Mar 11, 2011

The ‘Likely Letter’ Game

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

As it turned out, I need not have worried. He got into his top two colleges and received heavy recruitment from both. 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—an athletic conference when all is said and done—introduced the likely (“heads up,” "courtesy,” or “early approval”) letter to get a leg up on schools recruiting from the same pool of athletes and to alert 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 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 flat out 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.

The Harvard Crimson reports that about 300 likely letters will be sent to applicants by the end of this year’s admissions cycle. Typically the breakdown is 200 letters to athletes and about 100 letters to students with other outstanding “attributes.” They have been going out since October 1st of last year and will continue to be sent until about 2 weeks before regular notifications go out.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania sent out approximately 200 likely letters to top applicants—an increase from 120 the year before. Although Dean of Admissions Eric Furda declined to provide the Daily Pennsylvanian with an exact number for this year, he said there were “significantly more” than last.

Dean Furda also noted that the Penn admissions office sometimes uses likely letters to “target students in under-enrolled’ majors like physics and chemistry.”

In mid-February, Yale hosted 60 to 80 select applicants interested in science and engineering as part of a recruitment effort the University curiously dubbed the Yale Science and Engineering Weekend, or YES-W. Each of these students received likely letters.

And locally, the University of Virginia recently sent out a handful of the first “round” of likely letters, according to Dean J on her admissions blog.

“We don’t have a target number, but it’s safe to say that the number is comparatively small each year,” she commented. “I don’t have year by year statistics, but I’d say the percentage that gets these letters is in the single digits.”

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.


  1. I will forever love Dartmouth for my son's likely letter in early February. Although he ultimately chose another institution, they took all the pressure off a tense admissions season

  2. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say a similar "verbal" promise to my daughter from another name college made a huge difference in her stress level. She too picked another school, but I know she appreciated knowing she had an option.