Hell Hath No Fury Like Alumni
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
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.
Most 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.