Legacy Applicants and Legacy Students: An FAQ


If you’ve binge-watched Gilmore Girls like I have, you’ll know that for most of her life, Rory Gilmore wanted to go to Harvard. Her grandfather was opposed—he was a Yale man—and he did his best to convince Rory to follow his lead. When she began to show interest in Yale, her grandfather used his connections at the school to help her application receive special consideration. The show is fictional, of course, but it does provide a peek into legacy admissions.

What are legacy admissions?

Few college admissions policies are as controversial as legacy admissions, which favor applicants who are related to at least one alumnus. At many schools, for an applicant to qualify for legacy preference, his or her parent(s) must have attended the school. (In fact, students whose parents both attended a school are called double legacies.) Other schools are more lenient. They extend legacy preference to anyone whose extended family member (e.g., grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, cousin) was an alumnus.

How does a school know if I am a legacy applicant?

A character says "You don't know me!"

Black-ish / Giphy

Colleges will only learn about your legacy ties if you decide to offer the information (or in the rare case that your relative offers it on your behalf). If you have begun any college applications, for example, you might have noticed a section, which is usually in the school supplement, that invites you to list any relatives of yours who attended that school, their relationships to you, and their class years. Many colleges will give you the opportunity to share this information, even if they claim it does not factor into your admissions decision.

Does every school give preference to legacy applicants?

No. Some schools will not ask you if you are related to an alumnus. Others will not take this information into admissions consideration even if it is shared. In short, every school has its own admissions policies, which means that some schools will value family legacies and others will not.

How do I know if a certain school favors legacy applicants?

To find out the legacy admissions policies at a specific school, run a quick Google search or check its admissions website. Many schools provide an admissions FAQ that outlines the preferential treatment, if any, that legacy applicants receive.

If a school participates in legacy admissions, will being a legacy applicant help me get in?

A character on Gilmore Girls talks about legacy admissions and says that Rory will apply to "certainly Yale because of Richard's connections, yet?"

Gilmore Girls / Giphy

Even at schools that are proud to help legacy families, legacy applicants are not guaranteed admission. Applicants still need to be competitive, even if they can trace their family ties to a school back five generations. This means that legacy applicants, like all other applicants, must submit application forms, excel on standardized tests, maintain high grade point averages, serve their communities, and participate in extracurricular activities.

With all that being said, at many schools, legacy applicants have a higher chance of acceptance than non-legacies. According to 2015 research in The Hoya, which studied the legacy admissions decisions at Georgetown, Harvard, Cornell, and Notre Dame, legacy applicants certainly had an advantage. On average, legacies were accepted at a rate of 36%, but only 16% of non-legacies were accepted that same year. In fact, 16% of both Harvard and Cornell’s classes of 2018 are legacy students.

The statistics show that legacies have a better chance of acceptance than other applicants at some schools, but they don’t show us just how much weight is placed on an applicant’s legacy status. Is the school looking to admit a certain number of legacy applicants each year? Can legacy status tip the scales in an applicant’s favor if an admissions committee is undecided? Is legacy preference only given to applicants whose relative is a big donor to the school? There are many unknowns, and every school is different, which makes it even harder to find those answers.

Will being a legacy applicant hurt my application?

Your legacy status should not count against you, but if you are concerned about it, or if you want to get in based on your own merit, remember that you do not have to share your legacy ties with the school to which you are applying. Simply decline to complete the legacy section of the school’s supplement.

Is legacy admission fair?

The Doctor says "Oh, yes!"

Doctor Who / Giphy

Opinions disagree. Families whose members attend the same school may feel closer because they share a common background, and schools that give legacy preference claim that they value tradition. Many of them may believe that by accepting the children or relatives of their top donors, they are also fundraising for the school.

Other people call it nepotism. The New York Times argued that legacy admissions deterred campus diversity. Historically in the United States, only white men of certain religions were allowed to attend college, and on top of that, only the wealthy could afford it. Legacy admissions encourage those privileges to pass on to the next generations. Meanwhile, people of color, who could only begin to attend college after integration and affirmative action, have had fewer opportunities to establish legacies at universities. In short, legacy applicants are almost always white children who come from wealthy families. By giving legacy preference, critics say, schools are keeping alive outdated and systematic forms of oppression.

Is there a stigma associated with legacies?

It depends on who you ask. Some people may believe that legacies did not rightfully earn their college acceptances and that they are instead riding on the coattails of their family member’s success. Because of this perception, legacies are sometimes thought to be wealthy, spoiled, lazy, or unintelligent. Other people may associate legacies with tradition, thinking of them as good family men and women.

Whether or not you believe legacy admissions are valuable or unfair, it is important to remember that though legacies may receive preferential treatment, they must still meet minimum admissions requirements.

What if my family expects me to follow in their footsteps?

A legacy applicant hugging her grandmother.Some students may have the chance to become third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation legacies. If you’re one of them, you might feel pressured to grow into that legacy. Your parents might just assume you will attend their alma mater, or they may offer to pay for your education only if you attend. These situations are undoubtedly stressful.

Whether you decide to follow in your parents’ footsteps or forge your own path, remember that your future is yours and yours alone. Just because one school was a good fit for a family member does not mean it is the best fit for you, and you may need to gently remind your family of that fact. If you do your family the favor of considering their alma mater with an open mind, ask them to do the same thing with the schools that most interest you. You may be able to compromise and see multiple schools when you make campus visits or attend the college fair. Over time, your family might come to accept that the school that best fits your interests and goals is not the same as the school they loved. Ultimately, you are the only person who can decide what’s best for your future.

Are there any other benefits to being a legacy?

It depends on the school. Some universities, like the University of Kentucky and Southern Illinois University, offer legacy tuition discounts, which means that all legacy students are eligible to receive discounted tuition. Sometimes these tuition discounts mean that students from out of state can attend their parent’s alma mater for the price of in-state tuition. Other times, the tuition discounts are more extreme (e.g., only 80% of what your tuition rate would be otherwise). Again, your school’s admissions website can clarify its legacy admissions and legacy tuition policies.

Other schools may offer merit-based scholarships open only to legacy students. This means that, unlike with legacy tuition discounts, accepted legacy students are not guaranteed the funding. They must apply for the scholarship and receive it based on their own merit. Still, their odds of accessing this scholarship are rather high since there are so few legacy students in general.

Once you get to college, you may find that your legacy benefits extend to Greek life and secret societies as well. If your parent was a member of a certain sorority or fraternity, you may receive legacy treatment during rush, recruitment, or intake.

If you have any questions about the legacy admissions policies at a specific school, do not hesitate to check its admissions website or call a representative. Every school approaches legacy applications differently, and you will receive the most accurate information straight from the source.


About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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