Few things about the college application process are as mired in secrecy as legacy admissions.

We know it’s a thing — that the offspring of alumni get extra consideration when applying — but the impact varies from school to school and, let’s face it, family to family. One thing, though, is consistent: legacy matters.

Take Stanford University, which The Princeton Review consistently ranks among the top dream colleges. It accepts only about 5% of its some 45,000 applicants. But there is one subgroup of applicants we can expect to fare better — those whose parents attended the university. According to an interview with Stanford’s former president John Hennessy, legacies enjoy an admission rate two to three times higher than the general applicant pool. 

It’s a trend that, to varying degrees, can be seen in admission statistics at colleges across the country, particularly at Ivy League schools, although admissions consultants recognize the preference for legacy students exists at all levels of schools. J. Jay Greene, director of college planning at Ducerus, says what varies is the level of preference. Legacy status generally gives an applicant another ‘check mark’ in the admissions file. “It shows demonstrated-interest on behalf of the family and history/familiarity with the family, another reason for them to admit you,” he says. “The more competitive the school the more each check mark matters.”

Michelle Veix McCartan, founder of Forward College Counseling, says this is beginning to change though. “Many universities are evaluating older procedures and looking to do things differently as we enter a new era in admissions,” she says. “They are seeking a balance between honoring the loyalty of a family who encourages their children to attend their alma mater and leaving room for new families to create their own opportunities.” 

The result is more than ever before legacy applicants need to be strong applicants to be accepted, especially at super-competitive schools. “The legacy student absolutely must be in the range of the average accepted student profile. University standards are held high, and legacy gives an advantage, but it no longer holds weight for a poor-performing student,” McCartan says. “The top school acceptance rates can run in the single digits, so the competition is extremely high. A student’s legacy should be noted, but we warn our families not to consider it a guarantee for acceptance.” 

We have been asked by families if they should even note legacy status on their application, and the answer is an undeniable ‘yes.’”

Michelle Veix McCartan

At an individual level, it’s understandable that parents and students want to use any advantage they can when applying to competitive schools; however, as admissions standards change, a new question is arising: Could leaning into legacy status work against applicants? “We have been asked by families if they should even note legacy status on their application, and the answer is an undeniable ‘yes,’” says McCartan. “It still holds weight as long as the student truly meets the qualifications of the university. We encourage our families to share every important detail that highlights who a student is, and legacy is a part of that background.”

If you’re the parent of a student who you hope will attend your alma mater, there are a few rules to follow: 

  • Encourage your child to apply early decision (it can increase a student’s chance of admission)
  • Volunteer often (not just during the year before your child applies) 
  • Never, ever contact the admissions office on your child’s behalf (it will not impress anyone). 

But the most important thing you can do is listen to what your child wants. 

Nicole Tuttle, a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, is attending her father’s alma mater for the right reasons. His enthusiasm for the school is contagious. For Nicole’s whole life, he talked it up — telling her stories, showing her the house he lived in with his friends and pointing out his favorite restaurant and dive bar — not because he was trying to convince her to go to the school, but because he loved it that much. By the time she applied to college, she could not not consider Bowling Green State. 

“Seeing him be so in love with the town, how much of an impact the school made on him and how excited he was — even 30 years later — was reason enough to go there, too.”

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017 and 2019.