52 Weeks to College: Week 33 -- Does the Letter You Just Got REALLY Mean Anything about Your Likely Admission?

Waiting for an admissions decision to arrive is torture. No doubt about it. So it is perfectly understandable that you will scrutinize everything you get from a college in the hopes that it will give you a preview of good news to come. And some colleges do send some applicants messages that are truly positive signals that good news is on the way. But, most of the messages you are getting from colleges right now are nothing more than good marketing. So how do you separate the truly positive signal from the marketing? It’s not easy. This week we’ll give you a few tips and tricks for interpreting what messages you’re getting from colleges.

Week 33 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

Tips & Tricks 

An invitation is good marketing, not a truly positive signal. You just got an email from the college where you have an application pending INVITING you to apply for one of their merit scholarships. Surely that means that you are going to be admitted to the college, right? Wrong. Admissions and scholarship selection processes are operating simultaneously, not sequentially. So an invitation to apply for a scholarship is simply the college marketing their scholarships well. Every applicant who meets the basic eligibility criteria for the scholarship got the same invitation without regard to the likelihood of his/her admission.

An encouraging shout out from someone outside the admissions office is good marketing, not a truly positive signal. You just got an email from the faculty chair of the department of engineering saying that she would be excited to have you as part of the incoming class and raving about all the cool engineering projects you’ll get to do in your first year. You ignored the email you got from the student president of the Robotics Club, but an email from a FACULTY member has to be different, right? Wrong. Colleges know that a little word of encouragement in this period goes a long way when it comes to making you think better of the college and will positively influence your ultimate choice should you be admitted. So this college is running a really great marketing effort by sending you all this encouraging email now, but it is just good marketing, not a truly positive signal.

A “likely letter” is a truly positive signal. A “likely letter” will have the following attributes: it will be a written communication from the admissions office (usually from the highest ranking person in that office) that includes the magic phrase “likely to be admitted” or something very similar. Likely letters are most often sent to the following types of applicants:

  • recruited athletes applying to Ivy League colleges;
  • visual and performing artists who are applicants to by-audition-only or by-portfolio-review only programs; and, 
  • the applicants who are at the tippy, tippy top of very competitive applicant pools. 

What do these applicants have in common? They are usually going to have multiple offers of admission and the college sending the likely letter wants to beat the other colleges to punch when it comes to good news.

Are you an applicant who is likely (excuse the pun) to get a likely letter? If you aren’t, then chances are the letter you have received is a marketing letter, not a likely letter. If you are someone who might get a likely letter, don’t panic if one isn’t in your box, because here’s the catch. Not every college sends likely letters; and, even if the college does send likely letters, they may not have processed your application in time for you to get a likely letter. One more thing about a likely letter – it is a truly positive signal, but it is NOT an offer of admission. Wait until you get the actual offer of admission to celebrate and withdraw all your other applications. And be sure to stay the course when it comes to doing the things that resulted in your getting the likely letter in the first place!  

For more information on likely letters and how colleges use them as part of their admissions strategy, see this great article in the Yale Daily News

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.