Question: What are "Likely Letters"? Are they limited to the Ivies? When are they sent? Do they require an answer? Do most strong applicants get them?
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. Although coaches tell admission officials which prospective players should get these letters, it is the admission folks themselves who make the final determination and send the letters out.
However, it is not only athletes who may get the thumbs up ahead of schedule, and it's not only Ivy applicants either. Other strong candidates at a range of colleges who are not involved in sports at all may find Likely Letters in their mailboxes, too. This usually happens when a candidate is SO strong that admission folks want him or her to know right away that an acceptance is pending. The idea is to "stroke" these sought-after applicants and to help them to think fondly of the college in question before they receive decisions from competitor schools.
However, it's also something of a random process, and that's the most annoying part. There may be plenty of very strong candidates whose applications have not yet been evaluated when it's time for the Likely Letters to hit the mail bags So, even though these top students will eventually get good news, it can be frustrating and demoralizing to NOT get a Likely Letter when classmates or friends (or all of those high-achieving, Ivy-angsting posters on the College Confidential discussion forum) are receiving theirs. In most cases, this is just luck of the draw, but the wait can be agonizing when others in one's orbit have already received a letter.
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?"
You do not have to respond to a Likely Letter unless the letter clearly entreats you to do so. However, if you are excited about the school that has sent it, you certainly should feel free to communicate your joy. Likewise, you do not have to commit to the college until the official reply date--probably May 1--unless you have applied Early Decision.
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.