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Exploring the influence of legacies on college admissions

The committee regrets to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission into our undergraduate program.

A sense of devastation washes over the recipient as they struggle to grapple with the rejection. The harsh truth is that no matter how many schools they apply to, or how amazing their GPA is, they are by no means guaranteed to be accepted to any university. 

Many factors are taken into consideration when looking at applicants and future students. For example, whether they will be able to keep up with the academic rigor or if they will fit into the college and its culture. 

Among these factors is one that has been a growing topic of controversy—legacies. The intent behind legacies is that students will already know about the school and their resources, and because a parent or relative went there, they might be a better fit. 

The problem with this is that it’s giving legacy students an advantage in the admission process, which makes it harder for other students to get in. 

Top schools like Stanford, Yale, and Harvard this year have some of the lowest acceptance rates this year of 3.7%, 6.3%, and 4.6% respectively. However, when you look at the acceptance rate of legacy students at those same schools, the percentage is up to 16.2% (Stanford), 14% (Yale), and 16% (Harvard) for the class of 2025 in accordance with AdmissionsSight, a college admissions counseling company. 

In fact, estimates found around 25-35% of admitted students from Ivy League schools come from legacy families. To put that into perspective, 1 out of every 4 students at these high academic schools is a legacy. 

For non-legacies this means that instead of an acceptance rate of 3-4%, it’s actually even less. If one out of four students that get into a school are legacy students, then the acceptance rate for non-legacy students is only part of what the school says their acceptance rate is. 

John Raftey, founder of Raftrey College Advising based in Palo Alto, says that the impact of legacy admissions varies from university to university. However, many Ivy league schools do take legacies into account. 

“Some places like MIT, don’t look at legacies at all, and some places like Harvard and Yale, their class could be 15-20% legacies.” Raftey said. 

Raftey explains that accepting legacies is part of a business aspect for the school.  

“It’s important to the schools because the legacies, especially the legacies who become wealthy, become donors,” Raftey said. “So the legacies are important to the colleges from a business standpoint.”

For [these] kids, there is a lot on the line and I do think that the Bay Area is one of the most competitive regions in the entire country

— Eric Eng

Along with legacies, there are many other growing controversies involving college admissions, putting pressure on the universities to be more transparent with their process. 

“They [universities] need more diversity and they are under a microscope right now on how their admissions decisions work,” Raftey said. 

Within the world of college admissions, universities must be diligent and purposeful with how their admissions can impact the future of the school. Because of this, Raftey believes that legacies will have less of an influence on college admissions in the future. 

“I think that in order to be more diverse, they’ve got to open up more spots, and so they’re going to get away from that [legacies],” Raftey said. 

According to Eric Eng, CEO of AdmissionsSight and Princeton graduate, not only is having legacies within the family powerful, but having parents who are faculty can be more distinctive on your application. Eng says that if your parents are professors or researchers associated with prestigious universities such as Stanford, you can have an additional advantage. 

“The biggest factor beyond legacies is that if your parents are actually the faculty of the school, then your acceptance rate is as high as 25%,” Eng said. 

Eng highlights the fact that specifically Stanford parents and their children are typically more likely to get a boost because of their parent’s connection. Eng says that he sees that every year, 10-12 students are admitted to Stanford from Gunn and most of them turn out to be legacies.

“So is this admission style fair? No. That’s why I, personally, would not go to Gunn if I knew the spots would be prefilled,” Eng said. 

Eng touches on the shark-like culture in the Bay Area regarding college admissions stress and the unhealthy balance between success and failure within Paly and Gunn students especially. 

“For [these] kids, there is a lot on the line and I do think that the Bay Area is one of the most competitive regions in the entire country,” Eng said. 

It’s limiting opportunities for people who don’t have [a] legacy to be able to attend high performing brand name schools. So I think in that way, it’s really damaging.

— Anonymous Paly student

A Paly junior who prefers to be kept anonymous, explains although they are a legacy student themselves, it’s clear to them that legacies have a negative impact on the college admissions process. 

“It’s limiting opportunities for people who don’t have [a] legacy to be able to attend high performing brand name schools,” Paly student said. “So I think in that way, it’s really damaging.”

Even as a legacy student, they have a lot to keep in mind when it comes to college applications. 

“Both my parents went to the same school,” Paly student said. “And that I think…I do have to take into account that I have an advantage at the school they went to and make that a consideration in the process. But I’m also trying not to let it guide me too much.”

The Paly student said that along with limiting opportunities, legacy considerations for admissions puts non-legacies at a disadvantage.

“It’s also hard on the people who are trying to get into schools off of merit [because] they’re competing with people who have a massive advantage because of legacy.”

Because of how harmful these legacies can be, the Paly student believes that in the future they shouldn’t be a consideration for colleges. 

“I think the whole system is definitely messed up,” the Paly student said. “…at some point, we should kind of step away [from] the process of having an advantage because of legacy and just go off with merit alone.”

The college admissions process is one of the most stressful periods for seniors and juniors who want to get a head start. Schools are already evaluating students based on their academic performance, activities participated outside of school, and even their personal interests. But if legacies, donations, and having connections to faculty are factored in, there’s a lot more to the admissions process than what students can control.  Does having a parent from the school really make a student a better fit?