Mar 10, 2012

Playing the Likely Letter Game in 2012

UVa’s Dean J recently bemoaned the trouble annually stirred up by “likely letters” in her Notes from Peabody admission blog.

“I thought this practice was going to go away,” commented Dean J. “But I recently found out that the dean is sending some out again this year.”

Neither of my children received “likely letters.” In fact, I never heard of a likely letter until my son entered the college admission sweepstakes. He didn’t pay much attention, but I sure was aware when classmates received these “pre-admit” notices and he didn’t.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. He got into college. Nevertheless, I cannot lie. The very idea of a likely letter ratcheted up my anxiety and notched my competitive instincts one gear higher.

And I suspect I’m not alone. In fact, I know I’m not alone judging from the angst creeping in among the regular posters on College Confidential, many of whom are yearning for a likely letter.

So what is a likely letter? Most simply, it’s something akin to a “Golden Ticket” from colleges anxious to nail down candidates in advance of regular admissions notifications.

Coaches in the Ivy League introduced the likely—heads up, courtesy, “love,” or early approval—letter to get a leg up on schools recruiting from the same pool of athletes by alerting promising candidates of their interest. In fact, league rules specify that letters may go out any time after October 1st.

As time went on, others with a stake in the admissions game soon got wise to the advantages of early communications with highly sought after students, and the likely letter became a prized recruitment tool designed to lay claim to and protect turf.

But when Harvard and Princeton originally eliminated early admissions programs a couple of years back, the arms race really began. Likely letters began flying out to prospective physicists as well as linebackers—anyone colleges would especially like to "court" in the admissions process.

And so, likely letters have become a cornerstone of college admissions in the fast lane.

The simplest interpretation of the likely letter is, “We definitely plan to accept you so you can relax, but don’t screw up between now and when we send the official acceptance because this notification is something less than official.”

Some likely letters read suspiciously like actual acceptance letters, but others are little more subtle and may not address the issue of admission at all. They might contain an invitation to attend a campus event that seems geared only to accepted applicants or make an offer to join a prestigious program.

For academic stand-outs, the idea is to send a little extra “love” to the candidate to make him or her think positively about the prospect of being admitted to the school.

Unfortunately, it’s not a terrifically organized process, and colleges confess that some very strong candidates slip through the cracks and don’t get likely letters simply because their applications are reviewed a little later in the process.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania became one of the first schools in the country to launch a campaign that used a video and supplementary website to inform students of their likely status.

This year, Penn plans to send out approximately 400 likely letters to top applicants—a substantial increase from the 200 that went to the Class of 2015. This year’s likely letter campaign began in February and is designed to support an aggressive recruitment operation for outstanding candidates.

In late February, Yale hosted 100 select applicants interested in science and engineering as part of a recruitment effort the University curiously dubbed the Yale Engineering and Science Weekend, or YES-W. Each of these students will receive likely letters.

And locally, the University of Virginia is sending out a handful of likely letters, according to Dean J on her admissions blog.

“We don’t have a target number and I am not permitted to release the number of letters we are printing,” she commented. “I’d say the percentage that gets these letters is in the single digits. So, ninety-something percent of you won’t see these letters.”

So what’s the take away from all this?

  • Likely letters are sent by several selective schools to a very few applicants most of whom are athletes.
  • The vast majority of applicants—even some of the very strongest—will never get a likely letter.
  • Likely letters are not offers of admission, so don’t be lulled into bad behavior or a slip in grades.
  • Getting a likely letter should not necessarily be interpreted to mean automatic scholarship dollars or admission to exclusive programs like honors colleges.
  • Lucky recipients of likely letters are under no obligation to respond.
  • Colleges will never tell you who got one or why, so don’t bother to ask.

Bottom line? As Dean J says, “Do not read into the absence of a letter.”

It means something to those who get them but little to those who don’t.

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