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5 Ways to Make Use of Legacy and Special Status in Admission

legacy admissions

Legacy is a hot topic in U.S. college admissions. It’s controversial because favoring legacy applicants – an unspoken policy that is popular at many colleges – runs counter to the belief that college admissions should be a meritocracy.

If you look at the history of higher education, however, you’ll note that college admission has never been a pure meritocracy. In today’s college admissions landscape, wealth increases chances of admission.

Though high levels of academic achievement in a challenging curriculum are helpful, gaining a competitive edge in college admissions can also involve who you know rather than what you know. This networking boost works in favor of legacy applicants.

A 2011 study of 30 elite colleges found that the children of undergraduate alumni were, on average, 45.1% more likely to be admitted than students without a previous connection to the school.

But legacy students are only a small fraction of those admitted to college every year and there are many other ways that students with no prior connection to a school can distinguish themselves from the rest of the applicant pool.

Here are 5 ways to make use of your status; one for legacies and four for everyone else:

  • Check your zip code. Are you from the northeast or California? Sorry, your region will be quite overrepresented in the applicant pool at competitive colleges in the northeast. Try diversifying your school list by looking at Naviance to see where students frequently apply and where they do not apply. If you’re from the northeast, for example, you might find that fewer students from your high school are applying to schools in the south like Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt, which are looking outside their respective states to build a geographically diverse freshman cohort.
  • Review your identity and difference. Similar to first-generation students, underrepresented students should speak openly about how their experiences have shaped their identity. What’s it like to be the only woman on the math team, for example? How is it being one of the few Muslim students in your high school class? Your direct experience will demonstrate that you are someone who is resilient and able contribute to campus in an inimitable way.
  • Be proud of being first-generation. If you are a first-generation student, don’t shy away from talking about your experience in your college essay. Competitive colleges are quite aware that they tend to shut out first-generation and non-wealthy students due to academic criteria and financial constraints. When you apply, emphasize your experience as a first-generation student through your essay and letters of recommendation and tell a story about how you’ve overcome an obstacle (or multiple obstacles).
  • Flex your athletic muscle. At some colleges, athletes are given similar preferential treatment to legacies. As an athlete, plan to talk with a coach at the college of your intended sport even if you don’t plan to be formal recruit. Note that the NCAA restricts coaches from talking with students until July 1 after the junior year, so wait until then to increase your chances at getting a response.
  • If you’re a legacy, maximize your status by applying early decision or early action to the college (depending on their admissions policy). While there are notable exceptions to using legacy in evaluating admission (e.g. MIT and Cal Tech), colleges continue to use legacy preference to increase the likelihood of continued alumni giving. As a legacy, colleges prefer that your alumni parent has had a long history of involvement in the college through monetary donations and post-college volunteer time on campus.

The bottom line is that almost everyone has a unique circumstance if they stop to think about it. For example, maybe you founded a community service organization at school, maybe you worked with a teacher on an independent project, or maybe you overcame an intimidating life hurdle.

Figuring out what makes you unique and different is an important part of figuring out who you are, what you want, and ultimately, to stand out in competitive college admissions. Why? Because having a new and interesting perspective to contribute gives colleges a reason to admit you. 

Long gone are the days of legacy status as the only way to increase your chances of admission. Today, the possibilities to increase diversity through non-legacy preferences are much more plentiful. Don’t wait to discover what makes you different.

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Dr. Aviva Legatt is founder of VivED, an education consulting company that provides clarity, calm, and competitive advantage to students and families seeking college admission to Ivy League, highly-selective, and elite institutions.

Dr. Legatt has admissions committee experience at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she oversaw the top-ranked pre-college program Leadership in the Business World.

Recent press includes Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, Zendesk and in The New York Times School’s inaugural online course about college preparation and admission.

Dr. Legatt is Affiliated Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches graduate students and executives about issues related to diversity and effective collaboration. Her Coursera courses on high-performing teams at Penn have been taken by thousands of learners.

In her spare time, she meditates and is active in the performing arts. Dr. Legatt previously worked in tour management and concert production in the music business, and today she is on the Board of Directors at Narberth Community Theatre.


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