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.”


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.


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.


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.


  • Lea Yu ’10

    “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.”

    What does our admissions dean mean when he says “outdo”? Is this a subjective opinion? Or if it’s meant as an objective statement, that means Brenzel is probably using metrics like GPA. What does that really say about how Brenzel defines successful undergraduate performance? There is little room in this framework for risk-taking, exploration, or god forbid, potential failures–which are just as critical to ultimate “success” as good grades. The implications for legacies, and Yale students in general, are troubling.

  • Lucky7

    As a 7th generation Yalie, I can say that it was not so much expected as assumed that I would go here. If you’re told by everyone you know from an early age that you’ll go to Yale though, coming here isn’t much of an achievement: it’s just what everyone had always assumed you would do. In reality there’s not much choice involved if you know that you’ll disappoint an entire side of your family by not coming here.

  • I.Boyes

    I assume this is ironic right? If Legacies truly did outperform non-legacies academically then there would be no need to give them preferential treatment as the academic metrics would advantage them. They get the extra weight because they would not get in without it, that is the whole point. Quite how big a bias this represents is hard to fathom, as this article gives no statistics but simply reports anecdotal opinions so its impossible to assess. I thought this was an onion article, but apparently not. Just a depressing indictment of socioeconomic complacency and an accompanying cultural insulation from the lives of most people (if it was written ironically then I apologize! And nicely done, the fawning whiny self-obsession is perfectly pitched.)

  • @I.Boyes

    Yes, “anecdotal opinions” from Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions…

  • LegUp, See?

    Um, by “outdo” I am fairly sure that Brenzel was referring to career achievement, likely measured by donations back to Yale…

  • 09 (pardon me, 09 legacy)

    When I applied, the admissions office told me that legacies had a higher average graduating gpa than non legacies.

  • I..Boyes

    Right, 09 highlights an important point, what we want to assess is not the average gpa of lagacies/non-legacies overall, but rather run the counter-factual of what would happen if there were no admission advantages to being a legacy, it was simply based on academic criteria.

    That is, if of 100 legacies 70 (say) would have been admitted anyway (many may be really brilliant!), it would be good to know how much admitting the extra 30 reduces overall achievement. The university has this data and could readily supply it to the public (who give tax breaks and various support to the university). And then we could have an article that perhaps allows us to make informed evaluations of the policies.

    p.s. We should also obviously take unsupported characterisations of the situation from the admissions dean etc. without actual data with relentless skepticism.

  • get over it

    i think the point is that legacies don’t get any statistically significant preference for admission. in fact, with the anti-legacy anti-priveleged attitude pervasive of so many on campus, legacy status probably ends up inadvertently hurting the applicant. the point is that legacy students are simply more qualified. and its not really surprising that they are more qualified… yale educated parented have been through it themselves so they expect their kids to do it too, and they have all the inside advice to help them out.

  • advantage at Yale

    I’m sure almost all legacy kids would have got into Yale regardless.

    The fact that they have a higher GPA on graduating, though, probably is slightly related to the fact that they know the system before they get here. Many international kids tell me they don’t even known how American academics are measured, for example – whereas if your mother was here when Shelly Kagan was already teaching, she can tell you straight away that Kagan’s a low grader. Just for example.

  • anon

    The only thing legacy status guarantees you is another read by an admissions officer–that’s it. It’s not nearly as beneficial as it once was unless your relatives donated a huge (>$1 million) chunk of change to the university.

  • yale class of ’14

    Obviously, legacy applicants don’t have such a huge advantage as people might imagine. If that were so, most of the Yale freshman class would be legacy now wouldn’t it? I assure you, many more children of alums apply each year than even the total number of open slots in the freshman class. Most legacy kids I know who applied this year were rejected. Be careful in condemning the process so quickly. Accepted legacies are just as qualified as those accepted as first-generation Yalies.

  • recent alum (non-legacy)

    i’m conflicted on the whole legacy issue. most of my best friends at yale were legacies, and they are all bright and accomplished individuals who contributed to the yale community in many ways. they were certainly not unprepared in any aspect. that being said, looking at our raw application data paints a different picture. in terms of tangible criteria (SAT scores, number of AP classes and scores, GPA, class rank) and other considered factors (extracurriculars, leadership, other activities), my non-legacy friends (including myself)and i far and away exceed the legacies in our group. but this is all anecdotal.

    and now that i’ve graduated, any future children of mine would receive a legacy boost :)

  • haha

    Yes, let’s approach the Dean’s comments with relentless skepticism because he clearly has a lot of motives to mislead the Yale community.

  • Alum

    The dean of admissions says what he has to say. If he says that legacies get no benefit at all, he could anger alumni who support the school. If he says that legacies get large benefits, he angers everybody else. The bottom line is that being a legacy is probably a tip factor, but not a huge one (setting aside development cases). The legacies Yale takes are all highly qualified, but they may get in over non-legacies who are equally qualified.

  • super

    Admitted legacies at Ivies have the same or better pre-college resumes as the general admit population.

    The advantage of considering legacies separately a some stage is obvious and has not yet been mentioned:

    Even the very best applicants might, for instance, get into Yale and Harvard but not Princeton. What’s the point of a Princeton legacy going to Yale and a Harvard legacy going to Princeton? That’s right, none. These schools are more or less the same. Keeping these lines intact preserves the element of “tradition” that the Ivy brands depend so much on and, of course, makes for a more efficient donation stream.

  • about to graduate, looking back

    Re: “Admitted legacies at Ivies have the same or better pre-college resumes as the general admit population.”

    This is not to say that legacies aren’t less qualified – who am I to say, and my friends who are legacies (besides being first and foremost great people and wonderful friends) have added greatly to my experience from a diversity of background experience. Nonetheless, I don’t think that this statement should be justification for accepting legacy status as a valid reason to accept a disproportionate number of legacy students.

    If we are considering legacy status as a separate category for admission, let us not use other qualifications to justify this. If anything, we should recognize that legacy students are likely at a distinct advantage relative to other students – to quote this article:
    “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.”

    If that unto itself isn’t already enough advantage to get into Yale without legacy status, I don’t know what is. Not only do legacy students often come from backgrounds that privilege their education through socio-economic advantages and by going to schools or having parents/other people in their lives who understand how the Ivy League application system work better than many other non-legacy students will ever understand in their time at college, but legacy students have the upper hand coming into this school, by already having a level of familiarity, comfort, and confidence with Yale and Yale’s system that can take other students years (I am not hyperbolizing here) to acquire.

  • first generation urm

    Legacy students always come from previleged backgrounds. In researching college admissions it is obvious how unlevel the playing field is. It is very hard for a first generation urm from working class parents to compete with a privileged student whose parents can spend $300.00/hour for a private tutor. Some parents go as far as to hire live in tutors. Do I need to mention the private school education that cost $25,000 to $40,000/yr. How about all the summer enrichment programs abroad to beef up their resumes. I could go on but I am sure all this information is common knowledge to those in the know. I for one am not impressed.

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