A Likely Good

Did you get a likely letter? Ironically unlikely, at least for Harvard students. But rest assured — if you did, you’re in good company.

In an effort to soften the transition from high school to university, many colleges have taken to sending out “likely letters” to students, offering them a sneak peak into their admission outcomes before their scheduled decision day. While Ivy League schools do not promise admission to students before an agreed date, dubbed “Ivy Day,” Harvard and other schools notify a small group of applicants of their “likely” admission, contingent on maintaining their current level of academic achievement. According to Crimson reporting, Harvard sends out about 300 of these likely letters every year, 200 to recruited athletes and 100 to students from underrepresented backgrounds.

The cutthroat world of elite college admissions — starting with Harvard’s new, declining acceptance rate normal — can make these institutions feel remote and inaccessible to many applicants. For students who come from backgrounds where going to college is uncommon, or who are themselves first-generation applicants, the process can be even more harrowing and intimidating.

To such candidates, likely letters offer a jolt of joy, validation, and affirmation halfway through a taxing and uncertainty-ridden admissions process. This extra support can be particularly invaluable to students from underrepresented backgrounds, securing their sense of belonging at our institution and preemptively dispelling the much-feared impostor syndrome. That alone is undeniably commendable.

To be sure, these letters add a positive varnish to a system that, overall, remains riddled by deep-rooted flaws. Indeed, of the large pool of quality applicants, only a tiny fraction are accepted to institutions like ours — an inequity partially driven by these institutions’ unfortunate propensity to favor those born with a silver spoon and a leg up. Legacy admissions and Harvard’s secretive “Z-list” are only the most egregious examples.


Thus, while likely letters provide deserved joy to many, and even if their targeting of underrepresented applicants is laudable, they remain part of a highly-elitist system that denies that same joy to many on questionable grounds.

Frankly, even a perfectly fair iteration of our current admissions system would suffer from a culture, so pervasive in some American high schools, which links self-worth to admissions success. Admission to a school like Harvard comes with more gravitas than it should, and we wish that prestige were valued less. Until that day comes, though, making an effort to share that prestige with deserving and underprivileged students is an unambiguous plus. Well beyond the momentary joy they provide, likely letters are a key tool for the worthy goal of bringing less privileged students to Harvard. The special attention they provide can give Harvard a better shot at the diversity essential to our school’s mission.

Likely letters do their job well. Getting one provides a much-appreciated nudge and confidence boost to deserving students who might just need them to pick Harvard. Their targeted focus on underrepresented students, definitionally the sort of applicants that we wish we could see more of at Harvard, is admirable.

Harvard should aspire to be a community that uplifts marginalized students. These letters bring us a tiny step closer to that ideal, and for that we are grateful.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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