Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
An Anecdote on Legacy Admissions and Learning
Mr. Harr looked at my transcript. “These are borderline grades, Hugo. The Cs in math and science might be a problem.”
Mr. Harr was my high school counselor. It was September 1984, the first week of my senior year, and we were meeting to discuss where I should apply to college. I had told him I was leaning towards Berkeley, or “Cal” as we all called it.
“Where did your parents go?” This was always one of Mr. Harr’s first questions.
I told him both my parents had PhDs from Berkeley. “A lot of my family went to Cal.”
I thought for a moment. “Two of my great-grandfathers, my mother’s parents, a lot of cousins. Just lots.”
Mr. Harr smiled brightly. “In your personal statement, talk about Berkeley as a family tradition. I can’t guarantee that will make up for your GPA, but they do take this sort of thing into account. Good luck.”
I applied to exactly one college. I sent in my application to Berkeley the week before Thanksgiving, the essay written as Mr. Harr had suggested. I got an acceptance letter on December 7. None of my high school classmates who got into Cal received their letters before Christmas.
My mother got her own letter the next week, this one saying that the university was so grateful that some families "entrusted generation after generation of young people" to Berkeley. This second letter came from a gifts officer at Cal, with an invitation to "call anytime."
Berkeley claims they no longer offer legacy admissions. A 2017 article in the Daily Cal notes that the practice is now banned, but that “several decades ago, (the admissions office) used to consider legacy status as part of its application.” I don’t know when precisely legacy status ceased to be a factor at Berkeley, but I’m confident it was after 1984!
A second story:
When I was in graduate school at UCLA, our professors ranked us in terms of how deserving we were for fellowships and funding. I wasn't supposed to see a copy of the rankings list, but one day, thanks to Professor Benson’s carelessness with the papers on his desk, I did.
I remember being proud that I ranked third out of 14 medievalists on the PhD track. I remember being (naturally) obsessed with the two grad students who ranked ahead of me. The student who ranked second had gone to Yale. The top student in our department – then ranked the 7th best history grad program in the USA -- had earned her B.A. from Sacramento State. Amy was a single mother who had started at a community college, transferred to Sac State after two years, and was on her way to becoming a renowned expert on how medieval poets wrote about the Investiture Controversy.
Since leaving academia a decade ago, and stumbling through many attempts to launch and sustain a career, I have met a great many people who prove to me the “Amy” lesson. Time and again, I meet graduates of less prestigious universities (or people who never went to college) whose social graces and professional accomplishments are on par with (or far exceed) those who went to Berkeley, Stanford, or the Ivies. In my own large California family, many of those who did not go to Berkeley went to Chico State – an infamous “party school,” but also a wonderful institution in its own right. Looking at the life arcs of those who went to Berkeley and those who went to Chico, it is quite clear that the former do not enjoy any particular advantage. I will be very happy if my children go to Chico, or someplace like it, or no college at all.
When my grandfather went to Berkeley, he and his Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers were regularly reminded that it was perfectly acceptable to earn a “Gentleman’s C.” One was welcome to develop a passion for Attic Greek or astronomy, but a focus on grades was “trying too hard.” In that era, the fortunate were reminded that their success was not contingent upon their intellectual achievements, but upon their social connections. That’s obviously a byproduct of unmerited privilege, but there’s an enduring truth to it as well that applies far beyond the WASP upper middle-class.
I do not push my children to get top grades. I certainly do not push them to dream of Harvard, Berkeley, or Vassar (where my mother went to college). I do encourage them to do their best. What I push most, to the extent that I push anything, is the development of social skills. I don’t just mean politeness, though that is always welcome. I mean the ability to engage with all sorts of people. Curiosity, kindness, and social adroitness are not just markers of being “well-brought-up,” they are foundations for success in a very uncertain and unstable world. Combine those with a strong work ethic (which is not the same as grade-grubbing), and you’ve got as good a recipe for success as any I now.
Ten years ago, I blew my life up. I burned bridges by the dozen. I built a new life through hard work, through grace, through the love of others – but I also rebuilt it by returning to the basic principles I had been taught as a boy. Be kind, be generous, and do things for others before they ask you to do them. Be curious, be affable, and when you meet in person, try to be well-groomed and well-spoken. Whatever success I have had in rebuilding my life these past 10 years is not a consequence of having degrees from Berkeley and UCLA. It’s a consequence of relying on manners.
There are wonderful things to be learned at Harvard, Berkeley, Chapel Hill, and Wellesley. There are wonderful things to be learned at Chico, at Sul Ross State, at Pasadena City College, at College of the Ozarks. What matters most isn’t where you went, or even what you studied -- but who you met, what their friendship taught you, and how you made them feel.