Thursday, March 13, 2008

Likely Letters from Harvard on the Rise

Published On Thursday, March 13, 2008 1:51 AM
Crimson Staff Writer

The phone call from Harvard came about three weeks ago. Chelsea S. Link, a homeschooled senior from Evanston, Ill., assumed it would be about her upcoming visit to campus. When she picked up the phone, however, it was an admissions officer telling her she had been accepted, even though official decisions would not be available for over a month. A few days later, the phone call would be followed by a letter confirming that she could expect to receive an offer from the school. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, in each of the past five years, Harvard has sent out between 64 and 114 of these storied “likely letters”—notifications to applicants before the official reply date that they can expect a big envelope in the mail come spring. But with the changing landscape of college admissions, especially with Harvard’s elimination of its early action program, the admissions office has sent out far more likely letters, or “likelies,” this year to try to attract students who will or already do have offers from other schools. ‘EXPLODING OFFERS’ Though the Ivy League maintains a single reply date for regular admissions—March 31 this year—colleges can offer students the next best thing to an official decision with a proverbial wink, under the theory that an applicant who has more time to consider a college will be likelier to attend. Harvard isn’t the only school to follow this practice. Other Ivy League schools that send out similar letters include Yale, Princeton, and Brown. But does a “likely” signify a “definitely”? Fitzsimmons says that, as for all admits, it is still possible for a likely letter recipient to be rejected, but only in the same kinds of cases that would get an official offer of admission rescinded, such as plagiarism or poor academic performance. While the number of likely letters Harvard has sent over the last five years has varied, one thing has remained consistent: the vast majority have gone to athletes. In keeping with this trend, Harvard has sent out 217 of these letters so far, and “all but ten” of them have gone to athletes, according to Fitzsimmons. But he adds that the admissions office is still planning on sending out a substantial number of non-athletic likelies before March 31. Fitzsimmons calls it an “unprecedented year” with many other colleges trying to poach students who could be lured away without an early Harvard admission. Yale, for one, saw applicants to its early pool rise by 36 percent, following both Harvard’s and Princeton’s decisions to end early admissions. The strategy is targeted to athletes in particular because they often face intense pressure from interested colleges to accept or decline an offer of admission, and if Harvard doesn’t act early they might be compelled to accept another school’s bid. According to Fitzsimmons, these recruiting tactics are often called “exploding offers,” where a student athlete must make a decision within a short frame of time. PLAYING THE FIELD Jacques A. Barjon, a senior at St. Marks School of Texas in Dallas, had been communicating with an assistant coach from Harvard’s track and field team since August, at the same that he was receiving pressure from other schools’ coaches to make a decision. Barjon, whose school sends many of its students to top colleges, said he was “not the smartest kid in [his] class.” He applied with a 2200 SAT score, and plays football in addition to running track. Harvard’s coach told him to get his application in early, and a week after he submitted it in early December, he got a response: likely. Barjon says he will be attending. Tyler G. Funk, also a track and field athlete from Dallas with a similar academic background, says that the likely letter he received from Harvard made the recruiting process much easier for him. “In recruiting if you don’t act quickly enough, you lose your spot as quickly as you get your opportunity,” Funk said. Link, on the other hand, is part of a far smaller proportion of students who receive likely letters on the basis of academics rather than athletics. Fitzsimmons says that for non-athletic likelies, the admissions office is primarily motivated to reach out to applicants who might not otherwise attend. According to Fitzsimmons, academic likely letters are often sent to students “who might not think Harvard was even in the cards.” Link, for one, has a somewhat unorthodox background—she has been homeschooled since kindergarten and received perfect scores on both the SAT and the ACT. Link spends much of her time practicing harp and won an international title in Ireland last year. DEFINITELY LIKELY As an academic and athletic recruiting tactic, likely letters seem to do their job. Fitzsimmons says that the yield is about the same as Harvard’s overall yield, which in recent years has been just shy of 80 percent. This figure is notable since likely letter recipients are seen as particularly appealing candidates, who are even more apt than other applicants to be weighing Harvard’s offer against others. In the battle for top applicants, colleges will have to wait until students decide where they are going before they can assess the effect of changes in recruiting tactics such as likely letters. Link, for one, says that she still hasn’t come to a final decision. When she heard from Harvard, she had already been accepted to Yale through its early action program. But her uncertainty did not take away from the excitement of hearing from Harvard early. Still on the phone, Link told her mother she had been accepted. “She lied down, banged on the floor, and tried not to scream,” Link said. —Staff writer Lingbo Li can be reached at

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