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*#$&@ Princeton!

Hell Hath No Fury Like Alumni Scorned.
Here's What Happens When Mom & Dad Can't Get the Kid Into the Old Alma Mater

By Nancy Doyle Palmer
Washingtonian Magazine March 2004

This story happened to me. Or rather, to my husband and me. Or actually- and this is the point of the story-it happened to our daughter Molly.

My husband, John Palmer, studied political science and broadcasting at Northwestern University and spent more than 35 years at NBC News as a correspondent and anchor. He went to Northwestern reunions, spoke at the school, and gave money.

As a senior at DC's Maret School, Molly applied early decision to Northwestern. She didn't have top grades or scores, but we-meaning John and I-thought she had a real shot at it. So she visited campus with us, interviewed, and suffered through countless chats with alumni.

I'll never forget the day the thin envelope arrived from Northwestern. Molly called as I was driving on Connecticut Avenue near the Uptown movie theater. She was crying like she did as a child when she cut her hand deeply, the sobs coming so hard she could barely breathe. What made it doubly painful for me was the fact that John and I had done this to her.

John seethed. The university had warned him that there was a firewall between alumni relations and admissions. When he got the first donation solicitation after Molly's rejection, he sent back a terse note saying, "While I respect the admissions policy, hence forth there will be a firewall between my wallet and the university." It was at least a year before he stopped hurling Northwestern mail into the trash, another year before he starting opening it.

Molly just felt bad. During her visits to the school with John, people had gushed over her. Students she met there had rolled their eyes when she worried about her chances of getting in. She had nothing to worry about, they'd said.

How colleges handle children of alumni-legacies, as they're called-is a hot-button issue, especially in Washington, where who you are and whom you know seem to carry more weight than in most places. Critics call preferential treatment for legacies "affirmative action for the wealthy" and predict a rash of court cases will follow the recent challenge to the University of Michigan's racial preferences. Senators John Edwards (a graduate of North Carolina State) and Ted Kennedy (a Harvard alum) have moved to end legacy preference, with Edwards making the attack a plank in his presidential bid.

"There is no royalty in America," Edwards says. "People who mow the lawn or change the sheets deserve as much respect and as much opportunity as the most powerful people in the country."

The preference shown children of alumni takes subtle form. Application files of legacies typically get what admissions officials call a "full read." If all goes well, a student's bloodline connection to the school gives him or her the coveted "tip" or "boost" for admission.

WashingtonianMost colleges encourage legacy admissions because it keeps check-writing graduates happy. U.S. News's college guide factors alumni giving into its rankings; the more grads who give, the higher a school's rating.

Many colleges can't afford to alienate alumni donors. At the University of Virginia, roughly half of legacies are admitted, according to admissions dean Jack Blackburn: "If it weren't for the private support we get, we wouldn't be doing the good things we're doing at UVa."

The Wall Street Journal recently put a statistical face on alumni clout in admissions. Children of graduates make up 10 to 15 percent of incoming classes at most Ivy League schools, according to the Journal. Harvard accepts 40 percent and Princeton accepts 35 percent of legacies but only 11 percent of all applicants. The University of Pennsylvania rakes 41 percent of legacy applicants yet only 21 percent overall. At Notre Dame, nearly a quarter of students are children of graduates.

To alumni parents, these numbers are comforting-until you see the flip side and realize that schools typically reject more than half of legacies. Molly is in good company. And the number of alumni children singing the blues seems to be growing. It used to be that a well-placed call or visit guaranteed admission for the offspring of highly regarded alumni. Nowadays the prevailing wisdom is that unless you arc truly qualified to be admitted, being a legacy-even one with connections-won't do it.

As an admissions officer at Harvard puts it: "Legacy can cure the sick, but it can't raise the dead."

Martin Wilder, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says an explosive growth in applications has made it hard for anyone to get into top schools. The children of alums are guaranteed a close look, he says, but little else: "The legacy factor may not be enough of a tip factor to push a student into the admit group."

Leonard King, Maret's director of college counseling, says alumni parents still have clout-if they're connected to the school. "Legacy is still definitely an advantage in every school I know of," he says. "But I would qualify it by saying the parent needs to have been a certain kind of alumni." When legacy comes into play, colleges look at an alum's giving, service on boards and committees, guest lectures, and work for the admissions office and career-placement staff.

At Ivy League schools, "legacy admissions have been under attack in recent years," says Lawrence Lamphere, a former Cornell admissions official and a principal at IvySuccess, a company of former Ivy admission officers and graduates who advise students applying to top schools. The Ivies have noted the public outcry over preferences in admissions, Lamphere says, and they're so popular and their endowments so big that they can brush off large numbers of alumni kids with little fear of repercussion.

Some parents in Washington can't -or won't-face up to this new attitude in college admissions offices. "It's natural for parents to want what they consider 'the best' for their kids; it's their last chance to be involved," says Roland Allen, director of college counseling at Sidwell Friends. "They can't really help pick the job or the spouse."

Tish Peterson, director of college counseling at Holton-Arms, says, "Sometimes the parents are overconfident about the weight their alumni status brings to the application-particularly parents in DC, where they are more conscious of the importance of networking and building relationships."

An admissions officer at one top school puts it more bluntly: "These people think it's their birthright." Shelley Brodv, who works with King at Maret, once had a student with a 2.4 grade-point average apply to Harvard at the urging of his father, an alumnus. Brody told them the application was a waste of time, but the father ignored her warning. "He said, 'I know a lot of people.' I said, 'Have you built a building?'

The boy didn't get in.

Landon's director of college counseling, Jamie Kirkpatrick, says the veterans of Washington politics are often accustomed to using their influence to pressure decision-makers. "This is not an effective technique" in college admissions, Kirkpatrick says. "In fact, it's counter-effective."

Eleanor Terry, a top student at Maret, applied to Yale with some confidence. Her father was an alum of the class of 1968 and a two-sport letterman. On family trips as a child, she had picnicked on the campus and walked the grounds, listening to tales of her father's college days. Two of her three sisters had attended Yale, so it seemed natural that she would go.

"Mostly I thought of Yale when I pictured 'college' in my mind," she says.

When Yale rejected Terry, she was hurt. She had bought into the aura of Yale as home of the best and the brightest. Her sister and father had been deemed worthy, she felt, but she had not.

"It was clear to me that the were better than me for some reason," she says.

Such a reaction is typical. "Both the parent and the kid feel total rejection," says Maret's Brodv, "but the kid also feels that he or she let the parent down: 'I wasn't as good as you.'"

One thing the kids don't want to do throughout this process is disappoint their parents, and that's a lot of pressure," says Fran Lapidus, an associate director of admissions at Williams College.

Parents in turn worry that they've let their children down. "My dad felt helpless, as if it was his responsibility to get me in after hyping it up all these years," Terry says.

Brody adds: "The parent also feels: 'If I were a better alum, this wouldn't have happened."

Williams, Washington and Lee, and other colleges try to soften the blow by calling or writing before the rejection arrives. UVa used to do such damage control but stopped. "It's not fair that we do it for some kids and not others," says Blackburn. "The student should be the one to hear, not the parent."

Ivy League schools in recent years appear to be accepting more legacies on the condition that they defer for a year, says IvySuccess's Lamphere. But they don't always try to mend bridges with alums whose children have been spurned. After one Princeton legacy was rejected, his mother wrote a thoughtful letter to the school noting the many Princeton connections in her family tree. She never got a response.

Colleges that reject qualified legacies arc taking a "calculated risk," says Brody. "When you reject good kids with powerful parents who are alumni," she says, "it creates ill will. These are powerful people, and admissions people don't know how powerful. They'll talk and spread it around when they're so devastated."

Duke stirred the anger of a graduate when it misspelled her child's name-and her name-in the rejection letter. Her son was a top student in a Montgomery County school. "I was so bitter about it," she says. "I had real sentimental attachment to Duke, real nostalgic feelings. I still stay in touch with all these professors; it was like family.

"All these schools-Duke, Georgetown, Washington University, all of them-this whole success thing has gone to their heads. I don't know who they think they are."

Eventually she realized she was a small fish in Duke's pool of graduates. "They need an alum like me who gives $100 a year like a hole in the head," she says. Friends told her she should have networked with Duke trustees and alumni-a strategy she initially considered "beneath me.

"But then I find out everyone does it."

Other parents are more sanguine. "For a while it really does sour you," says a Princeton alum who saw not one but two sons turned down by her alma mater. "But I think it's just the way college admissions are right now.

"We don't feel the same about Princeton anymore; our kids were not shoo-ins, but I thought they had a good chance."

And where will her other two high school-age boys apply? "We're going to be much more hard-boiled about it," she says. "Princeton won't be on the list."

What are the lessons to be learned?

Holton-Arms's Tish Peterson suggests parents should recognize that a rejection can build character. "If you get a student who has been lucky enough to have never faced any kind of adversity, who has been in a perfect little world, gone to the perfect high school, and has the perfect family but then does not get into the perfect college," she says, "well, that's a good wake-up call and will allow that student to grow in ways that were unexpected."

College counselors also suggest that alumni take to heart the golden rule of college admissions: It's your kid's choice. "Separating from your kids in this process is called good parenting," says Marjo Talbott, head of Maret. "It's not easy."

The legacy sometimes may be trying to please mom or dad with his application to the alma mater. "I don't think he was hurt" by the rejection, says the Duke mother of her son. "He finally admitted to me that if he'd been admitted, he would have gone only because it meant a lot to me. He wasn't particularly impressed with the place."

Even legacies who get accepted may find it a mixed blessing, says Deborah Perlman, a former therapist at Georgetown University who was a legacy admission at Princeton. The university's alumni weekly recently ran a letter from her and her father-also a legacy there-proposing to end the preference.

"For some kids, it undermines their confidence," she says. "They feel they wouldn't have gotten in without that boost, and they feel an extra pressure to succeed. It's a lot of extra meaning that doesn't need to be there."

Says Williams' Fran Lapidus, "Let's empower our children to make this important decision. They have earned the right to do that."

After her rejection from Yale, Eleanor Terry enrolled at Wesleyan in Connecticut, where she's in her third year.

"When I got here, I felt comfortable and calm," she says. "I cannot explain it, but it just felt right. I had thought it would be neat to connect with my family by comparing stories about Yale. But it turns out that what is even better is introducing them to my school.

"Everything about this school and what I do here is my doing; my successes are my own," Our daughter Molly tells a similar story. She says Northwestern's snub cut us more deeply than it did her; she moved on quickly with the admissions process. "At the end, I was left with two wonderful choices-two schools that had accepted me because of who I was and the academic success that I achieved on my own in high school."

She's now a junior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina: "I do extremely well in school, and I feel like an accomplished and successful person because of what I have done for myself"

Last spring John visited Charleston and spoke to students and professors about his career. Some of Molly's friends wondered why she had come to Charleston; such an accomplished father, they told her, surely could have landed you a spot anywhere, especially Northwestern.

"My father and I both laughed," Molly says, "because neither of us could be any happier with where I am now-in school and as a person."

That's Molly's legacy.