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Articles / Applying to College / Why Do College Applications Ask About Parents' College?

Aug. 5, 2008

Why Do College Applications Ask About Parents' College?

Question: Why do college applications ask where my parents went to college, and will it help me or hurt me that they went to small, little-known state schools?

The main reason that applications ask this question is to give admission officials a bit more insight into where you’re coming from. In other words, when they evaluate your grades, your writing, and, especially, your SAT or ACT scores, it’s helpful to know about the intellectual climate in which you (presumably) live. Admission officials may have somewhat different expectations of the son or daughter of a factory worker who did not attend college than they would of the child of a surgeon with an Ivy League degree. Perhaps these expectations aren't entirely accurate--or fair--but, nonetheless, the admission folks view your parents' background as part of your "big picture."


When it comes to admission decisions, there are some advantages to having parents who attended snazzy colleges (e.g., you may hold "legacy" status at one or more of your target colleges; also, admission officials know you probably hail from a home where education is valued and you’ve most likely been exposed to literature, arts, etc. in a way that will help ease your adjustment to a demanding college). But there are also some disadvantages (e.g., more forgiveness when it comes to marginal grades, writing, or test scores goes to those whose parents may not have offered them the same academic opportunities).

If your parents did not attend college at all, then you might get a "hook" in the admissions process for being "first generation." In your case, however, the fact that your parents went to college but not to any "name" school will probably end up being neither a plus nor a minus in your admission process.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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