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Legacy admissions are another type of preferential admissions — and it isn’t all bad

Wendy Li P-Rade_2-6
Wendy Li P-Rade_2-6

One of my earliest memories of Princeton is a talk about legacy admissions during orientation. My RCA asked my zee group about our thoughts on legacies, and several people expressed what seemed to be the prevailing opinion: legacy admissions are unfair and take away opportunities from more deserving students. They said those things perhaps not knowing that four of the people in the room with us were legacy students. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve heard people say “I hate legacies” or generalize about how “legacies are so spoiled” — however, I’ve found that some of the most passionate and dedicated people around me are, in fact, legacy students. The fact of the matter is that the admissions process is always unfair, and there is an implication that unfair is equal to unjustified or unworthy. But there are many types of preferential admissions, from athletic to regional, and examining these cases shows us that “unfair” is not necessarily bad — preferential admissions, including legacy admissions, are necessary to create a diverse class and campus.

Preferential admissions of all types help achieve the goal of a diverse student body. Although the primary issue with diversity is still the underrepresentation of certain racial minorities, that doesn’t preclude other types of preferential admissions from contributing to diversity on campus. Princeton’s page on “Our Commitment to Diversity” writes that “Princeton students should live and learn in an environment that reflects U.S. society and introduces them to the world beyond.” That means an environment with students from different racial backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, and with different sexualities, among other things. It can also mean legacies. The U.S. college system is, at times notoriously, holistic. So it should not come as a surprise when factors other than academic merit play into someone’s admission.


In order to fulfill all the needs of a school like Princeton, there needs to be all sorts of preferential admissions, even ones that some might take issue with. Take athletic recruiting — in a technical sense, it is an unfair advantage in admissions, because it’s not related to academic criteria. But as much as Princeton remains an academic environment, sports, too, are an integral part of the University’s culture and entertainment. The University community, from alumni to administration to students, values having winning, competitive sports teams. It’s rather clear that we haven’t, and won’t any time soon, given that up in favor of more technically “equitable” admissions. 

Another example of preferential admissions is the University’s consideration of the optional Arts Supplement. The optional supplement allows applicants to submit samples of “architecture, creative writing, dance, music, music theater, theater or visual arts.” There is a preference — at the very least extra attention — given to students who demonstrate artistic talents beyond academic merit, never mind that this may implicitly favor students from a wealthier socioeconomic background. Students from better-funded high schools or with the means to receive outside training have more opportunities to develop many of the skills that Princeton’s Arts Supplement considers. Nevertheless, the University values the creativity and the variety in the talents that are demonstrated through the Arts Supplement, and this ultimately contributes to the diversity of a class.

Legacy admissions are just another type of preferential admissions, like athletic and arts preferences. Legacy admissions too have a good reason for existing: they play a role in fostering the intergenerational community Princeton values so strongly. From the large alumni gatherings to eating club reunions, an intergenerational community creates a strong sense of connectedness to a community that, at many other universities, is limited to the four years people spend on campus. Legacy admissions also incentivize the continued support of alumni for the University. Say an alumnus was donating to the University regularly, out of a sense of loyalty, nostalgia, or otherwise. It’s not unnatural that if their kid, especially when they’re well-qualified, is denied admission, those donations might stop. When all other aspects are held equal, it can be more worthwhile for the University to accept a child of an alum, for the sake of maintaining connections to donors and alumni.

Moreover, legacy admissions contribute to maintaining the tradition and culture of Princeton. Much has changed since the founding of the University, and most of it for the better, but there is still value in carrying forward remnants of the original culture and mission of one of the oldest institutions in the United States. Just like it’s valuable for a school to have star athletes and Olympiad winners, it can also be worthwhile for it to have some legacy students. Legacies generally come in knowing more about the University, presumably having grown up around family stories about and even visits to Princeton. In fact, they likely applied knowing better than others precisely why they wanted to go here, and how they would contribute to the community. It’s important to have students with some familiarity and connection to the University, so that traditions can be carried on and shared.

The advantages to being a legacy are indeed unfair. After all, although legacies can contribute something unique to the community, legacy preference isn’t based on prior academic merit.  But that is not all that matters in admissions. Everyone who was admitted had some reason that made the University want them to attend. It could be the unique experiences from living overseas or for the character developed by overcoming the challenges of growing up in a low-income household; it could be an opportunity gained by some combination of skill and luck in high school, or an aspect of identity that cannot be changed. We don’t choose many of the circumstances that impact our lives, including whether we were born to parents who graduated from here. Regardless of its stance on legacy admissions, Princeton has pledged that it won’t lose sight of its efforts to increase diversity in the ways that matter. So we don’t need to discredit legacies on the sole basis that they are the children of alumni. Legacy status is just another type of preferential admissions — and it’s more useful for us to acknowledge it in that context, as part of the aim to build a diverse class, and to recognize what good legacy admissions can bring to our community.

Sarah Park is a contributing columnist for the ‘Prince’ and a first-year intending to pursue a major in Comparative Literature. She is from Manila, Philippines, and can be reached at


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