Legacies face family pressure

As a child, Christopher Reid ’10 wore Yale pajamas and visited Mory’s regularly. His father, Michael Reid ’75 DIV ’79, and his grandfather, Ogden Reid ’49, are both Yale graduates, while Reid’s sister, Kate Reid NUR ’11, currently attends the Yale School of Nursing.

Since the age of 13, Christopher Reid had his heart set on Yale. He was so determined to continue his family’s tradition that he transferred to a private school in the sixth grade and switched his focus from tennis to squash because he thought his chances for recruitment were higher.

While Michael Reid wrote his Yale application about why Yale should give him a chance to prove himself, his son had been thinking about Yale long before he applied.

“I tried my whole life to get into Yale,” the Pierson College senior and Rye, N.Y., resident said.

More than one in eight Yale students is the child of an alum, and at a school steeped in tradition, it is a common stereotype that legacies — particularly multi-generational legacies — take a back door into Yale. Often obscured by this stereotype, however, is the intense pressure many legacy students impose on themselves, and a student’s legacy status is by no means an automatic ticket into Yale, said Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel.

Indeed, living up to family precedent may be one of the greatest driving forces for legacy applicants, interviewed students said.

“Inside my heart it was a very important thing — for him to be in Pierson as I was in Pierson, to walk the same streets, to share the family tradition together, that meant a lot to me,” Michael Reid said of his son. “I wanted him to go to Yale.”

UNDER PRESSURE

Since seventh grade, Reid said he pushed himself both academically and athletically, with the knowledge from an early age that Yale was his first-choice college. While his parents did not openly place pressure on their son to continue the family tradition, they privately hoped he would attend Yale, Reid’s father said.

Madelaine Taft-Ferguson ’13, a fifth generation Yalie from Minneapolis, also set her sights on Yale early on.

“I knew I wanted to go to Yale from when I knew what colleges were,” she said. “I always had the grades, and everything I had heard about it was lovely.”

While Taft-Ferguson said her parents did not pressure her to apply to Yale — in fact, they encouraged her to apply to other schools — she said she often heard her parents talk about Yale in their everyday conversations.

Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, a New Haven native who said his parents were the first pair of Yale undergraduates to get married, said that while he did not initially want to attend Yale, he could not avoid hearing his parents’ conversations recalling their college days, or looking at his parents’ wedding photos set in the Branford courtyard. Zelinsky said that while his parents were not adamant about his attending Yale, a little bit of pressure was there. Both he and his two brothers ended up attending Yale College, and one is currently at the Yale Law School.

“It would have been surprising if Yale were not part of his life,” said Zelinksy’s father, Edward Zelinsky ’72.

CHOOSING YALE

Whatever their connections to Yale prior to applying, legacy applicants are not considered separately from the rest of the application pool, Brenzel said; legacy students receive their primary evaluation from the same admissions officers who read the applications of the rest of the students applying from the relevant school and area, he said.

And while legacy students are admitted at a higher rate than other applicants, Brenzel has said in the past that legacies generally have higher qualifications as applicants, and after they matriculate, they usually outdo non-legacy peers who had comparable grades and standardized test scores as applicants. According to Yale’s most recent Common Data Set, alumni relation is a considered factor in applying to the College, along with volunteer work or first-generation college status.

Still, the number of legacies in the current freshman class is at a 13-year low; in the class of 2013, 12.7 percent of students have legacy status, according to figures from the Office of Institutional Research. The proportion of Yale legacies peaked in the 1980s, when nearly one fourth of incoming freshmen in 1980 had a parent attend Yale. Since 1992, the percentage of legacies at Yale has oscillated between 15 and 11 percent, according to the data.

Zelinsky said the higher acceptance rate for legacy students creates a stigma against legacies as being less qualified than their fellow Yalies.

“The thing that bothers me the most concerns the disproportionate number of legacy students who get in,” Zelinsky said. He said he does not believe that legacy students are under-qualified but rather that they are admitted in larger numbers in part because they may be disproportionately qualified; such students come from families that are wholly committed to the Yale tradition and have a history of academic and intellectual success, he said.

While many of her peers at her small private high school thought that her legacy status provided her with an application advantage, Andrea Levien ’12, who is from New York City, said legacy students quickly prove that they are just as academically capable as any other student who is admitted to Yale.

“Once you get on to campus, people realize that legacies are just as smart as everyone else,” she said.

‘I NEED TO PROVE MYSELF’

Once on campus, the legacy students interviewed said, they feel a need to work hard to prove their worth and value as students deserving of a Yale education.

Avery Lanman ’13 — a native of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., whose great uncle, William K. Lanman, is memorialized through Lanman-Wright Hall and the Lanman Center in Payne Whitney Gym — said having a legacy connection made it difficult for people to see past his name.

“I need to prove myself so people will look at me and see me as a student who has talent and works hard and not as someone who had all the great connections,” he said.

Reid said there is a sense at Yale that legacy students are privileged because of their family connections.

“They think that you got in because you’re a legacy,” Reid said.

But he said these perceptions have not governed his Yale experience or performance; he added that he expects to graduate cum laude.

Zelinsky said it was fairly easy to detach himself from his legacy status and make a name for himself.

“I think people are going to view you as you perceive yourself,” Zelinsky said. He added that while his friends may know that his parents went to Yale, his peers tend not care about his legacy status.

For parents, seeing their children follow in their own footsteps can prove to be a rewarding experience. Debra Torres ’77, Levien’s mother, said that during a reception at the Saybrook College Master’s House in the fall of 2008 to welcome Saybrook freshman, she discovered several classmates she had not seen for years with their own freshman sons and daughters.

“It was wonderful to rediscover each other, and it seemed like something out a dream to find ourselves sitting in the beloved old courtyard again, this time watching our children meet their classmates,” she said.

Reid said his father tears up every time the family gathers for lunch at Mory’s. He added that in a world where everything seems polarized, it is nice to have something that brings back a sense of community, tradition and continuity.

“I’m sure when I’m a grandfather, I’ll be crying too,” Reid’s father said.

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