Likely Letters

Even though it's past Valentine's Day, colleges are still sending love letters to their applicants. I call “likely letters" love letters because they represent a college's efforts to woo their applicants to join them at the alter of enrollment, so to speak.

Questionable metaphors aside, it is a fact that the fierce competition among colleges to snare the best students from their applicant pools results in this “courting" process that delivers good news to high school seniors before the remaining bulk of decisions are mailed. College Confidential's Sally Rubenstone writes about likely letters in her Ask the Dean column:

A “Likely Letter" is good news for the handful of students who receive them but is yet another example of what's wrong with the college admission process for almost everyone else.

Typically, Likely Letters are sent to applicants several weeks before official admission verdicts are slated to go out. This usually means some time in October for Early Decision/Action applicants and late-February or March for Regular Decision students. The gist of these missives is: “We fully plan to accept you so you can breathe a sigh of relief, but don't screw up between now and when you get your official acceptance because this one isn't quite official."

Most commonly, the term “Likely Letter" is associated with the Ivy League and with athletes … and with good reason. These letters are one tool that the Ivy League schools use to encourage their recruited athletes to put other options on the back burner … Some colleges–not the Ivies–put their own spin on the Likely Letter. Their early missives may not address the acceptance issue at all but might, instead, include an invitation to attend a campus event that seems geared to accepted applicants or to join a special (and clearly elite) academic program in the fall. This sort of more obtuse “Likely Letter" can be heartening but also confusing, leaving students to wonder, “Well, am I in or not yet?" …

[Then, in an alliterative avalanche, Sally summarizes.] …

So the bottom line is this: I'd like to like the Likely Letters but they are largely unlikable, and most candidates whom admission officials like are, nonetheless, UNlikely to get them.

As a parent, I've had firsthand experience with likely letters. Our son applied to engineering programs at two Ivies as well as at two highly competitive liberal arts colleges. He applied Early Action (EA) at one Ivy and RD at his other three choices. (Yes, he applied to only four schools! That's hard to believe in these days of seniors applying to 12-to-20 (or more!) colleges.) His EA acceptance didn't arrive until mid-December, which was the last early decision to arrive at his high school. It was worth waiting for, though, and he eventually accepted it and enrolled there.

The other Ivy, however, must have suspected that our son would be courted by most of the other colleges where he applied, although I don't recall him revealing his list of candidates to any school. In any case, early in the year following his EA acceptance, he got a letter from his other Ivy engineering program, not only telling him to expect being accepted but also detailing the very generous financial aid package that they were offering him.

This presented a somewhat tempting situation in regards to his EA acceptance, which had until May 1 of that year to be decided. That's the convenient flexibility of Early Action, as compared to Early Decision. The Ivy that sent the RD likely letter was playing the percentages that our son had perhaps not applied and been accepted elsewhere ED, and that if he had applied EA and been accepted, had not yet sent his enrollment deposit, which was, in fact, true. That's why likely letters are pretty much targeted fishing expeditions.

The caution here is to be careful not to be “hooked" and reeled in and away from your decision about a different school that has met all your criteria for a good match. Likely letters can be highly disruptive. Keep in mind Sally's statement above that likely letters are “yet another example of what's wrong with the college admission process."

What do schools have to say about likely letters? I found an article from the University of Pennsylvania's The Daily Pennsylvanian, dated March 2, 2015 (about this time last year) that speaks to the issue. Here are some highlights:

Likely letters aim to recruit top applicants

Not all regular decision Penn applicants must endure a three-month wait for their admissions decisions.

This year, Penn will send likely letters, which virtually guarantee admission, to approximately 400 applicants in total. About half of this group was notified on Feb. 12, and the other half will receive notifications early this month.

Likely letters provide outstanding applicants with additional time to consider their college options by offering a decision earlier than originally expected. However, they also aim to ensure that Penn snags more top students than its competitors for its incoming freshman class …

… Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said that the purpose of likely letters is to initiate early communication with some of the most desirable prospective students.

“We're going to get a start on some students who are going to have a number of options," he said …

… Although Furda is excited about the Office of Admissions' likely letter program, he mentioned that it often discourages students who did not receive likely letters.

“This is a tough message," Furda said. “I need to let all the other students know that this is a small fraction of the overall admits, that they still have a chance." …

How about at Yale?

'Likely letters' part of Yale's admit strategy

For most high school seniors waiting to hear back from Ivy League colleges this year, March 29 was the day circled in red on the calendar. But relief arrived unexpectedly early for some students like Rui Bao, who received the coveted, yet somewhat mythical, wink from Yale: the likely letter.

In late February, Bao first received a call from her Yale alumni interviewer telling her that she was “likely" to be accepted in March. Later that night, she got a similar call from her Yale admissions officer. The next day, a Yale sweatshirt arrived courtesy of her local alumni club in St. Louis, Mo., and then a few days later, she found a letter in her mailbox from Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel congratulating her on her stellar application and declaring that acceptance was imminent …

Talk about a full-court press!

… Likely letters, which are sent to a small proportion of regular decision applicants between January and early March, are intended to alert certain students that they will likely be accepted once late March or early April comes around. College admissions officers listed various strategic reasons for this practice, including increasing the chance that an accepted student will matriculate. Some counselors said the letters appear to target particularly desirable — and courted — categories of applicants, such as ethnic minorities.

Although all Ivy League schools are bound to abide by a common spring notification date for regular decision applicants, they are allowed to communicate their intentions to students earlier. While sending likely letters to athletes is a common practice for schools around the nation, academic likely letters are a lesser-known phenomenon. One recent recipient of a likely letter from Yale even thought the letter was a joke when it first came in the mail …

And so it goes for those of you seniors who are exceptionally attractive — for whatever reason — to the schools where you have applied, not just the Ivies.

For all of you who are eagerly (a.k.a. “anxiously") awaiting your spring decisions, I hope that you might enjoy the rush that a likely love letter can bring to your heart. May all your letters be likely!

For further information, you can find in-depth background on likely letters here.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.