We’re all more or less familiar with what a college application looks like; they ask about your name, your address, your GPA, your extracurriculars, your test scores, your defining characteristics, your favorite movies, and so on. They might package some of their questions a little differently, but for most colleges, it’s all relatively similar — which shouldn’t come as a surprise, really.
No matter which colleges you apply to, they’re all trying to do more or less the same basic thing: understand you better as a person and determine if you’d be a good fit for their institution. It is really that simple.
So then, why is there sometimes a question asking whether you know anyone who has attended this college? It seems somewhat irrelevant to knowing you better as a person, and it actually feels (for the lack of a better word) a little suspicious.
If you do a bit of digging around, though, you’ll find that this question has something to do with an idea called “legacy,” where certain applicants get an edge in admissions based on their connections to the alumni, faculty, or staff at a college.
Legacy Admissions Demystified
“So you’re saying that some people can just get into college because of who they know.”
No, not exactly. First of all, not all schools have a legacy system — it’s usually a system more common at elite private schools in the United States. But for the schools that do have legacy, it is true that the acceptance rates of legacy applicants are significantly higher than that of non-legacy applicants.
For example, Stanford’s overall acceptance rate is 5.1%, but if either of your parents went to Stanford, this percentage triples for you. Similarly, Harvard’s acceptance rate for legacy applicants hovers at around 30%, while its overall acceptance rate is only 5.9%. Princeton’s usual admissions rate is around 8%; yet, it accepted one in three legacy applicants in 2013.
Keep in mind, however, that having legacy status affects a student’s chances of getting in. It is possible for legacies to get rejected. If someone is handing the Stanford adcoms a 1400 SAT score, a 2.3 GPA, and only average ECs, there’s not very much that anyone can do to get that person admitted, legacy or not.
“Okay. But where do they draw the line? I think I had a fourth cousin who went to an Ivy…”
Well, you can technically put any relation you have on your application. Nobody’s going to stop you from telling these adcoms that your great-aunt’s adoptive son went to Columbia if that’s what makes you happy. But the effect of legacy decreases exponentially with each extra person you have to tack onto yourself to make the connection.
A 2011 study examining the legacy programs of 30 elite colleges found that applicants with either one or both parents as undergrad alumni benefited the most from legacy, with a 45.1% increase in their acceptance chances on average. These applicants are called primary legacies, and are usually given special precedence over all other legacy applicants.
However, if an applicant’s legacy relation is more distant, such as a cousin, a sibling, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle, the increase in acceptance chances he or she receives drops to 13.7%. These applicants are called secondary legacies, and are still given some special consideration over applicants who have no relation to the college, but nowhere near as much given to the primary legacies. The exact amount, again, varies with the closeness of the relation. Grandparents who went to Yale are more valuable legacies than a first cousin twice removed.
As a general trend, undergraduate legacy is given precedence over graduate legacy. Being related to the faculty of a university is typically not as strong a connection as having relations who are alumni, but it is usually stronger than being related to university staff. And having an alum relation who has been actively maintaining their connection to the college (through donations and attending events) is much more powerful than having an inactive alum relation.
“What happens to your application once they see that you know someone?”
Legacy applications undergo the general review process, just like all other applications. But they may take a few detours here and there depending on the specific college’s legacy policies.
First off, most colleges will take more time reviewing legacy applications. For instance, at Duke, many applications only get one look before the admissions decision is made — but being a legacy automatically guarantees an application a second pair of eyes.
And yes, schools actually do verify that the person an applicant claims to be related to exists (so you can’t just make someone up). At Stanford, once an application indicates some sort of legacy connection, it is sent over to alumni relations, who then look to see if the legacy relation exists in their database. Once they pull up this information, the adcoms will be able to see everything about this legacy relation, from his or her graduation year and major to the amount that he or she has donated.
At some schools, if the legacy relation is a sibling of a similar age, the adcoms will actually pull up that sibling’s entire academic record and evaluate the applicant in comparison to his or her sibling. So here’s a heads-up: it helps to have similar (or better) stats as a legacy sibling, and it also helps if a legacy sibling is actually doing well in college.
Application Timeline for the 2018-2019 Fellowship Cycle
November 9: Deadline for submission of application materials. You must submit your online application, hard-copy application materials (official transcript and letter of recommendation), and application fee by this date. The online application must be submitted by 11:59pm EST on Nov. 9; hard-copy materials must be postmarked by Nov. 9 and mailed to the PiA office. Please note that U.S. Postal Services offices will be closed on Nov. 10 in observance of Veterans Day.
Applicants may hand-deliver their hard-copy application materials to the PiA office in lieu of mailing (by 5pm on Nov. 9). Whenever possible, please plan ahead and include all hard-copy materials together in a single submission. Materials sent by email will not be accepted unless prior permission is granted.
December 1: All applicants are notified that we have received their application materials. Please do not contact the PiA office before this date to check on the status of your application.
December 11: Selected applicants are notified of interview date and time.
January 6-9: Interviews for selected applicants held in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
January 12-14, 19-21: Interviews for selected applicants held at Princeton University
January 26-28: Interviews for selected applicants held in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Mid-March: PiA notifies applicants of first-round selection results.
March-April: Finalization of positions. Upon receipt of an official fellowship offer, candidates must make a commitment within 5 calendar days to accept the position and to follow through on related commitments if accepted by the host. PiA partner organizations make final selections, not PiA. Teaching Fellows begin distance learning portion of TEFL training.
April 20-22: TEFL certification course at Princeton University. TEFL training starts on Friday evening and ends on Sunday evening. All Fellows in teaching positions must attend TEFL.
May 18-21: Orientation at Princeton University. Attendance at orientation is mandatory for all accepted Fellows. Orientation lasts four days, starting Friday afternoon and ending Monday evening.
Late May – September: New Fellows depart for Asia. Date of departure depends upon the country and employing institution. For departure dates for specific positions, please refer to the Our Fellowships section of our website.
GENERAL INFORMATION AND ADVICE
As part of a PiA fellowship, PiA Fellows receive:
- A local stipend, paid directly by the host organization.
- An orientation program including travel, health, visa, and packing information as well as cultural and current affairs background on fellowship locations.
- Travel medical and emergency evacuation insurance for all Fellows in need of coverage and who qualify for PiA’s international travel plan.
- Language grants (awarded selectively).
- Assistance in student loan deferments in the form of letters issued to student loan agencies.
- Note: airfare and other travel expenses are generally the responsibility of the Fellow. Travel grants are awarded on a need basis. Some PiA partner organizations provide reimbursement for airfare at the completion of the fellowship.
Applicants will designate their country/countries of preference on the application. If you are interested in a specific issue or sector, you will be given an opportunity to indicate that as well. Keep in mind, however, that maintaining a degree of flexibility increases your chances of placement.
Look through some general resources on your countries of interest prior to making your country selections and attending your interview. We strongly encourage applicants to read past Fellows’ reports on our website, as well as seek advice from fellowships advisors, professors, international students, or friends in your network. Please do not contact any PiA host organization directly; we will put finalist applicants in direct touch with their potential host organization at the placement stage of the process. Any applicant who circumvents PiA’s selection process by contacting a PiA host organization directly will be automatically disqualified from consideration for a PiA fellowship.
All applicants are invited to attend one of our online information sessions throughout the late summer and fall (Aug. 25, Sep. 19, Oct. 25, Nov. 3). Princeton University students or applicants who live in the Princeton area may attend our in-person information session on October 4th (details posted on our website) or come by the PiA office during posted office hours to talk to the staff. Additional information sessions, hosted by PiA alumni, will be held at colleges and universities around the U.S. in September and October (details posted on our website). All applicants should read Fellow reports filed by previous Fellows about their positions, which are available on our website in the “For Applicants” section. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain the login information to access the Fellow reports. This is one of the best ways to learn about our posts and what it is like to be a PiA Fellow in each post.
The PiA application and selection processes are rigorous and multifaceted. All selected applicants based in the continental United States must attend an interview session in person (applicants outside of the continental United States are eligible for a Skype interview), as well as travel to Princeton for TEFL and orientation. We attempt to offer interviews only to those applicants who stand a reasonable chance of being placed; however, being granted an interview does not guarantee placement. Applicants who are not prepared to commit to the process in full may want to consider other programs.