For Sports, Admit Policy Not Binding

Recruiting athletes will still get October "likely letters" intimating acceptance


Though Harvard announced plans to eliminate its early admissions program earlier this month, the decision isn’t exactly binding for highly touted prospective varsity athletes.

Every year as early as October 1, between 80 and 100 applicants, most of whom are athletes, receive “likely letters,” saying that the applicant “can feel pretty well assured that he or she will be admitted,” according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

Harvard’s elimination of early admissions has raised questions about the practice of allowing athletically talented students to relieve themselves of the stress of the college process half-a-year earlier than their fellow applicants.

“It’s pretty unfair that the athletes are the only ones who could find out early,” varsity field hockey player Sara M. Flood ’10 said. Flood, who received a likely letter on October 4 of her senior year, described the process as “completely biased.”

But Fitzsimmons said there were no plans to eliminate the likely letter practice. And Nichols Family Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise said yesterday that the advanced notification was a necessary evil in the college recruiting process.

“Without the program, and certainly without the program going forward, I think the ability of Harvard to field competitive teams would be severely compromised,” Fitzsimmons said. “The alternative would be, unfortunately, that Harvard would miss out on a large number of superb student-athletes who would surely end up having to go somewhere else.”

Likely letters, which have been around for over 30 years, are technically not capped, but offered in response to another school’s “exploding offer,” Fitzsimmons said.

Exploding offers are named for their immediacy. For non-Ivy League schools, offering a binding letter of intent to a student also attractive to Harvard—and demanding a signature—can be considered an exploding offer. For early admission Ivy League schools, which cannot offer athletic scholarships, telling a student—usually over the summer or early in their senior year—that the school will advocate for the student only if he applies early, can also be considered an exploding offer.

Under this system, Scalise said, athletes face more pressure than other applicants. “Other schools are limiting where athletes apply. It’s not their choice; they’re being pressured to not apply to other schools.”

Varsity hockey player and likely letter recipient Jack Christian ’09 also said the recruiting process was arduous. “A lot of people when they’re getting recruited are just tired with the process and want to get it over with,” he said.


Though Fitzsimmons and Interim President Derek C. Bok said that postponing the admissions date would relieve pressure placed on high school seniors, Fitzsimmons and Scalise said that for athletes, the process works in reverse and likely letters similarly alleviate that pressure.

By giving students “at least some guidance as to whether he or she is a strong enough candidate to get in,” likely letters allow athletes to refuse what the College considers premature offers from other schools, Scalise said.

But Fitzsimmons admitted that he would prefer that even likely letters not exist.

“I wish we didn’t have to respond to these unfortunate pressures placed on people, but we do live in the real world,” he said.

Scalise said he has not thought about abandoning likely letters altogether. However, “If all the early schools did away with early admissions, the number of likely letters would go down dramatically,” Scalise said.

Executive Director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, the league’s governing board, Jeffrey H. Orleans, said that the Ivy League as a whole would not propose any categorical elimination of likely letters, and that change would have to be done on a school-by-school basis.

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at


The Sept. 29 news article, "For Sports, Admit Policy Not Binding," misidentified the sport played varsity athlete Sara M. Flood '10. She is on the lacrosse team, not the field hockey team.