As top schools become more and more competitive, many people have been scrutinizing the practice of legacy admissions, which means giving preferential treatment to children and close relatives of alumni. There’s good reason for this attention: Harvard’s 2017 survey shows that 29% of its incoming freshman class are legacy students. Other Ivy League and highly competitive schools show a similar trend—legacy students make up an increasingly large percentage of their classes.
To be fair, legacy students who earn admission are highly qualified, with excellent grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. Still, a legacy does give one’s application a boost—in some cases, a large boost. A study of thirty highly selective colleges published in 2011 by Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz showed that students with a close relative alumni had a 23.3% increase in their chance of admission than a non-legacy applicant. If that relative was a parent, the student had a 45.1% advantage. A 2004 study of Princeton University’s admissions policies showed that legacy status provided a boost equal to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT.
Critics contend that preferential policies for legacy students make an already unequal system even more unfair. Some have even called it “affirmative action for the rich,” as legacy students tend to be more affluent and less racially diverse than the overall population. The universities counter that legacy status might be a “tiebreaker” between two equally talented students, but legacy students must still be highly qualified. They also favor legacy students as a way to maintain goodwill—and high value contributions—with their alumni.
Though legacy students do enjoy a measurable advantage in admissions, being a legacy applicant also has its downsides. These students often feel intense pressure to earn admission to their parent’s school, which isn’t easy even with an application boost. A top student can still be rejected from a top school, even with a legacy advantage.
For those without a legacy, the use of legacy preferences means that school admissions are more competitive than ever. If you’re upset about this injustice, you could consider a school that doesn’t grant legacy preferences, such as M.I.T. or UC Berkeley. The good news, though, is that the most competitive schools also actively seek to admit a diverse class. If there are no buildings with your family name on your dream school’s campus, you can differentiate yourself by showing the school how you can contribute your own unique and wonderful perspective to their student body.
Whether you have a legacy or not, the best way to make your application competitive is to make it as strong as possible, with top grades and test scores along with extracurricular activities. All students should also apply to multiple schools, as admissions policies are not an exact science. And if you don’t like the system, remember that the students of today are the future leaders of tomorrow, so maybe one day you can change it.