Top Buzzwords In College Admissions: What Do They Mean?

Amanda Orbuch
Amanda Orbuch

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Legacy. Demonstrated interest. Grit. In the process of applying to colleges, you will almost certainly come across one or more of these terms. You might have a sense of the definitions of these words; but, to colleges, they often hold a different or more specific meaning. Keep reading to find out what these buzzwords (and others) mean in college admissions!

Buzzword 1: Legacy

“Legacy status” means that the applicant has had a relative, particularly a parent (though it can also apply to varying degrees to siblings and other relatives) attend the school to which they are applying. Legacy status, for some schools, has some bearing on whether or not a given applicant is admitted. Most schools will describe their use of legacy as marginal, a way of arbitrating decisions between otherwise equal applicants.


That being said, while none of the top 50 universities rank legacy as “very important,” the impact of legacy status seems far greater than marginal3. In fact, a 2011 study that looked at 30 “highly selective colleges” found that legacy students have, on average, a 23.3% higher chance of getting in than other otherwise equal applicants. When the legacy status stems from a parent who attended, that number jumps to a 45.1% increase. Among schools with acceptance rates under 10%, that is, very elite universities, the primary legacy (that is, parental attendance) advantage is a 51.6% increase in odds of being accepted.1


Here is a table with some data on self-reported legacy admission rates.


Legacy Admission Rate

General Admission Rate










Need help interpreting this data? Reach out to work with a counselor to understand your best strategy and receive guidance from a pro!


Buzzword 2: Demonstrated Interest

Broadly speaking, demonstrated interest is showing a college that you truly intend to, or are very strongly inclined to, attend their institution. When colleges decide on applicants, they consider more than just who is the most qualified. They try to discern, based on the application, which students will actually attend, because they need a high enough yield to fill their freshman class.

In light of this, many schools give students opportunities to “demonstrate” their interest in attending. For students, this could hypothetically tip the scales of acceptance in their favor. For universities, it helps to have a fair degree of certainty that the given student will attend. This leaves us with two questions. What exactly does demonstrated interest look like? Moreover, how much does it help?

Your Next Steps:
As for the first question,

Most schools offer campus tours. Some schools track attendance of these campus tours, allowing you to put your name on a list so that admissions officers know you attended. Making the trip to visit a school tends to show that an applicant is strongly considering attending. Similarly, attending a “college fair or admissions presentation” at your high school is a strong alternative to an official visit. At both of these events, there may very well be somewhere for you to sign up or mark your name so admissions officers know that you attended.


Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) applications are another way to demonstrate interest to a school, but ED should only be pursued if the applicant is absolutely certain about attending, since a financial commitment is entailed. 


If colleges offer optional interviews, the applicant looking to demonstrate their interest will almost certainly accept this offer. Taking the interview is a sign of interest, and using the interview as an opportunity to highlight knowledge of and passion for the school can help admissions chances at some schools.


The final method of demonstrating interest is a bit trickier. For some schools, you can find an email or phone number for your regional admissions officer online. Sending this officer updating them on any changes to your application (e.g., new clubs or awards) while reiterating your interest can be helpful in gaining admittance to some schools, but some schools discourage or explicitly forbid this sort of activity. Be sure to look into the policies of the school before reaching out to an admissions officer.


The second question is interesting as well. It seems that “off-site contacts,” which include emails to an admissions officer or requests for more information, can help admission chances by 10-13%. “On-site contacts,” referring to campus visits, combined with off-site contacts can improve admission chances by 21-24%.4

Buzzword 3: Grit

The technical definition of grit is “passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals.”5 Over the past few years, it has become a buzzword within businesses during their hiring process and colleges during their admissions process. Students who possess this quality are, by and large, extremely desirable to colleges. This probably stems from several factors. For one, there is a widespread perception of the younger generation as being fickle and noncommittal. Moreover, if colleges solely admitted applicants based on academic qualification, they may end up with a non-diverse class of students who’d never needed to persevere in the face of obstacles. Showcasing this quality in essays, interviews, or through an extracurricular story (visit Empowerly for help building this “story”) is a great way to strengthen an application. 

Buzzword 4: Resilience

A related, but different quality is that of resilience. This refers, most minimally, to the way you respond when you hit a snag in the road. More generally, it refers to a strengthening of character after adversity, hardship, suffering, or loss. One way in which resilience might manifest is in your response to a poor grade. Those who exhibit resilience will likely respond to this failure with a “growth mindset,” that is, the belief that one’s competence (if not intelligence) can improve over time given hard work. Resilience can be shown in how someone responds to everything from death to social isolation to academic failure and much more. Being willing to showcase your mistakes in your application, something most people avoid, in order to discuss how you grew from them, can be a huge benefit to your overall application.

Buzzword 5: Intellectual vitality

This exact phrasing may be Stanford-specific (it has been used in a supplemental question on their application), but its sentiment is broadly applicable across schools. Intellectual vitality refers to what you do with what you have. It is meant to get at exactly what motivates you to learn. There are many students who will cheat their way through high school (or perhaps get undue help) and achieve the academic level necessary to be considered at a top school. Demonstrating an intrinsic love of learning, that is, showing that you find some good inherent to the practice of learning, is something any strong applicant should seek to highlight. This is ultimately a question of what drives the applicant forward. What makes the applicant excited to learn? What is the applicant truly interested in or passionate about?

In Conclusion

Overall, though these represent just a small fraction of the words you might have heard (or will hear) in the application process, they do provide some indication of considerations universities might weigh when considering applicants. Though no two universities compare applicants in exactly the same way, bearing in mind these factors can be extremely helpful in crafting your strongest possible application.

For more application information and help, visit Empowerly. 

Questions? Let us know!