Legacy Admissions

May 25, 2022
College Admissions
Ivy League

Students always wonder what factors admissions committees consider when they view an application. SAT/ACT scores, AP test scores, extracurricular activities, personal statements, and letters of recommendation all play a role. Students, however, should not underestimate the importance of another factor — legacy.

What does legacy mean?

Legacy means that a student applying to a school has relatives that have previously attended that school. For instance, if one of your parents attended Harvard, and you are applying to Harvard, you would be considered a legacy applicant. It is important to note that there are two variations of legacy. Primary legacy refers to when one of your parents attended the school to which you are applying. Secondary legacy, on the other hand, means another type of relative (a grandparent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle) attended the school. This distinction becomes important when comparing the statistics of how many legacy students are accepted into top schools.

How does legacy affect the application process?

A recent study of thirty top U.S. institutions found that primary legacy applicants are, on average, 45% more likely to gain acceptance than a non-legacy student. In comparison, secondary legacy applicants have an advantage of 13% over non-legacy students. With those statistics, it goes without saying that for many top schools legacy DOES play an important role when admissions committees consider applicants.

Do all schools factor in legacy?

The legacy policy of most prestigious institutions has become an open secret in the past few years. The Ivies are known to be the most generous when it comes to favoring legacies. For example, Princeton has been known to accept 30% of legacy students. The University of Pennsylvania also heavily factors in legacy, which attracts many legacy students to the school.

The University of North Carolina and Stanford only consider primary legacy. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), CalTech, and Cooper Union do not factor in legacy when considering students’ applications. Only one top institution, Amherst College, has publicly banned the practice of factoring in legacy.

More stats on the percentage of legacy students at top schools

The Class of 2025 at the University of Pennsylvania comprises 22% legacy students. At Stanford, the Class of 2023 is 16% legacy. Dartmouth and Yale’s Classes of 2023 are both 12% legacy. Princeton’s Class of 2023 is 14% legacy. However, the highest percentage of legacy students is at Harvard, whose Class of 2022 was more than a third legacy — a whopping 36%! The recent average for Ivy League institutions regarding legacy admissions hovers between 10 and 15%.

Why do colleges do this?

There are a few reasons for this. At least in part, the top universities of the United States can be viewed as businesses and operate as such. Any business (think of the sandwich shop or coffee shop on Main Street) appreciates and values returning customers. Some shops will even offer returning customers discounts or special offers. This is the prestigious institutions’ way of doing just that. If you attended Penn, and your child also attends Penn, it is extremely likely that your child’s child will attend Penn too. The schools which favor legacy admissions also often contend that legacy admissions foster a more enthusiastic campus culture and greater loyalty and camaraderie that ultimately helps a school’s students in their future by fostering a more connected, active, and engaged alumni network.

So should I not even bother to apply if I am not a legacy applicant?

No! As previously mentioned, admissions committees consider many things when assessing an applicant. Legacy should not be understated, but it should also not be overstated. If your parents went to Princeton, but you are not a strong and active student, your legacy status will not be enough to gain you acceptance. The opposite is also true. If you are a highly motivated student with great scores and a truly singular track record of excellence and impact, but don’t have a relative who went to your top-choice school, you still have a great shot.