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How Does Legacy Status Influence College Admissions?

By Phoebe Smith

Agnes Irwin '23

2020 was a notoriously difficult year for college admissions, with many prestigious universities becoming even more selective during the coronavirus pandemic. Though some colleges appear to have become less competitive in 2021, many high school juniors and seniors are still working as assiduously as ever to ensure their place at the nation’s top colleges, and a question that’s likely run through all of their minds is at some point in the application process is: does my parents’ college education, or my family’s legacy, impact my chance of admission? To help answer this, I’ll explain how and why legacy status may influence college decisions, as well as its importance in relation to other considerations, such as academic qualification and extracurricular achievement, in the admissions process.

Before considering its weight in college decisions, it’s important to understand the meaning and significance of holding “legacy” status. Legacy students are those who are connected to a school or university through their biological relationship to former or current students. High school students whose parents attended their prospective college are designated as ‘primary legacy’ on their applications, while students connected to a prospective college through siblings, grandparents, or other relatives are designated as ‘secondary legacy.’ Students with either status are proven to have a greater chance of getting into a selective college than non-legacy students, but primary legacy is generally the more favorable of the designations; according to one study, primary legacy students are 45% more likely to be accepted to a highly competitive university than a non-legacy, while secondary legacy students “receive a lesser pick-me-up of 13%” (College Transitions).

In terms of its significance in the eyes of admissions officials, legacy status is often associated with greater likelihood of compatibility with a college’s culture and academic climate, though most colleges seem to recognize that students’ capacity for success isn’t determined by family history. So colleges’ primary objective in accepting legacy students is to show appreciation for former students’ contributions to the school, while, of course, also encouraging alumni to make financial donations in return for preserving a family tradition. However seemingly unfair or undemocratic, legacy status absolutely does have the power to be a determinative factor in college decisions, but not all schools give legacy status the same consideration.

In fact, several schools don’t even ask about legacy in the application process, including top universities such as MIT, the University of Cambridge, UC Berkeley, and CalTech (CNBC Make It). At these schools, qualification for admission depends on applicants’ academic accomplishments rather than their relatives’ educational journey or financial status. At many schools that do consider legacy, too, there is greater emphasis on personal achievement than family tradition, and while legacy may factor into one’s acceptance to a selective university, it generally doesn’t hold greater importance or influence than grades, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and essay and interview performance.

Despite this, in my view legacy preference is unethical in that it gives an unfair advantage to select students and seems to value hereditary privilege over true academic qualification. I believe accomplishment should speak for itself, and family reputation should receive minimal consideration in the estimation of an individual’s character, intellect, and potential for success. It is argued that legacy admissions maintain tradition, but shouldn’t institutions that supposedly value progress and diversity strive to create new traditions? If it is high-ranking universities’ goal to create a well-rounded, versatile, and diverse school community, what better strategy than to accept students of various socioeconomic classes and educational backgrounds, with no regard for their family ties, or lack thereof, to the school?

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