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 ranked the #1 dream college for the last five years. It accepted only 4.65% of its 44,043 freshman applicants this year, an all-time low. But there is one subgroup of applicants we can expect to have fared better — those whose parents attended the university. According to a 2013 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. Harvard University researcher Michael Hurwitz quantified the advantage in a 2010 study of admission rates at 30 top colleges, determining that the probability of admission increased 45.5% when an applicant’s parent had attended the school as an undergrad.

I can so tell when a student is applying to their parents’ alma mater for the wrong reasons.

Sara Haberson, college counselor

Although most of the data available is for elite schools, admissions consultants recognize the preference for legacy students at all levels. Sara Harberson, a private college counselor who worked in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania for ten years, says that what varies is the exact level of preference. It almost always, however, involves a second read of an application. Somebody — possibly a person in the alumni office or the dean of admissions — in addition to the admissions counselor reviews the materials. Many schools, she says, even have a separate committee for legacy applications or, at least, discuss them independently of other applications.

Despite the extra attention, Anna Ivey, a private admissions counselor and owner of Anna Ivey Consulting, believes legacy applicants still need to be strong applicants to win admission. “Keep in mind that legacy applicants aren’t necessarily underqualified,” Ivey says. “It’s best not to assume too much. They might be just as qualified as the non-legacy one seat over.”

At an individual level, it’s understandable that parents and students want to use any advantage they can when applying to competitive schools. Marilyn E.G. Emerson, owner of Emerson Educational Consulting, agrees. “I respect that some students prefer to gain admission on their own merits,” she says. “[But those] who are aiming for the most highly selective schools should seriously consider their legacy advantage.”

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 double or triple a student’s chance of admission), volunteer often (not just during the year before your child applies) and never, ever contact the admissions office on your child’s behalf (it will not impress anyone). But the absolute most important thing you can do is listen to what your child really wants and support their decision.

“When I worked at Penn [State University], there were so many kids whose parents effectively forced them to apply early decision as legacy applicants,” Harberson says. “The admissions process has the ability to show someone’s true intentions. I can so tell when a student is applying to their parents’ alma mater for the wrong reasons.”

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.”