Before the official decision notification date, colleges have a way of hinting to a few special applicants that they are likely to be admitted: by sending them likely letters.
According to a Fall 2021 Joint Statement issued by the Ivy League Admission Offices, likely letters, sent between October 1st and March 15th of a student’s senior year, will have “the effect of letters of admission” as long as the applicant is able to sustain their academic and personal achievements.
These letters are rare: in 2015, Harvard sent out a total of 300 likely letters, approximately 200 to recruited athletes and 100 to non-athletes. You might have heard of this happening at your school – distinguished student athletes are common recipients of likely letters. According to The Harvard Crimson, the athlete is reviewed under the same process as any other applicant after they have submitted their entire application for evaluation. Then a 40-person committee will vote on whether the athlete should receive a “probabilistic communication.”
So…how do you get a likely letter if you are not a recruitable athlete?
The Harvard Crimson quotes Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons as having “said in the March interview that Harvard uses likely letters as a ‘recruiting device’ to attract ‘very, very good applicants.’” Fitzsimmons also explained that “ the College uses likely letters to target students from rural areas or otherwise underrepresented backgrounds.” One example of a likely letter recipient is Sasha Agarwal ‘24-25, an international student from India who had completed nonprofit work in menstrual equity and wrote a supplemental essay on behavioral economics. She received her letter based on “her academic, extracurricular, and personal accomplishments,” according to the Crimson.
In a 2007 article from the Yale Daily News, previous Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel describes likely-letter recipients as meeting three key criteria; “They must be such strong candidates that they are virtually certain to have applied to other competitive schools, it must be virtually certain that the most competitive schools will accept them, and last, Yale officers must be virtually certain that they will admit the applicant, even without seeing the entire applicant pool.” Yale’s current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan specifies that their likely letters are sent to students who they believe to be “exceptionally strong as scholars, student-athletes, or contributors in other areas of special interest to the Yale community, including music and the arts.” If a student is able to maintain their accomplishment, then the school follows their likely letter with an official letter of admission.
Although rare, likely letters do exist. Whether you are a star athlete, founded a non-profit, or come from unusual circumstances, you just might be on the receiving end. With all things considered, the best way to optimize your chances is to build a strong and unique hook, whether as an accomplished athlete or through a non-athletic endeavor!