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In mid-October, when ambitious high school seniors are still anxiously toiling away at their Harvard College application, a select few already have received word of their likely acceptance.
The summer before his senior year in high school, Nick Saathoff, a star baseball player at Apache Junction High School in Arizona, got the first of many phone calls from Harvard coaches. Before they reached out to him, Harvard was not even on his radar, he said.
“It was weird for me because I didn’t think I could get in when they first called me,” he said.
From there, coaches helped guide him through the admissions process, recommending he retake the SAT Reasoning Test and the ACT, and take the appropriate SAT Subject Tests.
In the fall, Harvard flew Saathoff to Cambridge, where he met with coaches and the baseball team.
And then, five days after he submitted his application on Nov. 5, he received the coveted “likely letter,” which guarantees all but certain admission to the College.
At colleges and universities outside the Ivy League, many schools have the power to offer athletic scholarships and official early acceptances to entice promising athletes to enroll at their school. But, because Harvard lacks these options, likely letters play a crucial role in some athletes’ college admissions process.
The Recruiting Process
Every year, a group of approximately 200 recruited athletes are offered “likely letters” between Oct. 1 and March 15. While these letters technically do not guarantee an applicant admission to the College, admissions experts agree that a student who receives such a letter would only be denied admission in the most extreme circumstances.
“Barring a severe drop in grade, you can expect to get an offer,” said Penny Deck, an independent college counselor in Virginia.
While the exact timeline for the recruiting process varies by sport, Harvard coaches say that they make their first contact the summer before a prospective athlete’s senior year of high school.
From there, it is a hurried process where coaches evaluate a potential player in everything from athletic ability to character so that they can determine who they want to join their team.
While Harvard wrestling coach Jay Weiss said that different coaches place different levels of importance on these visits, he said it is crucial for his team’s prospects.
“We find out a lot about them,” he said. “We see what their goals are, athletically and academically, to see if they match [what we’re looking for].”
Beginning on Oct. 1, Harvard and its Ivy League counterparts can begin issuing likely letters to any of their applicants. While these letters are given to students for a variety of reasons, recruited athletes receive the majority early on in this period.
At Harvard and its Ivy peers, these letters are especially important.
Dave Galehouse, co-author of a guide for high school recruits titled “The Making of a Student Athlete”, said that Ivies are at a disadvantage because they do not offer special binding admissions decisions to student athletes.
According to Galehouse, the athletic programs at many other Division I institutions can essentially guarantee a student’s acceptance at their schools. He said he believes likely letters are a way to compensate for that disadvantage.
“It’s challenging for [Ivy League schools] because other schools can give notice earlier than we can,” said Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris.
Since the elimination of early action, Harvard has lost another tool to assure athletes—many of whom receive time-sensitive offers from other schools—that Harvard will admit them.
“Now that we don’t have our early action program, it’s very important to have likely letters,” said Harvard women’s volleyball coach Jennifer Weiss. “We’re still competing against schools that [do].”
“People are making decisions early. They can’t hold out a decision from Harvard until April,” said Weiss, the wrestling coach.
The Commitment Question
The Ivy League has minimal rules governing how its member institutions can utilize the likely letter, according to Harris. Still, the rules that exist are clear. While coaches may inquire as to a student’s level of interest, they cannot require a commitment or suggest that the applicant’s admission be contingent upon a commitment, according to the league’s website.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said that Harvard not only follows the rule, but takes the principle one step further.
“We don’t really ask them or inquire [whether they plan on coming]. It’s not an issue,” he said. “To have a likely be binding would be antithetical to our admissions philosophy.”
Despite acknowledging the Ivy League policy of not requiring a commitment, Galehouse said that coaches do gauge interest levels before submitting their preferences to the admissions office.
“If coaches are going to go to bat for you, they want a pretty strong commitment,” he said of his understanding of the process in the Ivies. “You’re not really supposed to be going after likely letters from multiple schools. Coaches talk.”
Fitzsimmons acknowledged that few recruited athletes who receive likely letters from Harvard end up attending other institutions.
“A pretty high percentage of the athletes end up coming,” he said, adding that the trend can be attributed to a bond that recruits feel to the coach or the institution, not because Harvard requires any sort of commitment.
“It’s up to them whether they keep their applications in elsewhere,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’ve certainly had athletes who received likelies who end up not coming.”
Saathoff, who said he plans to matriculate at Harvard, said that while Harvard’s baseball coaches made it clear that they wanted him to join the team and made efforts to make the process as smooth as possible for him, they did not ask him to commit.
According to Saathoff, this procedure stands in contrast to the processes at two other schools he had considered attending: New Mexico State University and St. Mary’s College of California.
“They understood the situation, but they were still putting pressure on me,” Saathoff said of the other college. “It came down to the wire.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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