On ‘Being a Cornell Legacy’

Well, here’s something that I haven’t mentioned on this blog yet:

I am a legacy at Cornell. Yep, both of my parents went (and met!) here, my grandfather attended, and various aunts/uncles in my family have graduated from this fine institution as well. In part because of numerous debate and literature in recent years on the notion of legacy status in admissions, and the fact that legacies make up 15% of the Cornell student population, I feel inclined to share my perspective. Take it for what you will…

First off, I’m not going to disagree that legacies sometimes get a conferred advantage in the admissions process, because, well…that wouldn’t be true. As The Sun reported, “when two applicants are of roughly equal qualifications, children of alumni will receive additional consideration.”

Okay, you say, but any advantage, even slight, given to legacies is treasonous / horrible / affirmative action for the rich / [insert slander here]. But here’s my philosophy, given my life experiences…

I think it’s safe to say that college admissions, generally, are not a purely academic meritocracy–and never have been. This is particularly true at Cornell, with its “any person, any study” motto guiding the university’s actions since 1865. Instead, I believe Cornell admits people based on the value they bring to the university. How would I surmise this?

Well, if Cornell wanted to rank applicants based on their GPA’s and SAT scores, then admit from the top of the pile until they had a full class, they could do that–easily–and generate sky-high metrics that would make the US News-loving populace envious. But they don’t, and choose instead to select a class that brings a breadth of experiences to the collegiate community.

For example, Cornell athletes that are recruited show determination, work ethic, and teamwork…and this benefits the university through our vibrant sports programs and school pride. (Indeed, given these traits, its no wonder so many of them excel in classes.) Successful Cornell applicants from under-achieving communities with slightly lower SAT scores also bring an incredibly unique perspective to campus–and their admission means they obviously have a great deal of aptitude and potential. Underrepresented minority students also contribute to the campus, besides their academic prowess, by creating a diverse, heterogeneous community.

So how does this apply to legacy admissions?

First, here’s some background on me:

I remember that when I was young, I spent a decent amount of time playing and wading around the beautiful gorges of Ithaca–with the campus in the backdrop–while attending my parents’ Cornell reunions. This instilled in me a sense of pride and jubilation for the University at a very early age, as I had already felt a member of the ‘community.’ I also remember climbing the Lindseth rock wall during their reunions, as well, and watching them joyfully reconnect with old classmates and relive their Cornell years. Before many applicants my age had likely heard of Cornell, I had been made aware of Professor Maas’ legendary PSYCH 1101 class, or the infamous wines course experience. I knew how to get from North Campus to West, had already heard Skorton speak at an alumni event, and had worn many-a Cornell piece of apparel growing up.

I recall that my grandfather always used to talk with pride, and joke heavily, about the University, too; he once told an elderly acquaintance who introduced himself as a Columbia man “that he’s sorry he couldn’t get into Cornell.” Simply put, in my earlier years, Cornell didn’t permeate my life…but it didn’t comprise an insignificant role in it, either.

So how does this apply to legacies? Well, I do think that there’s value in the fact that I am a teaching assistant for a course that my mom took 35 years ago, and that from my freshman year dorm, I can point to where she lived her freshman year. Or that my dad took the same accounting course I did, ~38 years prior. Or that both my grandpa and dad have both told me about their college experiences at the old Chapter House bar. Or that when they come to campus, I can point at the house where my parents met at a party. These experiences provide a sense of unity and cohesiveness not just to us, but–on a larger scale, considering how many Cornell families there are–Cornell as an institution.

Above all, in a relatively transient campus with an undergraduate population that changes 100% entirely every 4-5 years, I honestly believe that legacy admissions help to further foster the notion of a lasting ‘Cornell community.’ (Okay, fine, and alumni donations don’t hurt, either.) Plus, I’ve heard about many legacies that were not accepted despite their connections…so I would argue any preferential treatment is small at most.

I welcome your thoughts, as always!

6 thoughts on “On ‘Being a Cornell Legacy’

  1. Jennifer cunningham

    This is a fantastic post! I related to so many of your points about where mom and dad met, etc. I now work for the university and actually manage the Cornell Alumni Association, which my Dad was president of when I was a kid! Thank you for writing this.

  2. Sonny Forest

    Hi there! My friend and I came across your blog two days ago, and we love it! We both are freshmen in high school, and want to go to Cornell. We were just wondering, what extracurriculars did you participate in that you think were most noticed by the admissions officers? Thank you in advance! ~Class of 2021!

  3. Anne

    Sonny, errr, try reading the About Me section. Also, don’t try to worry about someone else’s ECs, what you find meaningful, intriguing and worthwhile is what it’s all about.

  4. Observer

    Interesting tidbit. Colleges used to admit students based heavily upon on scores and grades. But, they stopped this practice in the early 1900’s as a way to stop the increasing number of Jewish kids getting in. They used the reason that you’re using above – it’s better to admit a range of students, some who have something “more”.

  5. David

    I graduated from Cornell, but my daughter just turned down her admission and will be attending Bowdoin. I fully endorsed her decision. It was a daunting place to navigate when I attended and it’s only grown larger. We came to the admitted student Cornell Days and felt treated like a number. They didn’t have a host for her to stay with, but had neglected to tell us this so we could come on another day. When we asked the woman checking in overnight guests if our daughter could be put on a waiting list in the event someone else canceled, we were told flatly that “waiting lists are against Cornell’s policy.” In other words, they’re not willing to go out of their way for anyone. Bowdoin gave us free meals; Cornell gave us 15% off coupons. I had a positive experience at Cornell, but it’s probably a better graduate than undergraduate experience.

  6. Kara'91

    I’m a third generation legacy – and while perhaps it helped in my admissions, I was also accepted to Stanford and Princeton. My grandfather was Architecture, my dad Engineering, and I am Arts. My father gave me a campus tour his way: he’d would to a building – “Lincoln Hall. That was Math when I was here. Don’t know what it is now.” I’d roll my eyes (I was 16) but it was still funny. Later, as a student, it was amazing to walk by Anabel Taylor where my parents were married, see Sage Hall where he lived for two years, to sing the old songs we both knew, to think of my big dad wearing a freshman beanie.

    The greatest moment for me, though, was graduation. My mom died shortly after I first came to the Hill; my dad was all I had, and we’d had tough times. After the ceremony, I ran over to where he was seated, climbed up into the stadium seats in my dress and gown. I croaked out – Dad, I did it. I’m a Cornellian now – and tears streamed down our faces as I threw myself into his arms. In later years, he was there for my graduate degrees, but those ceremonies were nothing like that beautiful Ithaca day. We didn’t talk much those days; he’d long struggled how to deal with a teenaged daughter. But we could always – ALWAYS – talk about Cornell.

    Now my dad is gone, and I’m the mother of two teenagers, one who is just starting to think about college. I don’t want to pressure them. I want them to choose the right school for them, like I did. But in my heart of hearts, I hope they choose our fair Cornell. Or at the least, not Harvard or Yale!

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