What Is a Likely Letter in College Admissions?

Some students will get an early hint that they've been accepted

A "Likely Letter" from a college is certainly something to celebrate.
A "Likely Letter" from a college is certainly something to celebrate.

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A "likely letter" is an admission tool used by highly selective colleges and universities. It notifies the school's top choice prospects in the regular applicant pool that an acceptance letter is likely to be coming in the future. Likely letters give colleges a way to begin recruiting top applicants without having to wait until official decision notifications in late March or early April.

What Does a Likely Letter Typically Say?

Likely letters tend to flatter the applicant and hint at the arrival of an acceptance letter in the future. You can expect something like this:

"Greetings from the Office of Admissions at Ivy University! I'm writing to let you know how impressed my colleagues and I were with your many accomplishments both inside and outside of the classroom. We feel that your talents, interests, and goals are a great match for Ivy University. While we don't send out official offers of admission until March 30th, we thought you'd like to know that you are very likely to be admitted. Congratulations!"

Does a Likely Letter Guarantee Admission?

While a likely letter doesn't guarantee you'll receive an acceptance letter, it's pretty close to a guarantee. Keep your grades up, don't get suspended or arrested, and you will almost certainly receive good news from the college that sent you the likely letter. The letter itself won't be worded to guarantee admissions since that would be an acceptance letter, and sending out acceptance letters ahead of the official notification date would break the school's policies. But yes, you can pretty much count on getting in.

Realize that even an official acceptance can be rescinded if your grades drop significantly, or you do something to get in trouble.

When Do Colleges Send Likely Letters?

February is the most common time to receive a likely letter, but they can come earlier or later. If you apply early in the fall, a few schools will even send out likely letters before the new year. This is particularly true if an athletic recruiter is actively working with the admissions office to woo the student.

What Schools Send Likely Letters?

Many colleges don't openly advertise their practices surrounding likely letters, so it's hard to know how many schools actually use them. That said, Harvard UniversityYale University, the University of Pennsylvania and all the other Ivy League schools use some form of likely letters. Most of the country's top universities and top liberal arts colleges also use likely letters.

Many colleges have rolling admissions, so they have no need for likely letters. They will simply send out an acceptance letter as soon as they have decided a student is a good fit for the school.

Far more private colleges and universities use likely letters than public institutions, but a few of the most selective public universities such as the University of Virginia do use them. 

Why Do Colleges and Universities Send Likely Letters?

If the college admissions process seems painfully selective and competitive, you're certainly correct if you are applying to the country's most selective colleges and universities. But there's another side to the competition. Sure, many students are competing with each other to get those limited spots in the top schools, but those top schools are also competing with each other to get the strongest, most talented students. Enter the likely letter.

In general, the nation's most selective schools do not have rolling admissions. Most notify their entire regular admissions applicant pool of admissions decisions in late March or early April. This means that three months often go by between the application deadline and the release of decisions. That's three months during which other colleges could be actively recruiting and wooing students. If a student applies early in the admissions cycle—in October, for example—five months could go by between a student sending off that application and receiving an acceptance letter. That's five months during which a student's excitement for the school can diminish, especially if they are being actively courted with flattery and scholarships from another school.

In short, if a college wants to get a strong yield from its top applicant pool, it will often employ likely letters. Likely letters allow colleges and universities to communicate with top students, reduce the students' wait time, increase the students' excitement, and make it more likely that those students will enroll.

I Didn't Get a Likely Letter, What Now?

Don't panic—the majority of applicants a college admits do not receive likely letters. For example, in 2015 Harvard University sent out 300 likely letters; 200 of those letters went to athletes (likely letters are an important tool for schools to recruit those rare students who excel both academically and in athletics). The University of Pennsylvania sent out 400 likely letters in 2015.

With a little rough math, that suggests that about one out of every six admitted students in the regular applicant pool received a likely letter. So if you received a likely letter, congratulations. The school saw you as an exceptional applicant and really wants you to attend. If you didn't get one? You're in the majority. You might be disappointed to not receive a likely letter, but the game certainly isn't over.

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Grove, Allen. "What Is a Likely Letter in College Admissions?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-likely-letter-in-college-admissions-4122133. Grove, Allen. (2020, August 26). What Is a Likely Letter in College Admissions? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-likely-letter-in-college-admissions-4122133 Grove, Allen. "What Is a Likely Letter in College Admissions?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-likely-letter-in-college-admissions-4122133 (accessed March 22, 2023).

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