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What Are Legacy Admissions?

By Cece Gilmore

Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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Reviewed by Bill Jack

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: March 21st, 2024
What Are Legacy Admissions?

A legacy applicant is a student who has a close family member who graduated from the same college or university that the student is applying to. Read more about legacy admissions and how it could affect your college admissions experience! 

What is a legacy student? 

In college admissions, a legacy student is defined as a college applicant with a close family member, typically a parent, who graduated from the college that the student wants to attend. Legacy students often receive a boost in private university admissions. In contrast, some colleges do not consider legacy status at all. There are levels of legacy depending on the relationship to the alumni involved. 

Primary legacy

A primary legacy is someone with a direct parental connection to a college. This status can be a major boost for college admissions. 

Secondary legacy

A secondary legacy is a relative, usually grandparents, siblings, or aunt/uncles, who graduated from the particular school. This status can be slightly helpful in the admissions process, but it is not as meaningful as primary legacy status. 

What are legacy admissions? 

Legacy admission is the practice of giving special preference to the children or relatives of alumni in the admissions process. The word “legacy” is defined as “a candidate for membership in an organization (such as a school or fraternal order) who is given special status because of a familial relationship to a member.” In this regard, “special status” means that all things considered between similar applicants, a legacy applicant has a better chance of admission. 

Also see: What looks good on a college application?

Are legacy admissions in use today? 

The practice of giving preference to legacy students is quite widespread in the United States. All of the Ivy League schools consider legacy status. Duke University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, and many other top tier universities and colleges all consider legacy status as well. Schools are facing increasing pressure to do away with legacy admissions which many believe to be unfair. The bi-partisan MERIT Act has been introduced to Congress and awaiting approval. 

Also see: What are my chances of admission? Start with a Scattergram

Some colleges do not consider legacy in admissions

There are some highly-selective colleges that are openly opposed to granting favor to legacy students. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Johns Hopkins University do not consider legacy status for admission. Amherst College recently announced that they ended legacy admissions. Some schools only consider legacy status in the early decision and early action candidates. 

Why are legacy admissions controversial?

Legacy admissions put lower-income students at a disadvantage when it comes to admissions. Those who reap the benefits of legacy admissions typically come from wealthier families that can afford to send their child to a particular school. In addition, the legacy students often had life advantages in comparison to the struggle of some high-achieving low-income students. While both are similar on paper when applying to college, the legacy student has the advantage. 

When did legacy admissions start?

Legacy admissions were originally intended to keep Jewish immigrant students from attending universities due to the spike in applications in the United States after World War I. During the 1960s civil rights movements, colleges used legacy admissions to minimize the number of Black students admitted. 

Why do colleges care about legacy students? 

Financial dependability

Applying as a legacy student lets colleges know that if the student is admitted, they will likely attend. This allows colleges and universities to plan ahead as they can depend on the revenue brought in by legacy students who are more likely to matriculate. 

Future donations

Legacy admissions are perceived as a way to keep the alumni community happy as they continue to grow their endowments through generous donations. 

How do colleges learn whether an applicant is a legacy student? 

There is a question on the Common Application or within the college’s application about the legacy status of the student applying. Typically, there are two to three questions asking if the student has any relatives that attended the college they are applying to. 

Also see: 10 tips for a successful college application

How much does legacy status impact acceptance to a college? 

If the grades, test scores, and overall profile are not up to the university’s standards, a legacy student most likely will not be accepted. The impact of legacy is dependent on the particular college and their own criteria for admitting legacy students. 

Related: How to respond to this year’s Common App essay prompts

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Legacy admission offers special preference to the children or relatives of alumni in the admissions process
  • Many of the top colleges and universities in the USA use legacy admission
  • Legacy admission practices began as a way to discriminate against certain groups
  • Colleges and universities use legacy admissions to keep their donors engaged so they are able to grow their endowments
  • Legacy admissions are controversial, and many schools are increasingly ending the practice
  • While legacy status can help students get into a school, it is by no means a guarantee, and students without legacy status should not be discouraged from applying to their dream schools
Key Takeaways

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Frequently asked questions about legacy students

Do legacy students have a higher acceptance rate?

Legacy students definitely have higher acceptance rates than non-legacy applicants. For example, each year from 2014 to 2019, non-legacy Harvard University applicants were accepted at a rate of 5.9%. In contrast, the children of Harvard alumni had an acceptance rate of 33.6%. 

Do legacy students get rejected?

For a truly under-qualified student, applying as a legacy won’t help. For legacy applicants, the admission’s department looks for something noticeably negative on their application to not accept them. It’s the opposite for non-legacy students–the admission’s team is looking for what makes non-legacies stand out as an applicant.

Are legacy admissions ending?

A number of elite universities, such as Johns Hopkins and MIT, have already ended legacy admissions. The future of legacy admissions seems to point to an end to the end of the practice in the near future.

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