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Articles / Applying to College / Inside College Admissions

Inside College Admissions

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 5, 2015

Have you ever wondered what really goes on inside the closed-door conference rooms of colleges as they make their decisions about the mountains of applications they face every fall and winter? There are a number of books out there that promise to expose the truth about what goes on. Television shows and even movies have been made that try to give us an idea of the real world college admission committees live in.

Surveys and studies offer more insights. I once reported on a study about legacy admissions that said, “… 30 highly selective colleges conducted by a Harvard University researcher found that legacy applicants–students who have a family connection at a school–have a significant advantage in admission.”

The results, in part, noted that “applicants to a parent’s alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of nonlegacy applicants, The New York Times reported. By comparison, students whose parents did graduate work there or who had a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle who attended the school were only twice as likely to be admitted …

…  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, legacy applicants, all other things being equal, had a 23.3 percentage point increase in their probability of admission compared to nonlegacy applicants. Primary legacies, applicants with a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, had a staggering 45.1 percentage point advantage. In other words, if a nonlegacy applicant faced a 15 percent chance of admission, a primary legacy applicant with identical credentials would have a 60 percent chance of getting in …”


Of course, the fact (or mythology, depending on your point of view) is that there are any number of reasons why a certain candidate (or even demographic of a candidate) may have an advantage when his or her application comes up before committee. I discovered yet another insight this past week about college decision motivations.

Kaplan Test Prep released some findings of their 2014 survey of over 400 college admissions officers. In brief, they explored the question, “Is the admissions process rigged for the well-connected applicant?” According to their research, 25% of admissions officers say they have “felt pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet your school’s admissions requirements because of who that applicant was connected to.” The Kaplan survey also found that 16% of college admissions officers say applicants to their school who are the children or sibling of alumni have an advantage over those who aren’t.

I think we have already established that, as noted above. This is particularly timely information, in light of the acceptance/rejection/waitlist notifications that went out this week. As you’ve likely read, many colleges had yet another record low acceptance rate year.

Here are some excerpts of what the Kaplan survey found:

As millions of college applicants begin to receive word about where they may enter as freshmen this fall, a new Kaplan Test Prep survey of admissions officers at 400 top colleges and universities explores the question: is the admissions process rigged for the well-connected applicant? …

… “The acceptance of applicants whose qualifications may take a back seat to their connections is an open secret in the college admissions process, and our results show that it’s not uncommon,” said Seppy Basili, vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs, Kaplan Test Prep. “But colleges often say that more than looking for a well-rounded student, they are looking for a well-rounded class, which means they look at everything a pool of applicants bring to the table — including connections, whether political, business or other. In the case of legacies, some colleges may see second- or third-generation applicants as more likely to be engaged with a school’s culture. However, it’s important to keep in mind that although these ‘thumb on the scale’ admissions practices do happen, the overwhelming majority of accepted college applicants are successful due to their own merits.”

Basili says that admissions decision-making may increasingly be put under the spotlight with the recent attention drawn to a little known, but recently rediscovered federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Under FERPA, schools must release the admissions records to accepted students who request them within 45 days. An admissions official at top-ranked University of Pennsylvania reports receiving an “avalanche” of such requests in recent weeks, already four times the yearly average. (http://www.thedp.com/article/2015/01/penn-admissions-office-sees-explosion-of-ferpa-requests) …

To put some numbers with the challenges (such as competing against legacy and other well-connected candidates) of getting into ultra-selective schools, take a look at these acceptance rates, compiled by Business Insider:

– Princeton admitted 7.28% of applicants, down slightly from 7.29% in 2013, and accepted 1,939 students out of 26,641 applicants

– The University of Pennsylvania admitted 9.9% of applicants to the Class of 2018, down from 12.1% last year. The Philadelphia-based university accepted 3,551 of their 35,788 applicants.

– Cornell University, which has the highest admissions rate in the Ivy League, dropped over a percentage point this year, with a 14% acceptance rate, taking 6,025 students from 43,041 applications. Cornell accepted 15.2% of applicants last year.

– Brown University accepted 2,619 of 30,291 applicants, or an 8.6% acceptance rate. Last year, the university had a 9.2% acceptance rate.

– Yale University was the last to release their admissions data, but also posted a lower acceptance rate than last year’s 6.72%. Yale admitted 1,935 of 30,932 applicants for a 6.26% acceptance rate.

Other Ivies saw their acceptance rate rise from last year.

– Dartmouth College took 11.5% of applicants to the Class of 2018, up from a 10% admissions rate last year. Dartmouth recieved 19,235 applications this year, and accepted 2,220 students.

– Harvard University admitted 5.9% of applicants, up slightly from last year’s 5.8% admissions rate. Harvard accepted 2,023 of their 34,295 applications.

– Columbia University admitted 6.94% of applicants, up from a record low 6.89% acceptance rate for the Class of 2017. Columbia accepted 2,291 of their 32,967 applicants.

– Other top colleges have also released their admissions data. MIT took 7.7% of applications, while Duke University accepted 10.7% of student applicants.

Probably the most interesting statistics released are for Dartmouth, which has posted consistently lower application numbers over the past two years. Dartmouth recieved 19,235 applications this year, down 14% from the year before.

– Here’s how many students applied to and were accepted to the Ivy League this year:

Brown University — 30,291 applicants (2,619 accepted)

Columbia University — 32,967 applicants (2,291 accepted)

Cornell University — 43,041 applicants (6,025 accepted)

Dartmouth College — 19,235 applicants (2,220 accepted)

Harvard University — 34,295 applicants (2,023 accepted)

University of Pennsylvania — 35,788 applicants (3,551 accepted)

Princeton University — 26,607 applicants (1,939 accepted)

Yale University — 30,922 applicants (1,935 accepted)


I suppose if I were a parent whose son or daughter wanted to attend my alma mater, I would be all for legacy admissions. Maybe I would have upped my giving in the past just to pave the way a bit. However, I completely agree with a comment I read following an article about preferential treatment of legacy applicants. It went something like this: “Legacy preferences are a red herring because elite universities use them only when it serves their institutional interests.”

So what will happen with legacy admissions? Probably nothing, unless the courts rule against it, which I think is unlikely. It’s higher ed’s ball and bat, folks. If you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game. Legacy will always mean a leg up.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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