advertise widely since it perpetuates the image of elitism and exclusivity that already surrounds the country's most selective colleges, but there's really no denying that who your parents are can play a significant role in the college admissions equation.

Why Does Legacy Status Matter?

So if colleges don't want to be seen as elitist and exclusive, why do they practice legacy admissions? After all, it would be easy enough to evaluate applications without information about the colleges attended by other family members.

The answer is simple: Money.

Here's a typical scenario -- a graduate from Prestigious University gives $1,000 a year to the school's annual fund. Now imagine that the graduate's child applies to Prestigious University. If the school rejects the legacy student, the parent's good will is likely to evaporate, as will the $1,000 a year in gifts.

The scenario is even more problematic if the graduate is wealthy and a prospect for giving the school $1,000,000.

When multiple members of a family attend the same college or university, the loyalty to the school is often amplified, as are the gifts. When Junior is rejected from the school that Mom or Dad attended, anger and hard feelings can make the likelihood of future donations much less.

What Can You Do?

Unfortunately, legacy status is the one piece of your application over which you have zero control. Your grades, your essays, your SAT and ACT scores, your extracurricular involvement, and to a certain extent, even your letters or recommendation are all pieces of your application that your effort can directly impact. With legacy status, you either have it or you don't.

You can, of course, choose to apply to a college or university that your mother, father or sibling attended. But realize that legacy status is not something that you can force. If your great uncle attended a college, you'll look desperate if you try to present yourself as a legacy. In general, parents and siblings are the only people who matter when it comes to determining legacy status.

A Final Word

When you don't have legacy status, it's easy to feel angry and hopeless in the face of the unfair preferential treatment some students receive.

Some lawmakers are even trying to make legacy admissions illegal, for they do, in some cases, result in less qualified students being admitted over more qualified students.

If there's any comfort to be found in this practice, it's that the great majority of the applicant pool does not have legacy status. Yes, a few students have an unfair advantage, but the typical applicant's odds of being admitted change very little whether or not a school gives preference to legacy students. Also, keep in mind that a significantly under-qualified legacy applicant will rarely be admitted. Schools don't admit students they don't think can succeed, legacy status or not.

Further Reading:

You can learn more about legacy admissions in this article: What Counts as Legacy Status for College Admissions?

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Grove, Allen. "How Legacy Admissions Work." ThoughtCo, Jun. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-are-legacy-admissions-788874. Grove, Allen. (2017, June 23). How Legacy Admissions Work. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-legacy-admissions-788874 Grove, Allen. "How Legacy Admissions Work." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-legacy-admissions-788874 (accessed October 22, 2017).