Instead of a binary reply, you can opt to postpone enrollment. You may be in a financial, geographical or health situation that puts your education on hold. Most accredited schools grant a deferral for health reasons (e.g. pregnancy), but always check the deferral policy lest you end up paying enrollment deposits.
Remember those humble-yet-accredited schools on the bottom of your tiered school list a year ago? You may now see them in a new light. You may have changed your mind about engineering, and now have your eyes on a nursing program that is ranked higher at a so-called safety school. Or perhaps you’ve decided to stay in your home state to save money, take care of parents, or avoid the complexities of a long-distance relationship. As life changes, so may the ranking of safety schools on your list.
It is a luxury to slowly soul-search and make comparison charts. But for financial aid offices, each second delayed may be a lost opportunity for another student. So an acceptance letter includes a scholarship or aid, it essentially acts as a coupon that you should act on ASAP for reward. On average, you should wait no longer than 2 months to reply (for instance, if you got your letter in late January, you should reply with a decision by May 1).
Let’s say you’ve gotten an acceptance letter to your top school, only to find out there’s not enough aid for you to afford to enroll full-time. The devil is in the details, so negotiate if something seems amiss. A letter only conveys the basics, so directly ask the Financial Aid, Academic Advising Center or Residence Department. Carefully read the enclosed housing application, enrollment contract and residency status. If you find that you are being wrongly quoted out-of-state tuition because of a gap-year trip to Tanzania, be sure to correct that immediately.
As soon as you’ve made your final decision, let the schools you’re rejecting know. That way, they can offer your spot (and aid), to another student. An example of a short but sincere letter to the Admissions Committee:
Thank you for your letter of April 16, 20XX, offering me admission to (Name) University. While I appreciate the invitation to attend your institution, after careful consideration of my admission offers, I have decided to accept an offer from (Name2) University.
Never underestimate the importance of polite declination letters, which leads to the next point:
As with interviews, dating and other “acceptance” games, it’s important to maintain goodwill. Send a personal email, card or note thanking the helpful admissions officers, students and advisors at schools you’re rejecting. Karma, unlike financial aid, has a long shelf life in case you end up transferring to that school years later.
While there is no “coasting through senior year” in grad school, poor performance or lackadaisical research habits can jeopardize your fellowship and earn you demerits from your thesis advisor. Even at the time you get your acceptance letters, the school may still be awaiting verification of your final college transcript. Acceptance at both undergraduate and graduate levels is conditional, meaning that infractions can lead to revocation. Caveat emptor!