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What exactly is a 'likely' letter?

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University of Pennsylvania dean Eric Furda recently announced that Penn would be notifying Class of 2018 “likely admitted” students from mid-February through the beginning of March.

"'Likely' is a process in which students are notified of highly probable admission prior to official Ivy League decision notification, which is March 27 this year," Furda explained. “The office is thrilled to recognize this small group of students that speak to the University in strong and unique ways.”

I never heard of a likely letter until my second child entered the college admission sweepstakes. My son didn’t pay much attention, but I certainly was aware when classmates received these “pre-admit” notices.

And I confess that the very idea of a likely letter made me extremely anxious.

So what exactly is a likely letter? Most simply, it’s a kind of “secret handshake” from colleges anxious to nail down candidates in advance of regular admissions notifications.

Coaches in the Ivy League first introduced the likely (“heads up,” courtesy, “love,” or early approval) letter to get a jump on schools recruiting from the same pool of athletes by alerting promising candidates of their interest.

In fact, league rules are very specific about the use of likely letters, “Likely letters may not be issued prior to October 1 of the prospect’s senior year in high school.”

As the college admissions landscape began to shift and competition for top scholars got tougher, others with a stake in the game got wise to the advantages of early communications with applicants, and the likely letter became a prized recruitment tool designed to “lay claim to and protect turf.”

But it wasn’t until Harvard and Princeton eliminated early admissions programs several years ago that the arms race really began. Likely letters began flying out to prospective mathematicians as well as quarterbacks—anyone colleges would especially like to "court" in the admissions process.

And so, likely letters have become a foundation of college admissions in the “fast lane” and not necessarily limited to Ivy League institutions.

For example, the College of William and Mary has been sending postcards to a “small cohort” of regular decision applicants with a message strongly hinting at “more good news to come.”

And Emory University decided to release a handful of likely letters at the end of February to about 300 regular decision candidates.

“It is our belief that by sending an early communication to some of our strongest candidates in our Regular Decision applicant pool, they will ‘feel the loveand think more fondly of Emory as their future destination,” explains Admissions. “It is also a chance to invite these students to plan an April admitted student campus visit in advance.”

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

Colleges justify the use of likely letters by suggesting that the time for making a decision can be as little as just a month, and these early communications give top prospects additional weeks to learn about the institution or “imagine themselves on campus.”

And once the cat is out of the bag, colleges can feel free to call, email, or otherwise work to ensure the applicant will say yes.

Some likely letters read suspiciously like actual acceptance letters, but others are a 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.

In mid-February, Yale hosted select applicants interested in science and engineering as part of the Yale Engineering and Science Weekend, or YES-W. Each of these students receives a kind of pre-admit commitment.

And each year, Rice University invites about 200 applicants the admissions committee feels could be a “great match” to an on-campus program. While not guaranteed, admission is highly likely for these students.

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

And what do you need to know about these communications?

  • Likely letters are sent by some selective schools to 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 be interpreted to mean automatic scholarship dollars or admission to exclusive programs like honors colleges.
  • Likely letters are not to be viewed as exemptions from admissions requirements such as midyear or final school reports.
  • Recipients of likely letters are under no obligation to respond one way or the other.
  • Colleges will never tell you who got one or why, so don’t bother to ask.

Bottom line? As UVa’s Dean J explained in a blog post discussing the use of likely letters, “Do not read into the absence of a letter.”

It means something to those who get them but virtually nothing to those who don’t.

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