When Seth Berliner applied early action to Yale in the fall of 2003, he thought he had a pretty good chance of being accepted. Though neither of his parents attended Yale College or Yale Graduate School — his pedigree is more crimson than blue — his aunt and cousin both attended Yale College; his aunt is currently a researcher at Yale, and his grandfather, Robert Berliner, was a dean of the Yale Medical School from 1973 to 1984 and has a lecture series and a position at the medical school named after him.
“I figured that my grandfather’s tenure would be a big help, especially because my grandmother is still involved with Yale,” Berliner said. “I had no idea but I figured, ‘Hey, he was the dean of the Medical School, and he has a lecture named after him.’ And I thought my cousin and my aunt would be the icing on the cake.”
Even the college counselor at Berliner’s private high school in Chicago seemed to think that his chances of a Yale acceptance were greatly improved due to his family connections.
But, alas, Berliner is now a freshman at Columbia University.
While many applicants and students believe that legacy status guarantees a student admission to Yale, only about 30 percent of legacy applicants are accepted, according to a recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Still, compared with the general Yale College acceptance rate of 9.9 percent for the class of 2008, it seems that legacies do have a significant advantage over their peers, a fact that has garnered national attention recently, especially after prominent politicians like George W. Bush ’68 — a legacy himself — denounced the practice. Admissions officers give legacies more attention during the admission process, especially if the legacy comes from a donating family. Legacies comprise 14.8 percent of the class of 2008, and though the percentage of legacies in a class has fallen dramatically since the early 1960s, when it reached its peak of 27.4 percent, legacies still make up a sizable portion of the class.
Like many athletes, minority students, finalists in the Intel Science Program and other highly desirable categories of applicants, legacies — students with one or both parents who attended Yale College, graduate or professional schools — have a “hook” in the admissions game.
A former Yale admissions officer, who declined to be named, said these traits can “hook” a student into a class. An applicant with a hook frequently receives more attention from an admissions officer than a hook-less applicant.
“In that sense, those students [with hooks] get a very close read, and they get extra consideration in the process,” the former admissions officer said.
The process, the former admissions officer said, typically begins with a student’s admissions folder. The officer assigned to that student’s geographical area will read the folder and make comments on a card, and then he or she will often pass the folder on to an “outside,” or second, reader. The admissions process culminates with a folder’s trip to the admissions committee. Sitting around a table in the admissions office, three or four admissions officers make or break the futures of applicants.
“You go through … and you call out each name and you vote thumbs up or thumbs down,” the former admissions officer said, noting that most applicants who are vetoed by the geographical admissions officer do not even get discussed.
“Only the kids that you want to talk about actually get talked about and have their application discussed,” the officer said.
Except for legacies.
“The list [that gets discussed] always includes every single legacy,” the officer said. “To that extent, [legacies] get a bonus in the process. It doesn’t mean the conversation will be long, but they will be talked about for sure.”
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw said legacy applicants have a better chance of being admitted than non-legacy students.
“All other things being equal, [legacy] gives a slight edge, and we have no qualms about that,” Shaw said.
Yale President Richard Levin also said legacies may have an advantage in the application process. But he noted that the average grades and test scores of admitted legacies are higher than the average grades and test scores of the rest of the class. And once they get to Yale, Levin said, legacies also tend to get higher grades than non-legacy students with comparable high school GPAs and test scores.
The former admission officer agreed with Levin that the pool of legacy applicants is stronger than the pool of non-legacy applicants.
“To a certain extent, legacies obviously have an advantage in the process, but they also happen to be the best applicants because one or more of their parents went to Yale,” the officer said. “They’ve had the advantages of that background … But the applications are better than the rest of the pool. They have a hook into the class, so sure, that helps them, but at the same time you have a higher expectation for them because they are Yale kids. You expect the applications to be stronger.”
Giving green to bleed blue
But while the pool of legacy applicants is stronger, there are other reasons — including monetary factors — for favoring legacies.
Jeff Brenzel, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, acknowledged the power of money in the admissions process. After graduation, legacies tend to become more generous donors, Levin said.
While donation rates vary from class to class, in most classes close to 50 percent of legacy alumni choose to donate and usually donate more than their classmates.
“Not every legacy feels close to Yale, but I think for a lot of legacies the family relationship acts in a way to reinforce the Yale relationships,” Brenzel said. “There’s no question that legacy parents and legacy alumni have higher rates of engagement and tend to be more supportive of the University on average.”
And in some cases, money can be even more of a factor than legacy status.
A family can significantly increase its child’s chances of getting into Yale by giving a large sum of donation money, the former admissions officer said. Yale’s development office has an official list of students whose parents or families make substantial donations. “Development kids,” as the admissions officer called them, are almost guaranteed admissions if their families are big enough donors.
“The development office has an A-list, a B-list and a C-list,” the officer said. “The A-list has kids whose parents, for example, are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The B-list has kids whose families are second-rate compared to the A-list, and the C-list is basically friends of really important and wealthy people.”
Sometimes, the former admissions officer said, he was not even required to read the development kids’ folders because there was no way to reject them.
“Year after year, there are kids who get into Yale and take the spots of more deserving students because of money,” the former officer said.
Mostly, development kids are legacies, but very rarely, families with no Yale association other than a child applying to the College will make big donations, he said.
The officer spoke of one development student from a prominent East Coast boarding school who was rejected because he did not deserve to get in, but later was accepted as a transfer student.
“I said I would walk if they let him in,” the officer said. “We ended up rejecting him, but then he got in later.”
The former admissions officer was careful to note, however, that he thinks “99.9 percent of an entering class at Yale deserves to be there” and that development kids comprise just four or five members of each class. But Yale relies on donations, the former officer said, and admitting students who are more likely to contribute or have their families contribute is essential to the University’s livelihood.
“To a certain extent, I understand the need to maintain a healthy relationship with big donors — we need to do that,” the former officer said.
A national debate
No matter how dependant a university may be on financial contributions from legacies, the practice of legacy admissions is still a topic of contention across the nation.
In August 2004, Bush publicly denounced the policy of favoring legacies in the admissions process. Speaking to a group of journalists at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in New Hampshire, he instead advocated a system that admits students based solely on their achievements. Bush, himself a third generation Yalie, admitted that his legacy status probably contributed to his admission to Yale.
Bush’s remarks were preceded by a 2003 Senate proposal, introduced by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, to require colleges and universities to publicize whether they use legacy status in determining admissions. The proposal also said that universities would have to disclose how many students were admitted partly due to an alumnus in the family. Two weeks after Kennedy’s proposal, Senate Democrats introduced a bill based on Kennedy’s proposal.
But whether the federal government should have a say in the admissions process is a concern to some of the leading academic institutions in the country.
Although the Association of American Universities has not taken an official stance on legacy admissions, director of communications and public affairs Barry Toiv said the issue is a serious one.
“We are very concerned about any efforts by the federal government to dictate policy in this area, and to tell the universities what they can and cannot do with respect to admissions,” Toiv said.
Some universities have already stopped using legacy as a factor in the admissions process. In a Jan. 9, 2004, statement, the president of Texas A&M University, Dr. Robert M. Gates, officially stated that legacies would no longer be awarded points in the admissions process for being a legacy.
Eli by right, not just birth
Although legacies may have a statistically better chance of getting into Yale, other challenges await them after they are admitted. Many legacies say that proving they deserve to be here is half the battle.
“As a legacy student, you have to be confident enough to feel that you belong at Yale,” said Max Engel ’06, whose father graduated from Yale College.
Shaw said there may be added pressures on a legacy student to perform well because some members of the Yale community may feel that legacies do not deserve to be an Eli.
“There are many misconceptions about legacy admissions,” he said. “One of the most common misconceptions is legacy applicants are unqualified. Sons and daughters of Yale college graduates are very qualified.”
Legacies often know how to play the admissions game well, though, and many, like Ryan Sahn ’08, use their legacy status as a strategic advantage over competition. Sahn, whose mother and grandfather are Yale alumni, applied early to Yale. Sahn said he would not have applied early decision to Yale were it not for his legacy status.
After being deferred, Sahn was admitted regular decision and ended up choosing between Yale and Harvard. Yale won out in the end, in part because of a tremendous push on the part of his family.
“I almost always say that I decided between the two schools so I don’t come across like someone who didn’t deserve to get in [to Yale],” Sahn said. “When people think of a legacy who was deferred, they think I must be really dumb.”
Unlike Sahn, Engel said he felt no pressure from his family to carry on the Yale tradition. But now that he is here, his father’s love for Yale has been rekindled.
“I definitely think it’s brought back a lot of nostalgia,” he said. “I certainly think that’s something that’s very special for both of us — a shared experience. It’s rare to cross generations.”
Brenzel agreed that having a child at Yale often brings back fond memories for alumni.
“There’s no question that from the parent’s point of view, if you have a son or daughter come to Yale, it certainly increases your own personal connection and personal ties,” he said. “You end up coming back to campus a lot, and you get a second go-around at Yale.”
But Sahn pointed to a different motivation for staying involved as an alum.
“I probably would continue to [be involved in Yale after I graduate] if only because I’d probably want my kids to go,” Sahn said. “Even if I don’t like it, I’ll probably be like well, my kids have a good shot, so why not.”