Maximizing the Rewards

One of the least-often talked-about and most-often speculated-about areas of admissions is the need to reward benefactors of the school. It is commonly believed that many students are admitted because they pulled strings. This is rarely true in great numbers at the law school level. Yet at the undergraduate level, many more seats than I had imagined are given as rewards to beneficiaries of various sorts.

The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, by Daniel Golden, Crown Publishers, (Random House), New York 2006, didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.  The children of politicos, celebrities, alumni donors and potential alumni donors get into college with far lower GPAs and SAT scores than do typical applicants.  

What I didn't know was the enormity of the preference.  

So here's some data, straight from the book:

  • At Notre Dame, more than twenty percent of the entering class are "legacies" - children of alumni.
  • Legacy admits often have SAT scores 100 points below the school's median.  When the number of legacy admits is large, the average applicant may need an SAT score 50 points higher than the published-but-inaccurate median.
  • Contrary to popular perception, the vast majority of athletic scholarship money goes to white people.  
    • Football and basketball scholarships are offset by scholarships in squash, sailing, skiing, crew, water polo, fencing, horseback riding, lacrosse, etc. etc. 78.8 % of women who play water polo are white.  That's the lowest percentage of whites reported in any of the above sports.  The highest is horseback riding, in which 92.8% of the women are white.  
    • A study of 19 top colleges found that only 6% of recruited athletes came from the poorest one-fourth of American families, while 26% came from families with an annual income of over $200,000.  
  • Harvard University accepts 1/3 of alumni children that apply, nearly four times its overall admission rate.  Legacies constitute 13% of the undergraduate student body.  
  • Each year, Duke University accepts at least 100 children of wealthy families with no connection to the University, hoping that they will become donors in the future.  100 may not seem like a lot, but it's 2% of the entering class.  When added to the legacies, athletes, etc., it becomes part of the burden against the average applicant.  
  • The biggest losers in this game are, as always, Asians.  
    • The book identifies one young man with an SAT score of 1560, and similar scores on his achievement tests.  He was rejected at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Stanford, and MIT.
    •  Another young Korean applicant with a 1500 SAT score was rejected by UCLA despite their allegedly color-blind admissions policy.  
    • Comments from admissions officers who rejected these applicants and others like them are that he probably looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of grades and activities.

 In my own experience, every school admits a large number of applicants with similarly high numbers and activities; they call them presumptive admits.

Can Influential People Ever Help You?

It is possible, but not very likely.  Think about it: a law school such as Penn has 250 seats or so in its entering class; it has perhaps 8,000 living graduates. The numbers above indicate that a parent who is a graduate just can't be worth much.  Judges and Board members come in more finite numbers, however, so it is at least mathematically possible for the school to consider their influence when making a decision about a discretionary applicant.

My guess is that when the school either actually owes them a favor or holds them in such esteem that it wants to reflect its admiration, their recommendation can be helpful. Otherwise, the school just can't afford to give a seat to every child of an influential person. And if influential parents are not sufficient, how much can it matter that your next-door-neighbor's cousin is a judge who will write you a recommendation?

What if I'm in the presumptive deny range?

If the student's numbers are in the presumptive deny range, no amount of "pull" can help. But there is an outside chance that money can. The only influential person who may be able to get a presumptive deny applicant admitted is the Major Alumni Donor. (By "major," I mean someone who has given a lot of money -- $50,000 or more at a state school,. $100,000 or more at a private school.)  But, as one admissions officer pointed out to me, don't rely on a deceased relative's bequest. As she said, "Once he's dead, he can't give us anything else."

Bad and Good Advice

If an advisor tells you that a family member who graduated from a school is worth something in the admissions process without learning the exact circumstance of the relative's relationship to the school, you're getting bad advice.  If (s)he tells you that a recommendation from a politician for whom you interned is worth much, you're getting bad advice.  

Once in a great while I agree that a recommender's influence might be worth something, but i never count on it. More often, I advise the client that a solid academic rec will be of more value in the file.


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