UPDATED: April 18, 2022 at 9:50 p.m.
Galdino Guzman-Navarro ’23 was bundling up to go feed his horses on a March day in Nebraska when he got a call from Cambridge, Mass.
An admissions officer was on the phone and informed Guzman-Navarro that he would be admitted to Harvard.
“The guy on the phone with me was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to admit you,’” Navarro said. “I think the whole thing was just pitching Harvard.”
Colleges send likely letters — or, in some cases, make likely phone calls — to prospective students to notify them they are likely to be admitted on the official decision release date. To receive one is rare: Harvard College doesn’t release how many likely letters it sends out, but in the past, the school has sent roughly 200 to recruited athletes and 100 to non-athletes.
Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in an interview last month the College uses likely letters to target students from rural areas or otherwise underrepresented backgrounds.
“If you’re, say, the first in your family to go to college and come from a very rural part of America, having a little longer period of time might help you start to get your family ready for the idea that maybe you’re going to be going off a long way away,” Fitzsimmons said.
“You try out a way for people who might be outside that sort of normal, mainstream of applicants to send a signal,” he added.
Across the Ivy League, prospective student-athletes may receive likely letters as part of their recruitment process.
“An admissions office may issue probabilistic communications, in writing, to recruited student-athlete applicants who have submitted all required application materials,” Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email.
Per Ivy League regulations, colleges can send likely letters to recruited athletes between Oct. 1 and March 15.
Despite their early notification, likely letter recipients, including recruited athletes, are subject to the same review process as all other applicants.
Prior to receiving a likely letter, the athlete must undergo a vote from Harvard’s 40-person admissions committee, according to Dane. The committee meets periodically between October and March to consider candidates.
Student-athlete applicants may only receive a likely letter after having submitted their application in its entirety, per Dane.
Amira Singh ’25, a member of Harvard Women’s Squash, was recruited by Harvard Athletics in April 2020, before formally applying to the College in August.
“It was more of a written confirmation from them that I got the offer [from the coach] and I accepted and then that they would support me throughout the admissions process,” Singh said of her recruitment letter.
Shortly after officially applying, Singh received a likely letter, followed by a formal acceptance in December.
Athletes aren’t the only ones who might receive the coveted likely letter.
Sasha Agarwal ’24-25, an international student from India, received a likely letter that cited her academic, extracurricular, and personal accomplishments.
Zakaree “Zak” Harris, a college counselor at InGenius Prep and a former admissions officer at Bowdoin College, said likely letter recipients are “hitting the mark, literally in every single area.”
“It’s a clear admit because of their academics, and what they’ve done in the classroom, and what they’re doing extracurricularly, what their essays were about, what a recommender is saying about them,” he said. “There’s few people that are going to be better.”
After receiving her formal acceptance, Agarwal received another letter from her regional admissions officer who referenced her nonprofit work in menstrual equity and her supplemental essay on behavioral economics.
“She also just spoke to how my personal story, behind why I’m passionate about neuroscience, was something that stood out to them,” she said.
Dan Lee, co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, said Ivy League and peer institutions rate applicants in a series of categories. Likely letter recipients are typically those who achieve the highest marks in each category, he said.
“At Stanford, it's ‘one to five’ for academics, intellectual vitality, extracurriculars, personal, and other metrics as well,” Lee said. “A student who’s a ‘one’ across the board would be exceedingly rare and that's the type of student who would most likely get a likely letter.”
Harvard, too, ranks applicants on a scale of ‘one’ to ‘six’ in areas like academics, extracurriculars, personal qualities, and athletic ability.
“In terms of maxing out your chances of getting a likely letter, you have to max out the metrics that they’re looking at,” he said.
“It comes down to yield and also recruiting,” Lee said. “These universities have different institutional goals, whether it be recruited athletes or recruiting a certain number of underrepresented minorities.”
“The likely letters are given at the intersection of whatever the school's institutional goals are — where that meets students,” he said.
Lee sees likely letters as a tool schools use to encourage top students to enroll at their institution, citing Yale’s distribution of likely letters to strong applicants in the STEM fields as an effort to vitalize the college’s STEM programs.
“It’s for the purpose of getting the student to come to campus because, obviously, elite universities are competing with each other for these very top students,” Lee said. “They want to signal to these students that ‘Hey, you know, we really want you at Harvard.’”
Fitzsimmons said in the March interview that Harvard uses likely letters as a “recruiting device” to attract “very, very good applicants.”
“They’re also usually likely to be people who are receiving admissions as they go along from other places, or versions of likely letters,” Fitzsimmons said. “A lot of places, public and private, have so-called merit awards that they give special incentives.”
“Our feeling is we don’t do merit scholarships, and we don’t have those kinds of incentives, where we see somebody like that we can send the likely as a signal,” he added.
Still, Grant A. Meiners ’22-’23, a likely letter recipient from rural Iowa, said his early notification did not make an impact on his decision to attend Harvard.
“Ultimately, where I went to college came down to financial aid,” he said. “Harvard’s just better in that department.”
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