Legacy in College Admissions: How Much Does it Help?

Padya Paramita

Legacy in College Admissions: How Much Does it Help?

Your dream school might be the same as your parent or sibling’s alma mater. You may have loved it when you went for a visit, and the countless stories from your family member who’s an alum have peaked your interest regarding their school. No matter what the origin story behind your love for the school, when it comes to applying, you might be wondering about the role of legacy in college admissions. Will you have an advantage over other applicants if you apply to the college your parents attended? How much does this factor put you ahead of the other candidates at a top-notch institution?

The truth is, in today’s application process, legacy in college admissions isn’t a major make or break factor. In fact, not all top schools consider it. For example, if you’re applying to MIT or Caltech, your legacy status won’t put you ahead! In the case of institutions such as Stanford, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton which do take it into account, if it comes down to two similar applicants, legacy might put one student ahead. It especially plays a big role in the Early Decision admissions process. In this blog, I have outlined what exactly it means to have legacy status, why legacy is a factor in college applications, how applying as a legacy student works, when legacy in college admissions counts the most, and how legacy status might boost your college application.

Who Counts as a “Legacy” Applicant and Why is Legacy a Factor?

Legacy in college admissions counts when a student applies to a college or university that was previously attended by relatives, including parents, siblings, and grandparents. A 2018 survey conducted on college and university directors by Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of admissions directors at private schools said that legacy was an important factor in admissions decisions. Only 6% of directors of public colleges and universities said the same.

The strength of your legacy status depends on the relation between you and the alum. Legacy in college admissions is considered more strongly the closer the alum is to you, such as a parent or a sibling. Often colleges specify what kind of relationship you must have with an alum to be considered as legacy. For example, Princeton only considers a student as legacy if their parents or step-parents attended the school.

Legacy is a factor because it helps colleges determine their yield for an incoming class, that is, what proportion of students might actually enroll if they are accepted. Colleges have a target number in mind, and obviously don’t want to admit students who are unlikely to accept. The logic is, students may be more inclined to attend a school that their close family members went to. Legacy preference also helps colleges know that they’ll likely be getting more alumni donations - accepting students of alumni keeps them happy. Colleges want their alumni to stay connected to a school, keep up with the community, and potentially donate. Passing down the love from a parent to a child is a great way to keep up school spirit!

When Should You Apply as a Legacy Student?

Legacy in college admissions holds the most value when a student applies Early Decision to a school. Early Decision acceptance rates are almost always higher than regular decision acceptance rates for any school. Some, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, only consider legacy in college admissions during the Early Decision process. Admissions officers expect legacy students to be extremely familiar with the school, and know that they would be willing to commit based on their knowledge of the school. So, legacy students are encouraged to apply Early Decision.

Since Early Decision is binding, it’s a key way to strongly demonstrate your interest. So, if your top school is your parents’ or siblings’ alma mater, and you’ve got a strong profile and are ready to apply in the fall, do so. According to our Former Admissions Reader from Dartmouth, Heather McCutchen, if a legacy students apply in the Regular Decision round, it comes across to admissions officers that they are using their legacy status as a safety net. Only count on getting an advantage from this preference if you are fully willing to commit to the school and apply Early Decision.

So how do you go about telling colleges that you are a legacy applicant? No need to elaborate too much or write a supplemental essay dramatizing the impact your parents’ education has made in your choice to apply to a school. Instead, you should use your knowledge of the school gained by college visits or trips to reunion to convey your knowledge of the facilities and unique opportunities at the college.

Colleges often ask a couple questions about whether you have legacy status when you choose them as one of your schools on the Common App. For example, Princeton’s list of questions include the broad topics of General, Academics, Contacts, and Family. Under the Family tab, you can answer whether or not you’ve had parents, siblings, or other relatives attend or work for Princeton. (But don’t forget that that only parents would count as a favorable factor).

Legacy in college admissions

It’s a simple yes or no option, and when you click yes on the question about a parent, you’ll be asked a couple of more questions such as their name, your relationship to them, and the number of degrees they’ve received from Princeton.

Legacy in college applications


Even if a college doesn’t specifically ask whether a parent or relative attended the institution, the Family section in the Common App asks for your parents’ educational background. Admissions officers can use that information to note whether your parents went to their school, or a rival college of a similar tier.

Legacy in college admissions

No matter when you’re applying, definitely don’t trust your legacy status to put you through completely. Plus, you’ve got other schools to think about too! Don’t put all your energy on this one application and rely heavily on your legacy in college admissions.

How Does Legacy Status Provide a Boost in Applications?

Legacy provides a boost in your college applications, especially when you apply Early Decision. In the case of schools that consider legacy in college admissions during Regular Decision, it could be considered a modest bonus factor if it comes down between you and a candidate with similar qualifications. But you should not count on legacy alone to get you into Stanford or Harvard, no matter when you apply. At the end of the day, Harvard and Stanford can choose any top candidates that they please. It’s going to take way more than having a parent who attended the school.

While legacy does often provide a slight boost in admissions, it is merely another component of a bigger picture. Having legacy in college admissions won’t count for much if the rest of your application is not up to par. If you’re applying to a top school such as Harvard or Columbia with test scores and GPA below the median range, with little to no extracurricular involvement, your legacy status won’t even get your foot in the door. Don’t get too overconfident and consider yourself a shoo-in just because you’re a legacy. Students who have multiple legacy statuses (parents and siblings) have gotten rejected from a top college because they did not have scores, essays or extracurriculars that met the standards of the school.

Legacy status is yet another component of your college application. Top schools take a holistic look at your materials. If you apply ED as a legacy student but your application isn’t too impressive, colleges might be a little more lenient and in deferring you instead of outright rejection to give you another chance to prove yourself. If the rest of your application doesn’t compare to the excellence a non-legacy student has shown, you won’t make the cut.

Another major misstep when considering how to use your legacy status to boost your college application is dragging the fact that you are a legacy applicant into places where it isn’t needed. Don’t use the Additional Information on the Common App to go off on a tangent about how your great-aunt attended Harvard and how that should be heavily considered when admissions officers read your application. In fact it will only make them have an opposite reaction from what you intend. Don’t use your personal statement or supplemental essay to solely highlight that you’ve applied to a school because of your parent or other relative. That isn’t your story. Sure, you can mention one or two lines in your supplemental essays about how their anecdotes have inspired you. But it should never be the major focus; instead, showcase your achievements, passions, or genuine interest in a school.

When researching your college list, it’s important to know whether or not a school considers legacy in the first place. Not all schools consider legacy in college admissions. MIT, Caltech, University of Washington and UC Berkeley don’t factor in legacy when making their admissions decision. For schools that do, 14% of Harvard and Princeton’s Class of 2022 consist of children of alums. 9% of Dartmouth admits are also the children of alumni. 16% of the entire University of Pennsylvania student body last year were legacy students. In the past 14 years, Duke’s classes have been made up of 10.3%-13.5% of legacy students.

At the University of Virginia, 47% of legacy applicants were accepted into the Class of 2022, while 25% of non-legacy applicants received an offer of admission. For UVA, many of the legacy students were also boosted by an instate advantage, as many of their alums are in Virginia. Other schools which heavily consider legacy include Georgetown, The University of Notre Dame, University of Southern California, and Indiana University - Bloomington.

If you’re not a legacy applicant, don’t worry. Focus on keeping your grades up, excelling in your extracurriculars, and writing a stellar personal statement. These factors matter far more than legacy in college admissions. Your application can be benefitted by other factors such as creating a club based on your interests, or starting your own nonprofit. The majority of the student body at any of the top schools which take legacy into consideration isn’t made up of legacy students, so don’t feel intimidated! You won’t be alone.

Applying as a legacy student can certainly help you, especially if you apply Early Decision to your parents’ alma mater. However, legacy in college admissions isn’t everything. At the end of the day, it’s only a minor boost. If the other aspects of your application aren’t as impressive, legacy status probably won’t be enough. But, if you have a strong application and legacy connections, this status can certainly help you out. Don’t put all your eggs in the legacy basket!

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