What does a likely letter mean for college admissions?


Ananth Veluvali @ Stanford University

What does a likely letter mean for college admissions?

If you're applying to college, you may have heard about (or even received) a likely letter. But what exactly is a likely letter? In this article, we'll discuss what these advantageous letters are and why colleges send them.

What is a likely letter?

Before a school makes its final admissions decisions, a message—called a likely letter—is sent to a select group of applicants. The letter states the school's intention to admit the student; in short, it lets a student know that they are "likely" to be accepted.

The purpose of likely letters

There are a few reasons why elite schools send likely letters to particularly strong candidates, but the main reason is to boost their yield rate and enroll the best candidates. Yield rate is the proportion of accepted students who enroll. For colleges and universities, a high yield rate serves as evidence of their appeal as a destination for the best and brightest college applicants. As a result, the highest yield rates are found in many of the country's most prestigious institutions. MIT (77%), Stanford University (82%), and Harvard University (82%) are a few examples.

Stanford picture

By keeping the best candidates interested in and engaged with a college while they wait for official admissions decisions in late March and early April, likely letters assist selective schools in maintaining their high yields. Admissions officers are often required to notify all applicants of their admissions decision at once, but likely letters allow them to get around that policy. It informs an applicant of their "likely" admission. A likely letter shows the school's interest in the applicant, flatters them, creates a more favorable impression of the institution, and raises the likelihood that the applicant will matriculate.

Invitations to occasions and initiatives like diversity weekends and fully funded campus visits are frequently sent along with likely letters. With the help of these invitations, colleges can build up a stronger rapport with the candidates and gain more time to entice them to enroll in their programs.

What Sets an Early Write Apart from a Likely Letter?

The term "early write" refers to a different kind of early admissions notification. What distinguishes a likely letter from an early write is the likelihood of admission. A likely letter is not an official acceptance letter; rather, it expresses the institution's probability of admitting a student. Though it is understood that all "likely" students are admitted unless their profile deteriorates, a school may reconsider its admissions decision, for instance, if the person who received a likely letter dropped their advanced classes, was arrested, or did something else unfavorable.

On the other hand, an early write is an early official acceptance. If the student does something bad, the school may still withdraw their acceptance, but based on the letter, the student can be certain they are accepted at that time. Leading liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst utilize early writing.

What time are typical dates for sending likely letters and early drafts?

Late March or early April is when most colleges notify applicants of their regular admissions decisions. For instance, on the day known as "Ivy Day," all Ivy League schools announce their decisions. Students frequently receive likely letters and early drafts between the middle of February and the beginning of March.

What Kind of Letter or Early Write Would You Expect?

The specific wording of likely letters varies from institution to institution, but they all generally follow the same format, emphasizing the applicant's high likelihood of acceptance and the institution's excitement to have them as a member of their student body. The letters typically have a flattering tone and will herald the arrival of an official acceptance letter down the road.

Here is an example from Stanford University to give you an idea of the platitudes you might encounter in a likely letter: "We were inspired and humbled by your energy, imagination, talent, and heart, and this early approval is a tribute to your extraordinary achievements and your passion for using your strengths to better our world. We confer this distinction on very few students, and we are thrilled to bring you this wonderful news."

Most likely letters are a way to stay in touch with the school, so many of them also include an invitation to visit. A possible letter from Columbia University to a prospective student stated, "We hope you plan to attend one of our two Columbia College Days on Campus weekends...when events for admitted students will include a hosted overnight, visit, the chance to sit in on classes, a tour of New York City, and much more."

Other times, letters will probably warn students that this isn't an official acceptance and that their actions might jeopardize their enrollment. An excellent example is this letter that could be sent to a student athlete by Yale University: "Please know that we will carefully review your mid-year and final grades, and that we expect you to maintain your present level of academic performance and personal integrity for the remainder of the year."

Which Colleges Typically Send Early Writes or Letters?

There is no comprehensive list of schools that send likely letters and early writes because they are not openly advertised by schools. But there is evidence that some schools have sent these letters in the past. To attract applicants who meet certain requirements, all Ivy League schools have used likely letters. The Ivy League frequently sends these letters to student athletes because they have the exceptional combination of academic prowess and athletic ability that makes them particularly impressive.

Numerous prestigious colleges and universities, including Barnard, Brandeis, Bowdoin, Clark, College of William and Mary, Duke, MIT, Rice, Stanford, University of Chicago, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, and UVA, are also said to have sent outstanding applicants letters of recommendation. The same is true for prestigious liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Williams, Smith, and Grinnell, which have a history of sending early or likely letters.

Many likely letters and early writes, as was already mentioned, include a request to visit the campus. For instance, in February, Vanderbilt University sends 200 or so early essays to students from various minority backgrounds. The accepted students are invited to campus for MOSAIC (Medley Of Students And Ideas Connecting), a multicultural student weekend in March, via the letter. The program's objective is to draw talented students to the university and keep the campus diverse in terms of both ethnicity and culture. For accepted students, other schools, like Amherst College, also host diversity weekends.

What If I Don't Receive a Likely Letter?

Don't worry if after reading this you were wondering what a likely letter would be and are now concerned that you won't. Most applicants won't be informed of their admissions status until the day the school announces its official admissions decisions. For instance, Vanderbilt only accepts about 2,000 students each year into their MOSAIC Program, but they invite 200 students to apply; this means that only about 10% of those who are accepted receive a likely letter. The University of Pennsylvania received 37,267 applications in 2015 but only admitted 3,697 students. A likely letter was sent to about 400 of those 3,697 students.

The bottom line is this: don't worry if you don't receive a likely letter. However, if you do, know that you're one of the school's top applicants, and you can be reasonably certain that, so long as you continue putting your best foot forward, you'll get an official acceptance.



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