For most high school seniors waiting to hear back from Ivy League colleges this year, March 29 was the day circled in red on the calendar. But relief arrived unexpectedly early for some students like Rui Bao, who received the coveted, yet somewhat mythical, wink from Yale: the likely letter.

In late February, Bao first received a call from her Yale alumni interviewer telling her that she was “likely” to be accepted in March. Later that night, she got a similar call from her Yale admissions officer. The next day, a Yale sweatshirt arrived courtesy of her local alumni club in St. Louis, Mo., and then a few days later, she found a letter in her mailbox from Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel congratulating her on her stellar application and declaring that acceptance was imminent.

While not all likely letter recipients find themselves showered with the same level of attention as Bao — who immigrated from China at age 6, is ranked second in her class and received numerous awards, including being named a Coca-Cola Scholar — the letter alone is a momentous overture from a college.

Likely letters, which are sent to a small proportion of regular decision applicants between January and early March, are intended to alert certain students that they will likely be accepted once late March or early April comes around. College admissions officers listed various strategic reasons for this practice, including increasing the chance that an accepted student will matriculate. Some counselors said the letters appear to target particularly desirable — and courted — categories of applicants, such as ethnic minorities.

Although all Ivy League schools are bound to abide by a common spring notification date for regular decision applicants, they are allowed to communicate their intentions to students earlier. While sending likely letters to athletes is a common practice for schools around the nation, academic likely letters are a lesser-known phenomenon. One recent recipient of a likely letter from Yale even thought the letter was a joke when it first came in the mail.

But admissions officers at some Ivy League and small private schools acknowledged sending such letters to at least a few students every year. In fact, following the recent decision of Harvard and Princeton universities to eliminate their early admissions programs, some counselors speculated that these schools may increase the number of likely letters they send in order to ensure that the top students have ample time to consider their options.

The administrative perspective

Brenzel said the fundamental reason that the Yale admissions office sends likely letters is that students admitted under regular decision have just a month to make their decisions, during which time they may be considering many other offers. Students admitted under early action, on the other hand, have months to learn more about Yale and imagine themselves on campus before they hear back from any other schools.

Admissions officers hope to identify those regular-decision applicants who are virtually certain of acceptance and to put Yale on their radars as soon as possible, especially as they may also have received early offers from other colleges.

“As the admissions officers are reading this enormous stack of applications, they from time to time come across a student — and it could be a student from any background or with any kind of interest or talent — but who, relative to other students from that background or interest or talent, stands out even within a very strong pool as being quite extraordinary,” Brenzel said.

A prospective likely-letter recipient could be attractive to admissions offers for any number of reasons, Brenzel said, from extraordinary accomplishments in the sciences to having overcome unusual situations of disadvantage. But all likely-letter recipients must meet three criteria: They must be such strong candidates that they are virtually certain to have applied to other competitive schools, it must be virtually certain that the most competitive schools will accept them, and last, Yale officers must be virtually certain that they will admit the applicant, even without seeing the entire applicant pool.

“We have to answer those three questions and ask, ‘Are we certain we’re going to admit this student?’” Brenzel said. “If we are, we want this student to have ample opportunity to see everything they can see about Yale because we know they will be offered this opportunity elsewhere as well.”

Such exemplary files are read, as are all applications, by two admissions officers. But if these readers agree to nominate the applicant to receive a likely letter, the application proceeds not to the admissions committee but to the judgment of Brenzel himself. Sometimes, he said, he will ask a member of the Yale community who shares the student’s academic or extracurricular specialty to evaluate the application, but he always has the final word on whether the student will receive a likely letter.

Brenzel declined to say how many such letters Yale sends out each year. But a student familiar with the likely letters program said Yale sent out about 120 early letters this year.

Harvard, which also uses likely letters to target top academic recruits, sends out roughly 100 of them each year, Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis said.

McGrath-Lewis said Harvard sees likely letters in part as a reward for extraordinary students, who may excel in areas from mathematics to music. She said admissions officers must be able to predict how the candidate will compare to the rest of their fellow Cantab hopefuls.

“We do it when we feel that it would make sense to indicate with a degree of certainty that someone will be admitted,” she said. “It’s not part of some complicated thing, it’s a helpful tool for us to be able to have and it’s certainly helpful for the applicant, and that’s why we do it.”

For now, Princeton University uses likely letters primarily for athletic recruits, spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said. But in light of recent policy changes that eliminated early admissions at Princeton, she said, the number of academic likely letters could increase.

“With the end of Early Decision, it’s possible that the university might consider expanding this practice beyond scholar-athletes in cases that we want to ensure that a student thinks seriously about Princeton,” Cliatt said in an e-mail. “However, we recognize that sending out a significant number of these would defeat the purpose of ending early decision, and that is not our goal.”

Likely-letter programs may be more important for smaller schools hoping to compete with the Ivy heavyweights for top applicants.

Dick Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College, a top-ranked liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, said his office has expanded and formalized the “early write” program of early notification. Williams sends about 200 of these letters each year to outstanding academic students, he said.

“The philosophy really is that it’s an honor [to receive an early write letter] because they don’t have to wait until later,” Nesbitt said. “It gives us a little more chance to recruit those students through letters from faculty chairs or alumni contacting them, and it also gives them the dates of our program for admitted students so they have a little more time to set up travel arrangements.”

This year, Williams accepted 1,120 students from an applicant pool of 6,437 for an acceptance rate of 17.4 percent.

A winning strategy?

In an increasingly competitive admissions landscape — for institutions as well as individual students — likely letters appear to be an strategic tool for colleges to recruit from highly desirable groups, high school counselors said.

“It’s the students that fit institutional need, whatever that is,” said Ellen Fisher, college adviser at the public Bronx High School of Science in New York. “At Princeton it may be athletes, to someone else it could be a variety of reasons — it could be that they’re looking for engineering students, or whatever need they have at that particular moment for a specific reason.”

Some of those students may come from a particular demographic that the college would like to single out and lure away from competitors, counselors suggested, citing examples of outstanding minority or low-income students who received likely letters.

Elyse Artin, college counselor at the public John F. Kennedy High School in Los Angeles, said a couple of her students during her 10 years at the predominantly Hispanic school have received likely letters from Yale and Harvard. The boy who received the letter from Harvard was Hispanic, from a single-parent home and of an income level sufficiently low to make him eligible for the National School Lunch Program, she said. He was also ranked first in his class and entertained offers from all the schools to which he applied, including Princeton, Artin said. Although the early notification from Harvard ultimately was not the deciding factor in his decision to spend four years in Cambridge, Mass., she said the letter represented an attempt to reach out to him and distinguish Harvard from the other offers.

Xinyuan Wu ’09, who was ranked second in her class and received likely letters from both Dartmouth and Columbia colleges, said she had heard that Dartmouth sends out many likely letters — between 400 and 500 each year, according to the student newspaper The Dartmouth — in part to entice minority applicants, whom the school often loses to competing institutions. Women may also be a target for Dartmouth, she said. Two of the three women who applied from her school received likely letters, and all three were ultimately accepted.

But Brenzel said the admissions office would not strategically send likely letters just to woo applicants away from its competitors.

“A single extraordinary dimension by itself is not enough for consideration to receive a likely nomination,” he said. “We are looking for the Yale student, for someone who connects intensely with other people and is accomplished in more ways than one, so our likely letters may not coincide exactly with Harvard’s or Stanford’s. They may see a different kind of student as being a quintessential Harvard or a quintessential Stanford student.”

It is difficult to define the type of student who receives a likely letter, Brenzel said, and it is only possible to characterize the recipient group as “extraordinary” because what matters is their individual context.

Private admissions counselor Jane Shropshire, the former president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, emphasized that no matter what particular demographic a candidate may fall into, a college would not send a letter if the applicant were not exceptional in some way.

“I could imagine that there might be demographics coming into play, or extraordinary out-of-school accomplishments, but even if it’s a student who isn’t truly academically at the very top of the applicant pool, it would have to be someone who is strong enough in the context of the applicant pool so that it wouldn’t be a complete surprise,” she said.

‘Students feel wanted’

Regardless of why students are selected to receive likely letters, the aim is to lure top students to matriculate. The letters are flattering, counselors and students said, and give applicants more time to investigate their options.

Gabriel Monteros ’09, a half-Hispanic student who received a likely letter from Yale in February of his senior year, said he had not expected to be singled out by admissions officers.

“I had never thought of myself as a particularly well-qualified candidate for Yale so I was really excited,” he said. “It was totally a surprise.”

Monteros, who was ranked second in his graduating class at a public school in Pasadena, Calif., said the likely letter may have been the “number one” reason he chose to attend Yale because it made him feel particularly wanted.

Beth Slattery, a counselor at the private Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, said students perceive a likely letter to be a sign that they were truly outstanding among their peers.

“I think it makes them feel wanted and believe they were probably at the high end of the applicant pool,” she said. “It can have two effects: students feel wanted or maybe think ‘[This school] isn’t as selective as I thought,’ but the overwhelming feeling is that they are flattered by it and want to look into it. At that point they rarely know what their other options are going to be, so they have more time to invest in that school.”

Vivek Raman, a senior at the public Libertyville High School in Illinois, said he first received a phone call from his Yale admissions officer in February, and then received a likely letter.

“He said ‘Don’t commit a murder and don’t flunk out of school, and you’ll be in by April first,’” Raman said.

His first reactions, he said, were shock and disbelief, since he had previously been unaware of the existence of likely letters. In fact, Raman said, he first thought it was a prank, but once he realized the letter’s import, he felt both excited and flattered. Most importantly, at least from the Yale admissions perspective, he said the early notice allowed him to spend time investigating the Yale experience. By the time Bulldog Days arrived, he said, he was already almost certain that he would choose Yale over Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The likely program is extremely effective because I wouldn’t have done nearly as much research if I hadn’t gotten a likely letter,” he said. “I was able to talk to a lot of students there, and I was in constant contact with my admissions officer, who set me up with a professor at Yale who is head of the new nanoscience center. It showed me how many opportunities Yale has to offer.”

Raman, whose parents moved to the Chicago suburbs from India before he was born, is ranked first in his high school class, took 15 Advanced Placement exams throughout his four years and has an intensive background in science, including research.

Confusion and strife

But likely letters sometimes create confusion or even strife rather than putting students’ fears to rest, and in other cases they may not have the intended effect of luring the applicant to matriculate after all.

Because likely letters are unofficial and therefore somewhat vaguely worded, counselors said, students can be confused about what receiving a letter actually means, Slattery said.

“They’re relieved once someone actually lets them know that that’s what it is, but sometimes they’re confused because they don’t know for sure that it’s saying what they think it’s saying and they don’t want to get overconfident,” she said. “As a counselor, I feel I have to be careful because even though I believe I know what it means, I’m never going to be fully comfortable until they have an admissions packet in their hands.”

Likely letters may also increase anxiety for the recipient’s classmates, particularly those who have applied to the same school.

Dean Jacoby, director of college counseling at the private Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., said applicants who do not receive a letter in early spring may wonder what this means about the status of their application, he said. Specifically, they may see it as a sign that they are unlikely to be accepted or that they are not at the top of the applicant pool, he said. It also reactivates the anxiety of students who are trying to relax between sending in their applications and hearing back from schools, he said.

“You would have time to focus on other things, but that time disappears because college news starts trickling in and people’s attention gets distracted,” Jacoby said. “It’s not devastating to [Choate] as a community, but it does have a downside.”

Wu said she became worried about her Dartmouth application after a classmate received a likely letter, so it was a relief to receive her own in February. Out of the five students from her high school who applied to Dartmouth, she said, three received likely letters, which created anxiety for the remaining two, only one of whom was ultimately admitted.

But Nesbitt said Williams tries to avoid this by taking into account the high school background of a possible early write recipient. If several students applied to Williams from the same high school and are all promising, he said, admissions officers will not single out one of these applicants for fear of worrying the other candidates. The usual scenario is that the early write recipient is the single applicant from his or her high school or is significantly stronger than the other applicants, Nesbitt said.

Likely letters are also no guarantee that a student will choose to matriculate.

Jennifer Graham, director of college counseling at the private Winsor School in Boston, said a few of her outstanding counselees typically receive such letters from Ivy League schools, but the likely letter is not always an important factor in where they decide to attend.

“I do think it can influence them positively because they have more time to think about the school, but I couldn’t say whether in the end that that’s the deciding factor,” she said. “In the end, [the two or three students who received them this year] did not go to the schools that issued them likely letters. I think they looked carefully at the schools, but in the end it didn’t totally convince them.”

But while likely letters may not in and of themselves dictate an applicant’s choice, they often compel high schoolers to take a closer look at the college.

Although Bao is still deciding between Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, she said the time she has had to consider Yale’s offer and to visit the campus for Bulldog Days were enough to help her narrow her choices and take Harvard out of the running.

“I wouldn’t say the actual receiving of the letter factored into my decision, but the fact that I got it this early and could consider Yale has affected my decision and has made me lean towards Yale a lot more than I would have,” Bao said.

Bao, and other admitted students, have until May 1 to choose where to matriculate.