Ivy Day — when Harvard releases its admissions decisions, alongside other Ivy League schools — was March 28 this year. But for many recruited athletes, acceptances came much earlier.
Endorsed by Harvard coaches, these students received advanced notice that they had won places in the College’s incoming freshman class via highly coveted “likely letters.”
“We send such an early positive indication only to outstanding applicants,” the College wrote in an email to some recruited athletes in the Class of 2022.
By assuring some students early on that there is spot available to them, likely letters allow recruited athletes to start preparing for their move to Harvard Yard.
But the admissions process for recruited athletes starts much sooner, sometimes as early as sophomore year of high school. Harvard coaches might first connect with prospects over email; others might meet them at various national tournaments.
Though early communications with Harvard officials and campus visits mean that recruited athletes quickly get acquainted with the College, Harvard has maintained that athletes go through the same admissions process as everyone else.
Several recent high-profile controversies and legal challenges have brought increased scrutiny to recruitment policies at elite schools. The University is currently investigating its head fencing coach after allegations surfaced last month that he sold his Needham, Mass. house to the father of a fencing recruit who was subsequently admitted to the College.
Those accusations came weeks after federal prosecutors announced an unrelated investigation — known as “Operation Varsity Blues” — that culminated in indictments of 50 people in connection with a national racketeering scandal. Some of the parents charged in the investigation allegedly bribed coaches at various elite universities to recruit their children as athletes.
And just last year, the trial for the admissions lawsuit filed by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard brought to light details about the boost recruited athletes receive in the College’s admissions process. An internal report included in court filings found that highly academically qualified athletes see an acceptance rate of roughly 83 percent.
Despite recent headlines, recruitment remains a priority for Harvard athletics. Each year, the University pours more than $1 million into the practice, and hundreds of recruited athletes commit to the College.
Many higher education experts say athletic recruiting perpetuates social inequalities and favors white, wealthy students. As critics continue to search for inequities in the College’s admissions process, Harvard’s recruitment practices will likely come under even greater scrutiny in the near future.
Victor Crouin ’22, a member of Harvard’s squash team who hails from France, said he was at the 2017 world junior squash championship in Tauranga, New Zealand when he first connected with a University coach.
“The coach went all the way to New Zealand to watch the students, and then pick a few of them, and ask them, and give them a spot in case their grades were good enough,” Crouin said.
Harvard’s coaches and recruiting coordinators trek across the world looking for new additions to their teams. The travel costs add up. The Athletics Department incurred more than $1 million in recruiting expenses in fiscal year 2018, or roughly 4 percent of the department’s total expenses that year.
Though recruiting tactics and regulations vary from sport to sport, coaches often try to contact prospects well before they begin applying to colleges. Coaches can reach out to recruits in their sophomore or junior year of high school and invite them to visit Harvard starting junior year.
Riley L. McDermott ’22, a member of Harvard’s track and field team, said colleges started reaching out to him during his junior year of high school. His first contact with a Harvard coach occurred the summer after his junior year.
“I got a call from a coach here and they basically just said, ‘Hey, we're interested in you,’” he said. “They talk to you on the phone and try to get a feel for what kind of guy you are.”
Other athletes said they reached out to Harvard first. Some recruits contact coaches on their own, while others enlist the help of parents, coaches, or recruiting agencies.
Campbell J. Schoenfeld ’22, a member of the men’s volleyball team, said his father was the one who first reached out to Harvard.
“My dad sent the coach at Harvard an email of my recruiting video and I thought it was crazy,” Schoenfeld said. “I hadn’t thought of Harvard ever before and he just shot that email out. And then they saw me play at nationals. And then that summer I came here for camp and talked to the coach more.”
Certain sports, however, don’t require coaches and recruiting coordinators to travel much. McDermott noted that, though Harvard reached out to him, he did not meet with any coaches in person prior to visiting campus. Runners, jumpers, and throwers have the option of sending coaches race times or distances — which are often available online — to demonstrate their athletic prowess.
After coaches travel and meet prospective recruits, many then invite athletes to campus on “official visits” to meet with coaches and other athletes, attend practices and classes, and stay overnight with a current student.
Though high school seniors can sign up for overnight visits or spend time on campus with other College programs, official visits are a part of the admissions process reserved for athletic recruits.
Cameron J. McInroy ’22, a rower on the men’s lightweight crew team, described his official visit as “brilliant” and said it was a major factor in his decision to attend Harvard.
“I think it was partly what convinced me to come,” McInroy said. “I definitely felt like I knew the place a lot better other than just visiting as a tourist.”
McInroy had previously come to Cambridge to row in the annual Head of the Charles Regatta, but said his official visit let him experience the campus in a new way.
“We had this one nighttime row that I was out in the launch for. And it was crazy beautiful, because it was all dark. You just had Boston lights. It was a pretty good time,” McInroy said. “And then I tried a few classes. Just being on campus was definitely pretty nice.”
Harvard’s coaches wield considerable power over the admissions prospects of recruited athletes as they both advise and endorse prospective students.
Like the other universities in the Ivy League, Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships — only need-based financial aid. Unlike some schools, Harvard does not reserve spots in each admitted class for recruits, according to College spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman.
“We find out how many athletes we would be able to support and then we are looking at a number of candidates to kind of fill those positions,” squash team recruiting coordinator Luke Hammond said. “But that does not mean it’s a slot at Harvard. It’s far from that.”
In looking for candidates, coaches sometimes ask prospective students to send them their high school transcripts so they can vet their academic qualifications before endorsing their application.
“Having done it for a few years, we've got a pretty good sense of who has a chance of being admitted,” Hammond said.
Though some students send coaches standardized test scores, McInroy said the rowing coaches only asked for informal confirmation of his academic qualifications. He said the coaches asked about his SAT scores “so that they could then tell [him] whether they’d be good enough to be recruited.”
“But I didn’t have to give them like exact exam scores and everything,” he added. “But it was like, ‘What SAT are you getting? Can we recruit you?’”
McDermott said his coaches gave him specific advice on how to approach his application to Harvard as an athlete.
“I was told specifically not to talk about track in my essays. They were like, ‘They know you’re a recruited athlete. Don’t talk about it,’” he said. “So I avoided that.”
Some international recruits, many of whom had little prior knowledge of the American college admissions system, pointed to their Harvard coaches as the people who led them through the process.
Kyle J. Murphy ’22, who is from Australia and is now on the track and field team, said Harvard coaches ran him through the basics so he would be prepared to apply.
“The process is the same, but it has a little bit of a unique impact for international recruits,” Murphy said. "I didn’t really know what the SAT was or a GPA or anything like that. So, through recruiting, they helped me actually figure out what the process is to come to college in the United States.”
As recruits finalize and submit their applications, coaches choose to officially endorse some athletes. The admissions committee takes these endorsements into consideration and typically sends likely letters to those athletes tapped by coaches.
Even after talks with coaches and official visits, recruited athletes apply to Harvard using the same application process as all other students — that is, they submit essays and test scores, sit for alumni interviews, and can only earn admission after a vote from the full admissions committee.
The eight Ivy League schools have policies stating their admissions offices may only issue likely letters between Oct. 1 and March 15. The Harvard admissions office, therefore, can send likely letters even a few weeks before the Oct. 15 early application deadline. Official admissions results are typically not released until mid-December for early action applicants.
“Likely letters will have the effect of letters of admission, in that as long as the applicant sustains the academic and personal record reflected in the completed application, the institution will send a formal admission offer on the appropriate notification date,” a joint Ivy League agreement on admissions procedures states.
Schoenfeld said he received a likely letter around a week after submitting his application, though he did not receive an official offer of admission until later.
“My coach was like, ‘Okay, I need your application to take to admissions with my likely letter,’” he said. “I sent it in and he had my application and, like, next week I got the phone call from admissions. It was super early.”
The details of the College’s recruiting process and the degree to which it differs from the standard application process has made Harvard a consistent target for critics.
In particular, anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing the University for allegedly discriminating against Asian American applicants, argues that Harvard’s athletic recruitment has contributed to racial discrimination in the admissions process.
Harvard has repeatedly denied allegations of discrimination.
Last summer, SFFA filed documents in court including an internal University report that found that the College’s acceptance rate for highly academically qualified athletes is roughly 83 percent. Non-athletes with similar qualifications see an acceptance rate of 16 percent.
Hammond said those numbers can be misleading, however, because coaches vet recruited athletes before the admissions committee even looks at their applications.
“The success rate for the department overall is very high. But that's because so much work has been done on the front end,” he said.
Still, some experts claim athletic recruiting exacerbates inequality in higher education. Graduate School of Education Professor Natasha K. Warikoo said recruitment largely benefits already privileged students.
“The research suggests that athletic recruiting leads to greater inequality in admissions, because the majority of students who are being recruited have some kind of privilege,” Warikoo said. “In some ways, in order to get to a point where you have the skills, and also get scouted to be recruited, means that you have to have certain kinds of resources.”
Recruited athletes sometimes attend expensive summer camps and receive private coaching to strengthen their skills and attract the attention of recruiters, Warikoo said.
Some have said the nationwide admissions scandal — in which people bought their children admission to elite universities — reveals how the recruitment process could be manipulated or abused by those with the resources to do so. The case, which came to light in March, did not directly implicate Harvard.
Federal investigators found that wealthy parents bribed college admissions advisers, standardized test administrators, and coaches to falsify their children’s credentials and secure them spots at various universities.
In one instance, investigators found that a woman recruited to play soccer at Yale did not actually play soccer. Rather, her parents paid college adviser William “Rick” Singer — who has since pled guilty to federal charges — $1.2 million to get her a spot at Yale. The head coach of Yale women’s soccer, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, recruited the woman in exchange for a $400,000 bribe.
Rick Eckstein, a Villanova University sociology professor who studies youth sports, said the bribery scandal closely resembles legal iterations of the recruiting process.
“This scandal, this so-called corruption, is a millimeter — it is a molecule — away from business as usual. These admissions advantages exist. They're real. They're strong,” Eckstein said. “None of this stuff would have worked unless the system existed where coaches get these preferential slots and admissions officers are kind of part of the system.”
Harvard was not implicated in the scandal — a fact that University President Lawrence S. Bacow attributed in part to the College’s requirement that all applicants sit for alumni interviews. He also noted that Athletics Department officials are not involved in making admissions decisions.
In a March interview, Bacow said “we do some things very differently” compared to some of the schools implicated in the scandal.
“For example, with respect to athletes, every athlete who is admitted to Harvard gets an interview,” he said. “Apparently, not true at some institutions.”
Less than a month after Bacow’s comments, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced on April 4 that Harvard was investigating head fencing coach Peter Brand after the discovery that he sold his home to the father of a current sophomore for hundreds of thousands of dollars above its market valuation.
Administrators also decided to re-train all Harvard coaches on the University’s conflict of interest policies in the wake of the scandal. Still, as the University reckons with the accusations against its fencing coach, many of Harvard’s athletes report that they believe the recruiting process is overall a fair one.
“I know some athletes feel ingenuine when they get here,” McDermott said. “To be an athlete, like, I worked really hard in high school. I spent years and years, thousands and thousands of miles running, just to get to that level — to get into college.”
“I feel like I've earned my way here,” he said.
—Staff writer Devin B. Srivastava can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @devinsrivastava.