Legacies are applicants who had a parent attend the college to which s/he is applying. So, if my father went to the University of Michigan and my mother went to Sarah Lawrence College I would be a legacy at both of those. Chances are, I would have an advantage at those two schools.

How much of an advantage is impossible to tell. Every college and university has a way of evaluating or quantifying legacies. Some schools do quantify such a classification similar to how many state schools preference in-state applicants. Other schools consider legacy status as another aspect of an applicant’s profile, doesn’t hurt, can help, and may tip the scale in the event of indecision.

Trying to get any more information out of an admissions officer on their legacy policy will be difficult, because, short of a quantifiable system, legacies are just like all other applicants, read in the same manner and evaluated as the sum of their many parts…. just with a little edge. Whether that little edge will be the difference between acceptance and denial is impossible to tell without a specific individual in a broader context of the pool.

So, feel free to ask admissions officers how they consider legacies but don’t expect a hard and fast answer. They’re not trying to be evasive. It’s just not a simple question.

One thing that you can ask that has a simple answer is how legacy is defined. Most schools define legacies as those applicants who had a parent or step parent attend the school. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins usually don’t count. Siblings at the school may be considered, but they may not grant the applicant the label of legacy, per se. So best not to count up all your relatives who’ve attended college and revel in all the schools where you might be considered a legacy. Chances are, it’s just from mom and dad.


When I was in high school, many students and parents alike, like to share their theories about maximizing strategies for getting into highly selective schools. One of these strategies that people seemed especially sure of was that we, as students from Connecticut, were at a categorical, geographic disadvantage. With so many students from our little state applying to top schools, surely we would suffer as a result. The only students that might be worse off were students from NYC private schools. These theories found comfort in imagining that at least someone was worse off.

And, like most grassroots theories about highly selective college admissions, they were totally wrong.

Does it help to be from Nebraska? Not exactly. No student gets in by virtue of his or her home state. In the Dartmouth class of 2010, for example, not all states are represented in the class, but all states were represented in the applicant pool. This means one of two things: either no students from two states were admitted at all, or no students decided to matriculate. Whichever it is doesn’t matter. What matters is that being from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota or whatever state you think has it easy, will not get you in.

Also, being from a city or state with a large population of (highly selective) college bound students provides a set of distinct advantages. First, if you are from CT for example, you are more likely to have an admissions officer visit your high school. Second, you are more likely to have an active alumni group that may host events or give alumni interviews. Third, a history of past students from your area attending certain schools creates a base of knowledge from which you draw. This last one is subtle.

When I worked in admissions, I traveled to both rural Oregon and Connecticut boarding schools. The students in the high concentration boarding schools had so much more information (some accurate, lots not) and were more savvy about the admissions process, in general. And yet, they also were sure they had it worse off.

If the state from which an applicant comes is relevant to the student’s experience, then yes, it may help that student get in. An example – I once interviewed a student from Iowa who lived in a town of 300 and spent most of his time outside of school working on an irrigation system for his family farm. In that case, being from the town in Iowa where he lived was a part of who he was, how he spent his time, and what his goals were. It wasn’t that his Iowa residency would help him get in, it was how his upbringing and experiences were tied to his community that made his residency compelling.

By now, you surely know that having leadership positions is advantageous in the college admissions process. That said, self created, senior year, uh-oh better get something to put in the “positions held, honors won or letters earned” column, short lived leadership positions are not always helpful.

If your school lacked a yearbook and you managed to secure funding, select faculty guidance and recruit staff in order to create one, that’s big. If your school is a new charter school and you were the first student government president, that can be big too. If, on the other hand, you created a card playing club because you felt your school lacked the necessary social outlets that card lovers needed, and by doing so, you have weekly meetings where you play card games and discuss your enjoyment of different games, this, as an example of leadership, is not necessarily going to help you get into college.

I do not mean to discourage you from starting card playing clubs, knitting clubs, movie clubs etc, but do so because you think it’d be fun. Start organizations that harness your passions and allow you to meet new people, teach others, and above all else relax (a word probably not often uttered during senior year). If you do so, call these efforts what they are. It will be much more believable if you start a social club and celebrate it as a social club, rather than try to spin it into an experience in leadership, governance, and management.


Possible major/career plans

October 26, 2006

If you are unsure about your intended major or possible career plans, rest assured, you’re not alone and college admissions officers do not expect you to have this figured out (nor will they hold you to it… these answers are not binding).

The Common Application asks two questions right away. One is about your possible area of academic concentration/major. The other is about your possible career or professional plans. Here are some thoughts on why these questions are in the Common App and what different colleges/admissions officers do with the information.

First, not all schools are liberal arts colleges and do not offer all academic subject areas. Consider the Fashion Institute of Technology (and I don’t even know if they accept the Common App… just work with me). If you send an application to FIT and say you want to major in biomedical engineering with a career in pharmaceutical research, that may factor into their decision of whether to accept you. Likewise, if you tell the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that your intended academic concentration/major is fashion design and marketing, they may use this in making their decision. (This is, of course, a different sort of question than the career/profession question.  Feel free to list any possible career, but if you want to major in an area far from their offerings, know that you’re taking a risk).

Second, some schools may use this information loosely. If I were reading an application and the student said she’s interested in majoring in comparative literature and with a career as a book editor, I’d keep this in the back of my mind while reading the application. If she had spent a summer taking writing classes and wrote an essay about her favorite book, the possible academic concentration and career questions will fit nicely together with her past experience. This does NOT mean that it has to be symmetric. If it is, it is, and it will be noted because it helps create a fuller picture of her.

Third, it may be completely ignored. The Common Application is designed to ask questions that some/many/any schools may want to know. For some schools, they would not necessarily include such questions on their applications but in using the Common App, they accept the fact that there will be irrelevant questions asked.

I would venture to guess that about half the applications I’ve read had “undecided” listed as answers for both questions.  This is fine. You’re 17 years old. It’s enough that you’ve figured out which colleges to apply to much less to map out the rest of your academic and professional lives.

What admissions officers will not be doing with the information is tallying it up to determine how many possible English majors versus Biology majors to admit. This would be an impossible task because they do not know the yeild of the class they admit. Furthermore, it would be way too much information to try to track.

So, if you have answers to those questions that you think will be informative for the admissions officer, go ahead and share. If you think your answers are either uncertain or you just don’t have one don’t worry. Admissions officers, especially at liberal arts schools, respect the inquisitive mind that wishes to explore new subject areas in college. Be confident if that describes you.

Your NYU application is sitting on your desktop almost finished.  Just a few final touches and you’ll be able to send it off.

Dad comes home and mentions that he was talking with so-and-so at work and realized that so-and-so went to NYU as an undergrad. This seems exciting and may hold great potential, you both think. Dad sets up a meeting for you to have lunch with so-and-so in hopes that this encounter will increase your chances for getting in to NYU because, surely if so-and-so likes you, he could write a letter for you. And everyone knows how helpful alums can be in the ever competitive admissions process. Come to think of it, Dad’s partner attended Bates which is on your list, so might as well get on that one too. Things are looking up.

Quite to the contrary, these sorts of letters do absolutely no good.

First, they sound generically insincere. Without a history of a relationship, such a letter will communicate exactly what it is: a thinly veiled attempt to win favor through an outdated means of preferential treatment. Gone are the days, if they ever were with us, when alumni ruled the admissions world and weilded some form of power.

Second, by sounding insincere, they rub the admissions officer the wrong way. Thus, these letters can have a net negative effect and you’d probably be better off without them.

Third, they are a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a waste of the alum’s time to write it and it’s a waste of the admissions officer’s time to have to read an additional letter. If the alum wants to advocate on your behalf it should be because that alum already knows you and has positive, unique things to say.

New relationships forged during the fall of your senior year are a bit too convenient.  Get lunch, use that alum as a sounding board and a resource for your questions.  Allow excitement to build through that alum. Just don’t expect advocacy as a result. The application process is already designed to enable students to advocate on their own behalf and to allow select teachers to do the same. There’s value in respecting this design.

Think about it from the admissions side: colleges and universities have tens upon hundreds of thousands of alums. Each of those alums has some connection be to someone who is of high school age. And trust me, 99.9% of these alums are not prioritized nor do the admissions officers know them. The fact that so-and-so alum graduated cum laude or was football captain in 1980 doesn’t mean much when it comes down to it.

So, spare your neighbor, your father or mother’s coworker, the guy whose lawn you mow, your tuba instructor from 3rd grade and generally anyone else you just thought of because he or she attended one of the colleges you’re applying to.  If someone says he or she wants to write for you, fine. Just don’t go soliciting recommendations from any ol’ person who has a certain school on his or her resume.

This morning, Michele Hernandez’s first tip on maximizing one’s chances of acceptance to college was to apply early decision. Not early action. Specifically early decision. Here are my problems with this first, and simple sounding tip.

a) it’s already halfway through October and early decision deadlines are roughly two weeks away. Do not run out and find an early decision school fearing this is your one shot. It’s not.

b)  she notes that a student is significantly more likely to be accepted to Dartmouth, for example, if that student applies early decision. Without writing the same post as I have earlier, the early decision pool is full of students who are already more likely to gain admission. This skews statistics. Plus, there is no way to test to see whether student A would get in early decision but not regular decision, or even vice versa.  These theories are untestable when examining the impact on one particular student. Might as well not speculate – it only causes unnecessary stress.

c) such advice completely ignores the fact that a student’s favorite school may not be an early decision school – it may be early action. The student doesn’t get to decide whether his or her top choice school is early decision.

d) early decision is binding. It shouldn’t be used as a strategy because if it is not a student’s number one choice, and the student gets in, that student gives up all options to attend another school.

Early decision should not advocated as a strategy for maximizing admissions because, on a larger scale, if everyone does it, the numbers will overwhelm the early decision process, acceptance rates will decline and cause delays in the response time. The whole point behind early decision is that it allows students who are positive, or as positive as one can be, about attending the school. By all means, don’t switch from applying from your top choice school because its early action, and run out and find an early decision school. And if you’re on course to apply regular decision because you want to have options, do it. Unless you’re 100% sure, its the best way to go.