The Three Hundred

Likely letters should give equal preference to all talents


For most high school seniors, the process of applying to Harvard entails waiting until April 1 for a decision one way or the other. For a select few, however, those months of anxious waiting are cut short by what is called a “likely letter.”

Between Oct. 1 and March 15, Harvard sends out 300 likely letters, which serve as authorized notices of expected admission to “athletes and other exceptional candidates.” In keeping with long-standing practice, the vast majority of this year’s likely letter recipients, approximately two-thirds, were recruited athletes. Although athletic talent certainly deserves recognition in the application process, the current system of likely letters gives preference to one particular subset of the student population to the disadvantage of all the others.  

In many ways, using likely letters to provide advanced notice of acceptance is similar to the now-defunct early admissions program. After ending its early admissions policy in 2006, Harvard defended this decision by saying that the move would make the admissions process more egalitarian. If a fairer playing field is truly the College’s goal, likely letters—which privilege a specific pool of applicants over the majority of potential freshmen—seem an incongruous addition to the admissions game. In that sense, the College would do well to evaluate whether the institution of likely letters is truly consistent with its alleged commitment to equal opportunity.

Applicants to the College should not be granted different admissions processes based on the talents they possess. As it stands, the admissions process for recruited athletes has an institutional structure that is not granted to applicants with any other skill set. In screening athletic recruits, Ivy League schools assess students via an average Academic Index, a number calculated from test score performance and high school GPA. The average Academic Index of a school’s athletes must remain within one standard deviation of the student body. The Wall Street Journal postulated in May 2009 that this index, by which all the schools in the Ancient Eight abide, is increasingly hurting Ivy League teams. Comparatively, recruitment at Harvard puts in place sensible guidelines for athletic admissions. However, the fact remains that athletic recruitment is troubling in any sense. Students should be considered on a case-by-case basis, with extracurricular activities playing second fiddle to academic accomplishment in all cases.

Of course, as the directors of athletics and admission administrators of the Ivy League schools are quick to emphasize to prospective student-athletes, “the principles that govern admission of Ivy students who are athletes are the same as for all other Ivy applicants.” Through likely letters, however, Harvard—an academic institution—gives priority to athletic accomplishments when it should instead prioritize academic accomplishments above all else. In its actions and policies, the College should live up to its principles as one of the most preeminent institutions of higher learning in the United States—not as the defending NCAA champion.

In a twist of irony, of all the negative consequences that the institution of likely letters brings to Harvard’s campus, perhaps the most harmful is the resulting stigma toward recruited athletes themselves.

Student-athletes who apply to Harvard and have the credentials to come deserve the same emphasis placed on academic accomplishments as all other students who apply. Being “recruited” rather than “admitted” has connotations that unjustly undermine the intellectual abilities of campus athletes.

Thus, the stigma of having been admitted to a college under different circumstances follows student athletes throughout their time at Harvard and creates a divisive, at times hostile, social environment. Even though recruited athletes must still apply to Harvard with the same materials as regular candidates, the unfortunate perception nevertheless exists that recruits are intellectually inferior and thus undeserving of a place among the student body. To eliminate any basis for these assumptions, the College should stop prioritizing athletes through likely letters and do its part in ending unfounded stereotypes. It should go without saying that college should be an opportunity for individuals to begin with a blank slate and establish their own identities, and Harvard should do its part to ensure that all of its students are afforded that opportunity.

The role of athletics in the College, though undoubtedly important, should never overtake the role of academics in any respect. Since 1650, the College’s charter has advocated “the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences.”  By comparison, the oldest intercollegiate athletic rivalry, the Harvard-Yale Regatta, only began in 1852, while the Ivy League—the institution that necessitated athletic recruitment in the first place—did not even enter the picture until 1954. While the College is right to acknowledge its rich athletic tradition, it should not do so at the risk of sacrificing its even richer academic tradition, a legacy that has historically bound all Harvard students, regardless of the sports they play.

With that in mind, the institution of likely letters—if it must be kept—should be revised to give equal weight to a broader range of talented applicants, not just primarily athletes.

Likely letters should be presented to a very small fraction of total applicants who qualify as truly exceptional and should not be run to fill quotas of a specific talent, athletic or otherwise. Used sparingly, likely letters can be a powerful tool for adding talent and diversity to the student body. If applicants are truly exceptional—e.g., gifted students who are the first from their country to apply to Harvard or Olympic athletes with notable academic achievements—a likely letter can indeed play a vital role in encouraging matriculation to Harvard. To follow through with the admirable intention behind ending early admissions, Harvard should emphasize the use of likely letters to attract brilliant students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Above all, likely letters should remain exceptional circumstances for exceptional students, bestowed infrequently and inconsequently of any quota.