Born This Way: Legacy Admissions At Penn

Of Penn’s Class of 2022 early admission applicants, 25 percent benefitted from preferential admission. These students had better access to Penn’s campus, contact with admissions officers, and a better understanding of the college application process. Their parents and grandparents call Penn their alma mater, and often their siblings do too.

Legacy students, in many ways, are primed from birth on how to tackle the precipitous hurdle that is elite college admissions. They grow up hearing about Penn from their families, with access to priceless insider information before they even apply.

Oftentimes their parents supply them with faculty connections that lead to pre–university internships, or administrative connections that give them an edge in their applications. On top of everything, being a legacy means that they most likely will grow up in economically secure environments with tutors and college counselors.

Students, parents, and high school guidance counselors are obsessed with figuring out just how much family ties influence admissions. There are theories about tie–breaking arguments, donations, and a specific affinity admissions officers have for families who love Penn. Still, nobody really knows what goes on behind the doors of the admissions office.

Anika Ranginani (W ’19) a non–legacy early admit, says “I didn’t see myself at a particular disadvantage relative to anyone else, but I did know, even at that point, that college admissions are kind of a crapshoot. I wasn’t expecting anything out of it.” She applied to Penn assuming that she would not get in.

But college admissions practices are anything but a crapshoot. They are historically methodical and prone to controversy, especially within the Ivy League. It’s especially topical today given how the lawsuit against Harvard University has dominated news cycles. Put simply, Asian American students are alleging that Harvard’s race–conscious admissions policy discriminates against them. While preferential treatment for children of alumni has always been common practice in elite schools, it only began to be controversial with the advent of anti–discriminatory practices in the 1960s.

In an effort to reduce the number of Jewish students, Yale University passed a resolution in 1925 that stated that admissions shall not place a ceiling on the number of admitted legacy students who satisfy all requirements for admission. By 1931, Yale’s freshman class went from being 17% legacy in 1925 to 30%.

In the 1960s, however, with the introduction of affirmative action laws, Yale began to admit more diverse applicant pools. In 1968, 8% of the freshman class identified as Black, versus 2% of the class in 1964.

However, as one of the first schools to adopt affirmative action policies to admit more Black, Latinx, and Asian applicants, Yale University felt the wrath of alumni who felt that the university had alienated them with these new policies. In 1968, the percentage of legacy applicants accepted at Yale was 44%, lower than both Harvard and Princeton. Then, in 1969 the legacy admission rate dropped to a record low, 36%. Disgruntled alumni spoke with their wallets: between 1967–1969, Yale saw 1,100 fewer donors to the alumni fund.

Today, cracking the code to legacy admissions—and college admissions in general—is on the minds of millions of Ivy League hopefuls. Brian Taylor, the Managing Director of college consulting service Ivy Coach, doesn’t think that decoding legacy admissions at Penn is rocket science. Like what Yale saw in the 1960s, it all boils down to one thing: money.

“By admitting the children and the grandchildren of people who attended that university, it inspires alumni to donate to their alma mater,” Brian explains. “They donate to their alma mater in many cases for years, and for many cases in large sums and it’s not just that it’s out of the goodness of their heart.”

In many cases, Penn alumni may donate to secure their children and grandchildren one of the few spots—2,518 for the Class of 2022—in Penn’s freshman class. Penn Admissions declined to comment on the matter, but Liz Culliton, a counselor at college consultant InGenius Prep and a former Penn admissions officer, has a more complex explanation.

In Liz’s experience, Penn Admissions and Penn’s Development & Alumni Relations Office do not have access to each other’s information, so understanding the relationship between alumni donations and legacy admissions was difficult.

“I think that if you see that correlation, I can’t specifically say it’s a coincidence, but I can’t offer you an explanation that comes from my experience,” Liz says of the link between donations and admissions.

Liz believes that getting into Penn as a legacy is less about your family and more about how they’ve influenced you. If your parents went to Penn and you’ve grown up hearing about it, you probably know more than someone who has only read the admissions brochure.

That means when it comes down to writing your Penn application essay, “a legacy kid just had the chance to think about it for a lot longer,” Liz says.

For many legacy students at Penn, that is very much the case. Alexandra Jackman (C ’21) practically jumped out of the womb singing the Red and Blue—her parents, grandfather, aunt, and uncle all went to Penn.

Alexandra says that her parents never pushed her to apply, but hearing positive stories about their college experience, growing up in nearby New Jersey, and doing a summer internship at Penn didn’t hurt when it came to writing her application.

Legacies like Alexandra enter the admissions process armed with information about Penn that is not explicitly secret but may not be accessible to non–legacy students and students of different backgrounds and cultures. Anika, whose parents immigrated to the US from India, grew up without the plethora of information about Penn that legacy students typically have.

“Even though my parents are both very educated and smart, they grew up in a very test–focused environment and they wouldn’t know that actually pursuing your passions is a way to get into college in the US.” Anika says. “Understanding some of those cultural dynamics would probably help you advise your hypothetical future kids in terms of how to approach the application process or know things you can do to help them get an advantage.”

Concern with legacy admissions also revolves around who doesn’t get in as a consequence.  Legacy admissions benefit white students more than others—historically, alumni of elite schools like Penn are disproportionately white, so legacy admissions policies will disproportionately benefit their children, putting first–generation low–income students and Black and Latinx students at a disadvantage. But Brian thinks there is room for legacy admissions policies to benefit underrepresented groups in the long run.

“The interesting thing is, we are all in favor of ending legacy admission. [But] the children of underrepresented minorities who graduated from schools like Penn are coming of age. So to end it just at the time when they can finally benefit as their Caucasian peers have for decades, well, some might not like that.” Brian says. “Why shouldn’t Black and Latino students get the advantage their Caucasian peers have for decades?”

Unfortunately, future generations of students won’t change the disparities that exist today. If legacy families’ donations are giving certain applicants a leg up in admissions, traditionally underrepresented groups are still at a disadvantage in this regard.

Alexandra is sure that she got into Penn on more than just her family name. “I do think that I worked so hard to be here and I’d like to think that regardless of if my parents went here that I would still be here.” Alexandra says. “I’m so appreciative to be here but I do know that the fact that I have family who went here did help with the application process.”

In Daniel Kransler’s (C ’19) case, being a legacy undoubtedly helped him get into Penn. Daniel, whose parents and sister are alumni, applied regular decision and was waitlisted. Considering that just 3 to 8 percent of waitlisted students are expected to gain attendance at Penn, there isn’t usually much reason to be hopeful about it. But Daniel had an in.

“Once I got on the waitlist I sent a nice long email to the recruiter and three days later I got off the waitlist.” Daniel says. “It was some person in Penn admissions that I only knew because of legacy connections.”

There’s an element of confidence and ease that some legacy students have, which contrasts sharply with the anxiety many non–legacy high school seniors face when applying to college. These students grow up with the assumption that hard work and good grades will afford you admission to the school you desire. Once they enter the system, they realize that this ideal doesn’t paint the whole picture of admissions.

“I would argue for more transparency surrounding legacy process rather than its utter removal, because right now we just don’t know and I think the fact that we don’t know—it’s just concerning,” says Anika.

At the end of the day, legacy isn’t really going anywhere, and students at Penn know that. Maintaining alumni relations is important for colleges, not only for prestige, but financially as well. For Alexandra, college admissions is just a game where you have to play your best cards.

“You do what you have to do to get into this school, you use whatever resources you can.” Alexandra says. “This is definitely not my parents but if someone’s parents were able to donate money and then get into this school, why wouldn’t you use it?”

Occasionally, schools are forced to face the consequences for their less–than–transparent admissions practices. Affirmative action at Harvard is under fire by Asian Americans right now, and maybe legacy is next.


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