A week or so ago, I got a postcard in the mail from the College of William and Mary, a school I had decided to apply to a couple hours before their Common App deadline (we all have that one school). On the postcard, there was a message. Word for word, it said, “We expect to send you good news this spring”. (Of course, it had a bunch of other random stuff too, but that was the important part.) And at the bottom was a nice handwritten message from an admissions counselor saying “Great essays! Hope to see you around campus in the fall!”
Not gonna lie, it took me entirely too long to figure out that the postcard was supposed to be their version of a “likely letter” and that I was supposed to be excited I got accepted.
If you’re a senior applying/finished applying to colleges at this point, you probably know of the extreme anxiety that comes between Jan 1st and May 1st, when you have to decide where you will go to college for the next four years. You probably also know that almost all of the decisions come out at the end of March, wayyyyy too long after you first apply.
This stressful period of waiting is the worst part of the process and schools understand that. Of course, even if they understand, there’s only so much they can do to make it better.
Which is why some schools do stuff like send out “likely letters”.
*Note: Before I get into this, important notice - don’t be alarmed if you didn’t get a likely letter!!! It doesn’t mean you won’t be accepted or that you weren’t a strong applicant. Sometimes the process can be incredibly random.
What is a likely letter?
A likely letter (or in my case, a likely postcard) is the college telling you that when they officially release their admissions decisions in the spring, you WILL be accepted (unless something horribly goes wrong the last few months of senior year). It’s not an “okay, I will probably be accepted”, it’s a “when can I start wearing this school’s apparel because yay! I’m accepted!”
Usually, there’s some cryptic wording involved where they don’t want to tell you straight up that you’re accepted, but rest assured that it means that you are. They’re usually sent out in October-ish for early decision and February for regular decisions.
There’s a really good article written about them by the “Resident Dean” over at College Confidential (which you can read here) and I really love the way they describe them:
The gist of these missives is: “We fully plan to accept you so you can breathe a sigh of relief, but don’t screw up between now and when you get your official acceptance because this one isn’t quite official.”
Who usually gets likely letters?
Likely letters are commonly associated with Ivy League athletes - because the Ivies make their decisions so late, there’s a good chance top-recruited athletes might commit elsewhere before they even receive the Ivy acceptance.
Beyond athletes, Ivies and other schools also send out likely letters to other, “normal” applicants. In this case. getting a likely letter means you are an incredibly strong applicant that the school wants to make sure they hang on to - so that you don’t latch on to one of your many other acceptances before the school gets a chance to take you.
Colleges use basic social psychology to make sure you are thinking of their school first, before all those other amazing acceptances come in, to increase the likelihood that you will attend their school.
Which will then increase their yield (aka the percent of accepted students that matriculate). (Oh, you thought they were actually doing it for you? Don’t forget, college is a business, they want those students and that high yield.) But cynicism aside, this does mean that the college is excited to have you and it helps to have some of the pressure taken off.
But keep that in mind when deciding where to commit - don’t forget to weigh all of your options before you make a decision.
But what if I didn’t get a likely letter?
And this is where the process of likely letters gets frustrating. You can be an incredibly strong applicant but still not get a likely letter, and that might just be because they didn’t get to your application before it was time to send those likely letters out.
In fact, the grand majority of amazing applicants DO NOT get likely letters, just because of luck of the draw. Schools, especially the Ivies, can only get through so many applications before they start to send out likely letters.
The important thing to remember is that even if you don’t get a likely letter, it doesn’t mean you won’t get accepted, it just means you’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.
It’s a confusing process, so don’t take not getting a letter to heart.
Does getting a likely letter mean you have to go?
Nooooo, it does not. My application to College of William and Mary was literally an 11th-hour decision that looking back on it I have no idea why I made and I have no intentions to go there. (Sorry CWM.)
But if you do want to go there (one of my friends got a likely letter to Yale (!!!) - her top choice), you can rest knowing your future is all set. Of course, you will still have to wait for the official acceptance before you commit and whatnot.
So for those that got some early good news - congrats!
And as always, thanks for reading!