This story is a bit old, but I was unfamiliar with the policy of “likely letters.”

When several elite universities announced this fall that they were eliminating early admissions programs, they were showered with praise for their commitment to ending the special advantages some applicants had over others.

The universities themselves stressed the issue of equity. Harvard University boasted of creating a “single, later admissions cycle.” Princeton University talked about a “single admission process.” The University of Virginia said it wanted to send a message that “the playing field is level for all.” All three universities said applications would be due in early January and decisions would be announced in early April.

But the playing field still has a bit of a slant. All three universities plan to have some athletes apply early and to notify some of them early — months in advance of other applicants — about whether they are going to get in. While the information will fall just short of a formal admissions offer, some applicants will be told that as long as they keep their grades at current levels, they will be assured admission.

Harvard and Princeton will be notifying athletes through the longstanding practice of sending “likely” letters to some athletes shortly after October 1 each year. Under Ivy League rules, such a letter “has the effect of a formal letter of admission provided the candidate continues to have a satisfactory secondary school experience.”

The New England Small College Athletic Conference consists of elite liberal arts colleges that all have early decision. Like their Ivy League counterparts, NESCAC institutions do not award athletic scholarships. The institutions are well known — “notorious” in the words of one person familiar with athletic recruiting — for using early decision to go after athletes. To date, NESCAC institutions have not shown any interest in moving away from early decision.

Does Williams use anything like “likely letters” in the fall? (We know that it does so in February.) You wouldn’t think so from this article, but we occasionally see news stories in October about high school students “going to Williams” even though early admission decisions aren’t made till December. How often do Williams coaches give the best tips a heads up? How binding is that commitment?

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