Understanding Legacy Status for College Admissions

Having a Close Relative Alum Can Improve Your Chances of Admission

Family with college graduate
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A college applicant is said to have legacy status at a college if a member of the applicant's immediate family attends or attended the college. In other words, if your parents or a sibling attend or attended a college, you would be a legacy applicant for that college.

Why Do Colleges Care About Legacy Status?

The use of legacy status in college admissions is a controversial practice, but it is also widespread. Colleges have a couple reasons for giving preference to legacy applicants, both having to do with loyalty to the school:

  • Future Donors. When a family includes more than one person who attended a college, it's likely that the family has greater-than-average loyalty to the school. These positive feelings often turn into alumni donations down the road. This financial side of legacy status shouldn't be underestimated. University relations offices fundraise millions of dollars a year, and their task is easiest when alumni families are highly committed to the school
  • Yield. When a college extends an offer of admission, it wants the student to accept that offer. The rate at which this happens is called the "yield." A high yield means a college is getting the students that it wants, and that will help the school meet its enrollment goals. A legacy applicant is coming from a family that is already familiar with the college, and that family familiarity and loyalty typically leads to a better yield than the general applicant pool. 

Do Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, or Cousins Make You a Legacy?

In general, colleges and universities are most interested in seeing if your immediate family members attended. For example, if you are using The Common Application, the "Family" section of the application will ask you about the education level of your parents and siblings. If you indicate that your parents or siblings attended college, you'll be asked to identify the schools. This is the information that colleges will use to identify your legacy status.

The Common Application and most other college applications do not have a space for indicating if more distant family members attended, although some will ask a rather open question such as "Have any of your family members attended our college?" With a question such as this, it won't hurt to list a cousin or aunt, but don't get carried away. If you start listing third cousins twice removed, you're going to look both silly and desperate. And the reality is that in most cases cousins and uncles really aren't going to play a role in an admissions decision (with the possible exception of a relative who is a million dollar donor, although you won't find colleges admitting the crass financial reality of some admission decisions).

Some Common Mistakes Related to Legacy Status

  • Assuming your legacy status will make up for a mediocre academic record. Highly selective colleges and universities are not going to admit students, legacy or not, who are unlikely to succeed. Legacy status tends to come into play when the admissions officers are comparing two equally qualified applicants. In such cases, the legacy applicant will often have a slight advantage. At the same time, this doesn't mean that colleges won't lower the admissions bar slightly for legacy applicants from prominent and/or extremely wealthy families (but you'll rarely hear colleges admit this fact).
  • Using the "Additional Information" section of The Common Application to draw attention to a distant connection to the college. You should use the additional information section of The Common Application to share important information not reflected in your application. You could use this section to explain extenuating circumstances that may have affected your grades, or you might use it to present interesting information about yourself that doesn't fit elsewhere on the application. This type of information can enrich your application. The fact that your great-great-grandfather attended Prestigious University is rather trivial and is an ineffective use of your opportunity to provide additional information.
  • Making monetary threats. For good or bad, a college's interest in your legacy status is often related to money. Family loyalty to an institution often leads to alumni donations. That said, it will reflect badly upon you if you suggest that your parents' donations to the college might end if you aren't admitted. The college already considers such possibilities when making admissions decisions, and raising the issue yourself will seem crass.
  • Placing too much emphasis on your legacy status. Aside from listing family members who attended the college or university, you don't need to draw more attention to your legacy status. The focus of your application needs to be you and your merits, not those of a parent or sibling. If you try to overplay your hand, you may look either desperate or obnoxious. 

These Factors Matter More Than Your Legacy Status

College applicants are often frustrated by the advantage that legacy applicants have. This is for good reason. An applicant has no control over legacy status, and legacy status says nothing about the quality of the applicant. But be sure to keep legacy status in perspective.

Some colleges don't consider legacy status at all, and for those that do consider it, legacy status is just a small factor in admissions decisions, Colleges know that being a legacy is a rather dubious distinction. When a college has holistic admissions, several pieces of the application will almost always carry more weight than legacy status.

First of all, you will need to have a strong academic record. Without it, you are unlikely to be admitted whether you're a legacy or not. Along similar lines, SAT scores and ACT scores are going to be important unless a school is test-optional. Selective colleges will also be looking for meaningful extracurricular involvement, positive letters of recommendation, and a winning application essay. Legacy status won't compensate for significant weaknesses in any of these areas.

Legacy Status Practices Are Slowly Changing

When Harvard University was sued in 2018 for discriminating against Asian Americans in the admissions process, one issue that emerged was how the school's legacy practices favored wealthy and typically white applicants. Harvard applicants with legacy status were over five times more likely to be admitted than non legacy applicants. Information such as this has put a lot of pressure on elite institutions to address legacy practices that clearly contradict an institution's claims of valuing diversity and merit more than privilege.

Johns Hopkins University removed legacy status from its admissions equation back in 2014, and the result was that the percentage of legacies in the first-year class dropped from 12.5% in 2009 to just 3.5% in 2019. Other prestigious schools including MIT, UC Berkeley, and CalTech also do not consider legacy status in their admissions process.