Will Legacy Ties Help at Michigan When Grades are Too Low?

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My parents, two of my sisters and all of my grandparents went to the University of Michigan. My counselor tells me that I won't be able to get in there based on my grades, but everyone I know keeps telling me I have an advantage as a legacy. My counselor says this is not the case like it used to be. Which is true? Am I at an advantage or not?

“The Dean" must side with your counselor on this one, although the grapevine isn't entirely off target either. University of Michigan does practice “holistic" admission, meaning that a range of factors —including legacy ties — are considered when decisions are made.

However — as your counselor explained — legacy connections don't carry the clout that they did years ago, and U. of Michigan is very selective, accepting only about a quarter of all applicants and turning away many highly able contenders. So the legacy “hook" usually kicks in only when a candidate is fully qualified. Because Michigan doesn't have room for all of the top students who apply, a strong legacy applicant may get good news when a comparable non-legacy doesn't.

But ... if your counselor has told you that your grades are below the median at Michigan (and if you've looked online to confirm this), then your Michigan ties won't help you, unless your alumni-relatives are atypically prominent ... and generous. Is there a gym named for your grandpa or a library for your mom? Has anyone on your family tree given megabucks to Michigan (we're talking millions, not thousands)? Are some of these folks extremely active in alumni organizations? If so, then it's possible that the admission folks will give you some wiggle room for your sub-par transcript.

If Michigan is your dream college, you should certainly go ahead and give it a shot. If you will be a senior in the fall and have elected rigorous classes, and if you start the school year with a bang, your odds may be a tad better than your counselor says they are right now. (Of course, “The Dean" can't really predict this without seeing your entire record, including test scores, activities, etc.) Yet you should still approach Michigan as a “Reach" or even a “High Reach" and steel yourself for disappointment.

And here's a final slice of advice: A few years ago I knew a high school senior who was also a Michigan legacy and very much wanted to go there, but she realized that her chances were slim. So she applied to Indiana University in Bloomington, where more than three-quarters of all candidates are accepted and where 57 percent of these students have a GPA of 3.75 or above ... as opposed to 81 percent in that range at U. of M.

This young woman reasoned that Indiana and Michigan have many similarities. Both are very large schools that offer a rah-rah Big Ten experience, which she wanted, along with lots of academic options and a lively college town. She did enroll at Indiana and loved it, and instead of feeling that she was left out of a family tradition, she seemed actually excited to have discovered a place of her “own."

So as you craft your college list, don't eliminate the Wolverines entirely, but do keep an open mind as you explore other options — places where you will be welcomed and where, perhaps, you can begin to build a new legacy for future generations.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at