Reflection on Legacy Admission

Reflection on Legacy Admission

As our juniors begin to build their application plan and timeline for next fall, we want to update you about the rapidly changing role of legacy admissions. 

As you may know, many colleges and universities have historically given some preference in the admission process to the children of alumni. Studies have found that at some schools, legacy candidates were more than four times as likely to be admitted as non-legacy candidates with similar academic credentials. As recently as 2021, the Harvard Crimson reported that more than 30% of their current students were related to Harvard alumni, and, at Stanford and Cornell, the number is closer to 15%. Indeed, the practice has been most common amongst highly selective institutions, those defined as admitting fewer than 25% of applicants. These colleges have been motivated to admit legacy students at higher rates because they tend to come from wealthier families who may be able to give generously to their alma mater.

But that tide seems to be changing. 

As early as 2014, Johns Hopkins University did away with its legacy preference, and, not long after, Pomona, Amherst, and Wesleyan Colleges announced similar shifts in admission policy. These early adopters explained that legacy preferences were antithetical to their larger institutional commitments to equity and diversity (as legacy admissions overwhelmingly benefit white students), and Johns Hopkins’ president went so far as to call legacy preference in admissions “nakedly aristocratic.” Fast forward to the present moment, in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action, these policies are under ever-increased scrutiny. In July 2023, the Education Department opened an investigation into the practice, and schools as diverse as the University of Minnesota, Carleton College, and Bryn Mawr College have recently ended their legacy preferences.

What does that mean for you? 

If you are a student planning to apply to your parents’ or grandparents’ alma mater, you do not need to change course. If that school is one of the many great fits you and your College Goals counselor have identified, then stay the course! While you may not receive the extra consideration you once might have, you can still demonstrate your fit for the institution through “Demonstrated Interest” – your supplemental essays, interview (if available), and contact with your admission officer. But like everything in college admission, whether or not your legacy status will help “depends.” There is simply no one rule that applies to all institutions.

The best thing you can do is educate yourself about the practice so you can apply with eyes wide open. To read more, here is a brief Forbes article on The Waning Influence of Legacy College Admissions and for the truly curious, an in-depth report from the Brookings Institution. Finally, this site from Best Colleges includes an updated list by state of colleges who have ended legacy admissions practices as well as a list of those that never used them. We hope you find this helpful!

To SAT? Or, to ACT? How do you pick?

To SAT? Or, to ACT? How do you pick?

The stress around standardized testing has not gone away despite the shifts that many schools have made toward test-optional admissions. In fact, for some students, the stress around standardized testing seems to have only increased as they consider how to maximize their scores to submit to schools that are test-optional (particularly when those schools seem to have a preference for students to submit high test scores). The specifics around whether “test-optional” really means OPTIONAL is a subject for another blog post. Today, let’s talk about the SAT and the ACT, how they are alike, how they diverge, and how you might be able to choose which test to take without going through the onerous challenge of sitting for both.

First, at the root, the SAT and the ACT really are very similar tests.

Both the SAT and the ACT focus on testing a student’s ability in the key areas of reading, writing, and math. They both ask students to solve problems, read passages, select among multiple-choice answers, and interpret information at a similar level of difficulty. Both the SAT and the ACT provide a standardized means of comparing students despite vastly different high school curriculums and experiences. Contrary to some outdated assumptions, neither the SAT nor the ACT has a “guess penalty” – which means that students should make a guess and answer every question on the test. 

The really good news? Most students who take both tests receive a pretty similar score (percentile-wise) on each one.

Despite this, there are some key differences between the SAT and the ACT which might help students decide which test is the “right” test for them.

First, the ACT is a faster-paced test – students are required to answer more questions, per minute, on the ACT than they are on the SAT. 

For example –

ACT math = 60 questions, 60 minutes (1 minute per question)
SAT math = 58 questions, 80 minutes (1:23 per question)

ACT English = 75 questions, 45 minutes (36 seconds per question)
SAT writing & language = 44 questions, 35 minutes (48 seconds per question)

ACT reading = 40 questions, 35 minutes (52 seconds per question)
SAT reading = 52 questions, 65 minutes (1:15 per question)

* Note: This applies to the paper-based SAT. The digital SAT (releasing in 2024) will be a shorter test.

SO – If you are a quick processor, someone who often finishes tests in school ahead of the allotted time, the ACT might be a better choice for them. If you prefer to work more slowly through information, or often find yourself using every minute of allotted time, the SAT might be a better fit.

Second, the ACT has a science section. (The SAT does not!)

The science section of the ACT does not really test science concepts. It is really more about logic problems and graph reading. Take a look at this real ACT science question:

What do you think? Does the graph make your head spin? Or does this look like an easy question? (The answer is “B”.) If graph reading is not your thing, no worries, the SAT might be the test for you! 

The SAT reading passages tend to be a bit longer, and tricker.

Do you love to read? How’s your vocabulary and ability to parse difficult passages? If you are a bookworm, or someone who loves getting lost in words, the SAT might be a more appealing test for you. Take a look at this real SAT reading passage:

What did you think? If this makes sense to you, maybe the SAT is a good fit test! If you felt lost here, perhaps consider the ACT.

Finally, the SAT has both a “calculator” and “no calculator” math section (only until 2024). For now, the SAT has one math section where students must rely on their mental math abilities. If mental math is not your thing, consider the ACT. However, when the SAT becomes all digital in 2024, the no calculator math section is going away.

The good news? Most of these differences between the tests will continue to be true, even after the SAT switches to digital testing in January 2024. Use some of these guiding questions to decide which test might be a better option for you! And no matter what you select, practice practice practice! There really is no better way to prepare than to be prepared![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

It Always Works Out…..

It Always Works Out…..

Take a look at this image. No matter who you are, or how old you are, your “today” is just the beginning of an infinite number of possibilities and branching paths. 

Having worked as a college counselor for almost two decades, I can say for certain that many students look at their college decision as one of the most influential branches on the path that makes up their life up to that point. Often, when I sit down to meet with a student for the first time in 10th or 11th grade, they have a very specific vision of this path – what school they will attend, what they will study, and where their life will go from there.

Unfortunately, the reality of college admissions is that often these visions (this is the “dream school”; this is the “most perfect major”) do not play themselves out in the process. In the face of some schools receiving more than double the number of applications they received only a few years ago, it is more and more difficult to latch a set of hopes and dreams onto a single school.

But I truly believe that’s exactly as it should be. There should never be just one dream school, or one perfect program. The world is full of infinite paths and options – things students have never imagined or even conceived. Instead of seeing only a single path through the process, I challenge students to see themselves on the green line, and to begin to imagine the vast number of possibilities that lie in front of them.

Therefore, what I most often say to students (and families) throughout the college counseling process is this: “It always works out. It just doesn’t always work out how you think it will right now.”

Consider just a few stories from the Class of 2023:

  • One student applied Early Decision to a “dream school” and was deferred. The student applied to a wide selection of other schools at the regular decision deadline. Ultimately, the Early Decision school admitted the student in March. However, as the student looked at their options, there were others that felt like a better fit. Ultimately, the student enrolled at another school, one that wasn’t on the horizon as even a “high possible choice” in October.
  • One student applied Early Decision to a “dream school” and was rejected. The student continued to research schools all fall and found another school, one that actually might have been a better fit for their interests and plans. The student applied Early Decision II to this new school and was admitted.
  • One student applied Early Decision to a school that felt like the best fit for their planned career combining engineering and entrepreneurship. They were rejected. They applied Early Decision II to a second-choice school that also felt like a great fit for this planned future. They were also rejected. Then, the student was admitted to a program within a large public university, one that awards two B.S. degrees (one in engineering, one in business) – a program even more selective than both the ED/ED II schools.

The stories could go on. The theme is simply that the process unfolds in its own way, on its own path. As students (especially rising seniors) approach the college process and begin their applications, it is so important that they keep this fact in mind: there is not only one path (or one school). Thirty years ago, I applied to college intending to major in Biology and head from there to medical school. Instead, I wound up studying philosophy (a subject I had never even heard of before my sophomore year in college) and going into education – a path I could never have conceived at 18.

It always works out – it just doesn’t always work out how you think it’s going to right now.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Choosing Your Courses for the Next Year

Choosing Your Courses for the Next Year

Soon, many sophomore and junior students must make choices about their courses for next year. We know the admission process at very selective colleges is based, above all, on your academic performance, and if your grades are not what the college wants to see, your chances of admission will be limited. But how do your curricular choices play out in that process?

Ideally, your college education should have both vertical depth in a single subject and horizontal breadth across many. Admission officers, especially at the most selective colleges, are trying to gauge whether your high school curriculum is equipping you, as a Harvard brochure on preparing for college described it, “with particular skills and information and … a broad perspective on the world and its possibilities.” In fact, most liberal arts colleges are not really admitting students to a particular major (there are exceptions, of course, mostly in pre-professional fields such as engineering and nursing). Thus, choices you make about your curriculum act as a mirror in which they can see your skill/aptitude for pursuing a particular academic interest, but also your curiosity and breadth of mind.

  • Are you able to jump into challenging courses in your intended major and make good use of the opportunities on offer? Do you have the math training to take on engineering courses, for example? Do you have the analytical and writing skill to do well in a demanding philosophy course?
  • Are you also able and curious to explore beyond your major? Are you flexible enough to see how those “other” ideas might even connect with your field and enrich it? This is as much a practical as a philosophical point. Knowledge is interconnected, and knowing something about statistics, for example, might be very useful to the prospective historian, while a pre-med’s perspective might be shaped by anthropological insights into different cultural assumptions about mind-body connections. In a rapidly changing world, you also don’t know what knowledge the future will require, or which bits of learning will start fading into obsolescence soon after graduation. Your career prospects, therefore, might depend on knowing how to learn, how to analyze critically, and how to communicate your great ideas, whether about a product you are developing or about a public policy you are promoting. You may well have developed some of these skills outside your major!

What does this mean for the courses you should choose in high school, especially if you intend to apply to selective colleges?

  • Don’t specialize in high school – if you are mostly not being admitted to a major as a first year, then the fact that you avoided, for example, social science/humanities courses in high school because you intend to study data science, might be a red flag. Note that MIT and Harvey Mudd require applicants to have letters of recommendation from both a STEM teacher AND a humanities/social science one!
  • Don’t choose courses because they might be easier, especially if you hope to apply to very selective colleges. Experienced admission officers know that a one-semester government class is likely not going to challenge you as much as AP US History, and that all IB math courses are not equally demanding. As Yale advises its applicants, “Pursue your intellectual interests, so long as it is not at the expense of your program’s overall rigor or your preparedness for college. Be honest with yourself when you are deciding between different courses. Are you choosing a particular course because you are truly excited about it and the challenge it presents, or are you also motivated by a desire to avoid a different academic subject?”
  • Choose a course load that will show preparation in a broad academic core, because you will learn important skills and perspectives in each:
    • History gives students a better understanding of how the past shapes the present and what is distinctive about our own moment. A rigorous economics course might do the same.
    • English will help you write better in a global language and think more critically, while literature gives insight into other lives in different times and places.
    • Foreign languages facilitate your access to a global world and to cultures that are not your own. Whether you want to be a businessperson or a physicist, being able to communicate with others and imagine different ways of being and thinking is essential.
    • Mathematics not only allows you to balance your checkbook, but also to grasp new scientific discoveries, figure out the economic implications of environmental change, and understand a government’s trade policies. In short, mathematics equips you for modern life.
    • Science, in a time when political freedom and environmental health are threatened by false facts and viral conspiracy theories, allows you to analyze scientific concepts and understand their consequences, and think creatively about technology.
  • Finally, choose the right rigor for you. Students often ponder whether colleges care most about grades or about rigor. The stock answer is, of course, both. And if you aspire to ultra-selective colleges, this is good advice and a healthy reality check about your chances of admission. But it might not be the most useful advice for every student. NACAC, the national admission organization, counsels you to, “take the most challenging courses that are available and appropriate for you.” So, choose the toughest courses in which, with hard work, you can succeed, and then commit yourself to get as much from them as you can.


The 2022 admission season: what juniors might learn from it

The 2022 admission season: what juniors might learn from it

With colleges having announced their 2022 admission decisions, I yet again feel like a recording stuck in a loop as I reiterate to my students that admission at the more selective colleges has become even more challenging. Even so, this year does feel different to me somehow. Perhaps it is the fact that I have seen more amazingly accomplished students who did not get into their dream schools – or indeed even into the ones they deemed target schools – than ever before, that makes the college admission process feel increasingly untenable.

While we wait for waitlists to settle down in coming months, though, a few themes have emerged.

  • The University of California’s decisions have left counselors scratching their heads as top academic in-state performers found themselves denied or waitlisted by virtually every UC campus. An article in SF Gate that tracked the UC admit rates over the last 25 years, points out that in 1997 UCLA admitted 36%, UCB 31%, and UCSB, UCI and UCD all around 70%. Today those same schools range from 14% at UCLA and 17% at Berkeley, to 30% at UCI, 37% at UCSB and 46% at UCD. In all cases, Colleges of Engineering admit rates are far below that of each University as a whole.
  • Knowing that, in a test-optional world, more kids feel free to apply to more selective colleges, schools are trying to figure what all the uncertainty and turmoil means for their yield, the number of students who will accept their offers. No one wants unfilled dorm beds or overfull classrooms. To help manage that uncertainty, many colleges are filling even a bigger portion of their first-year class with committed Early Decision applicants. The list of colleges that accept more than 50% of their incoming class in Early Decision – Bates, Bowdoin, Claremont, Colby, Haverford, NYU, Northwestern, and many others – is growing. Colleges also waitlist large numbers of applicants, and this year many seniors have found themselves waitlisted even at colleges where they had applied to an early program months earlier.
  • Applicants to certain majors seem to have done especially poorly this year, especially in Computer Science, Data Science, Engineering, business and even some life sciences. Presumably this reflects both the huge numbers of applicants attracted to (or pushed towards) fields that seem to promise steady jobs and financial success, as well as the struggles of colleges to meet that surging demand with adequate research and faculty resources (in the five years after 2013/14, for example, the number of CS degrees conferred nationally increased by 60%).

What lessons might current juniors take from all of this?

  • Take a healthy reality check from the admit rates. Remember that colleges with single digit admit rates have applicant pools full of strong and accomplished students (far more than they can admit) and the fact that you are one of them means you will be seriously considered. But at the end of the day those schools will admit students based on their limited space and institutional needs. Your college list must reflect the possibility that it might not be you.
  • Build your college list on a thoughtful foundation of probable and possible colleges, knowing that a so-called safety is not simply a school to which you will likely be admitted but also one where you will still thrive. The litmus test of admission – if this is the only school to which you were admitted, will you attend – is more important than ever, and many high-performing students found themselves confronted with exactly that outcome.
  • Think of your college list less as a series of set categories – probable/safety, possible/target, reach/ultra-reach – than as a dynamic process in which probability shifts according to application timing. Is a college still a target if you apply in Regular Decision, or does it fill so much of its class in Early that the admit rate is halved or even quartered for students applying in Regular Decision?
  • Consider your academic narrative in which you explain what you want to study and why you want to do it at any specific college. Most colleges don’t assume you are fixing your major in place when you apply (there are a few exceptions) so discussing your intended major is mostly just an opportunity to show the college the critical depth and analytical skill you have to offer. BUT if the major on your application is in a field that seems overcrowded with applicants, or if it is clear from your limited curiosity that your intended field of study is simply a pathway to a steady job and good paycheck, it makes it harder for admission officers to appreciate what you have to offer academically. (See the recent guest posting on our blog about thinking beyond computer science as a major.)
  • And finally, parents come to college admission with assumptions about the process derived from their own experiences and fueled with intense admiration for their children’s hard work and exceptional performances. But it is a different world from the one in which they applied to colleges and it requires new expectations. Thus, in 1990:
    • Boston University had 12,400 applicants and admitted 45%. This year it received 80,800 applicants and admitted 14%.
    • Northeastern University admitted 97% of its 10,600 applicants. This year, it received 91,000 applicants and admitted 7%.
    • Stanford had just under 13,000 applicants and admitted about 22%; last year it received 55,470 applicants and admitted just under 4%.
    • Columbia had under 6,000 applicants and admitted 32%; this year the school had over 60,000 applicants and admitted 4%.
    • Cornell had about 20,000 applications and admitted about 30%; last year, over 67,000 applied and only 9% made the mark (Cornell is unfortunately one of the colleges that decided this year not to reveal its admission statistics).
    • USC admitted a whopping 70% of about 10,000 applicants, bemoaning its declining enrollment; this year, it admitted 12% of the approximately 70,000 applicants.

For many seniors these days, the stress of college admissions feels less like the churning anticipation of preparing for a grand journey, and more like an anxious grind towards misplaced expectations in which much feels beyond one’s control. Perhaps it is only when they accept that their prosperity in life will depend far less on where they choose to attend than on the choices they make once they are on campus, that they will be able to reclaim the adventure.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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