Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The "likely letter" season in the Ivies

The Ivy League plays by different rules. Sure, they're all NCAA DI schools – meeting the minimum standards the NCAA requires – but the league's a) season of sport, b) recruiting practices, c) academic standards, d) lack of athletic scholarships, and e) admissions practices are at a far remove from the rest of NCAA DI schools. Laxers who aspire to play in the Ivy League need to learn a whole new language to understand Ivy recruiting. In particular, two phrases – academic index and likely letter – are unique to the Ivies. In a separate blog entry, I'll write later about the intricacies of the Academic Index and why it delays the completion of recruiting a class. The Likely Letter is particularly timely now, since they have recently arrived at the homes of anxious Ivy hopefuls over the last month or so.

So, what is the Likely Letter and what is the origin of the name? It all starts with the standard comment of all Ivy coaches that, "Admissions makes admission decisions, I don't. In return for your commitment to me, I commit to do my best to represent you to the admissions committee." Since coaches want to build, and hold, their classes, they need to send a signal to recruited athletes who have scholarship offers from non-Ivies that those athletes are "likely" to be admitted. Admissions committees for each Ivy meet in the Fall and are presented with a list of High School Senior candidates by the Coach of each and every sport the school sponsors. The committee reviews each candidate (and the coaches candidate pool as a whole) and makes tentative decisions on each candidate. Those candidates who pass muster with the admissions committee – some pass with flying colors and others by the skin of their teeth –  are sent the infamous "likely letter." Sadly, some few don't make it past the admissions committee and the Coach has to convey the bad news to the declined player.

So, what does the likely letter say and why is it sent? The letter from the Admissions committee says to a recruited athlete that he/she is "likely" to be admitted if the candidate's grades and behaviors remain at their current level. It is not a guarantee, but it is the next closest thing. Recruited athletes are encouraged to apply "Early Decision or Early Action" to the Ivy that has recruited them. Coaches, Admissions, and Administration at the Ivies know that they are competing against schools who offer scholarship monies, while the Ivies offer no athletic scholarships and only offer need-based aid. Historically, the likely letter has served as a way to signal recruited athletes that if things stay on track, they'll be offered an admissions slot in the early action/decision flurry.

But increasingly, the likely letter is an anachronism. Why? Sophomore recruiting is the why. When non-Ivies start recruiting rising Sophomores, the Ivies haves no ability to respond. They require transcripts, standardized test scores, recommendations from teachers and administrators. So, it's quaint and it's steeped in tradition, but if you want to go Ivy, you'll have to decline scholarship offers made during your Sophomore year and take the risk of not getting a likely letter. It is becoming harder for scholar athletes to wait for a likely letter.

Still, you'd be amazed how many players wait. The thought of an Ivy education resonates with a sizable portion of the lacrosse world. Nonetheless, I will predict that that advent of Sophomore recruiting will force the Ivies to re-examine their recruiting practices. They may conclude to keep the status quo ante, but not without lots of tooth gnashing and hand wringing. The yawning chasm between big-time athletics and big-time academics is widening. In non-Ivies, most of the battles between athletics and admissions are won by the Athletic Departments. That's not true for the Ivies. Just a very few years ago, DI Men's laxers committed late in the Summer of their Junior year or early in their Senior year. We'll see how the Ivies respond to top players being recruited in the summer after their Freshman year or in the Fall of their Sophomore year! At this point in their academic lives, incoming Sophomores have skimpy transcripts, no AP classes, no SAT scores, no PSAT scores,  and no extended read of a candidate from his teachers, counsellors or coaches is available.

Coaches face much more uncertainty about the players they are recruiting since they know so little about a candidate's academic profile when that recruit has completed only his Freshman year. As a consequence, Ivy coaches will have to add more conditions to their offers. Such conditions include: a) subject to a score of XXX on your PSAT, b) subject to SAT scores of XXXX, c) subject to a GPA of X.XX, etc. It is worth remembering that these conditions may satisfy the coach, but may not satisfy admissions. Only admissions can make an offer to an Ivy candidate. I know of several instances where Ivy coaches have raised the academic and test score bar during the time between coaches' initial offers and the creation of their final list of recruits to present to admissions. In part, this relates to players achieving (or not achieving) target test scores and GPAs. In part it relates to the Academic Index for the entire list of recruits.  

It is a tricky time for the Ivies and their lacrosse teams. As a result, it is a tricky time to be a recruited laxer to the Ivy League.

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