College  |  January 28, 2020  |  Ashley Boucher

College Acceptance Letters: Next Steps & What to Expect

What you’ll learn
  • Learn what a college acceptance letter includes
  • Learn when college acceptance letters are sent out
  • Learn how to respond to a college acceptance letter
  • Learn next steps after you receive your college acceptance letter

Whether it’s that much anticipated email or a thick envelope in the mailbox, college acceptance letters represent a pivotal moment for high school students. Here’s what you can expect from the letters and how to respond to them.

“Congratulations! I’m pleased to inform you that you’ve been admitted to…”

No words could be sweeter if you’re a high school senior looking for confirmation that you’ve been accepted into college. College acceptance letters can represent the moment that many high school students have been working toward, figuring out your next chapter in education and beyond.

When Springtime of senior year rolls around, you can expect to start hearing some rumblings in the hallways. “Macy got her acceptance letter, so did Trevor. Alannah heard back from all four of her schools. Is mine LOST? Does this mean I didn’t get in?!” Nerves can take over, leading you to your mailbox every day after school or constantly refreshing your inbox. The anticipation is completely normal, but it doesn’t make the waiting game any easier.

Whether you’ve applied to one school, or ten, chances are you’ll soon be presented with a decision from a college or university that holds the key to your future! When that day finally comes, here’s what you can expect from the letters, and how to respond to them.

What is a college acceptance letter and what does it include?

College acceptance letters, although varied from school to school, follow a pretty predictable format.

First, an acceptance letter will make it clear if you’ve been admitted or not. If you see the congratulatory message you want, let that sink in! You’ve worked hard and it’s been recognized. If you are seeing a rejection, know you’re not alone – and this isn’t the end of the road. Did you know? Tina Fey was rejected from Princeton, Tom Hanks got a ‘no thanks’ from several colleges, and Steven Spielberg was reportedly rejected from UCLA.

If you’ve been accepted, you’ll see some information about upcoming events for prospective students – these are to help get you familiar with the campus and opportunities that the school can provide, and you should look at this as your chance to decide if the school is really the best fit for you. (Take advantage of these types of events: you may have been accepted to several schools, so now is the time to be extra clear about your wants, needs, and which school fits those best.)

Finally, you’ll want to make note of any deadlines included in your letter. Usually, the school will tell you the deadline for you to make your decision. This date is pretty universal, and typically falls on or around May 1, because you would have heard back from all of the schools you’ve applied to by then.

When are the letters sent out to accepted students?

The big question: when do colleges send out acceptance letters? If you’re wondering when acceptance letters arrive, know that it can vary a little bit based on the schools and when you applied. There’s also a little bit of variation in how decisions are conveyed: you can expect many colleges to send acceptance letters by email or online portal, though some will still send a formal letter in your mailbox, too.

If you applied for early action or early decision to your dream school, it’s likely that you sent in your application earlier than you would have otherwise, typically by November. Your conviction and commitment to the school will be rewarded by an early decision (hence the name), and you should expect to hear back in the winter months: December, January, or February.

If you’ve applied to multiple schools and are unsure of which you want to attend, you probably submitted your application for regular decision, usually by February. In this case, you should expect to see letters come in through mid-March to early April. You should expect to hear back from schools by the first week of April. Why? Because of the May 1 timeline that colleges and universities rely on.

With that said, there is a chance you won’t hear an official decision until the summer. How can that be? Well, for students who are waitlisted, you may not receive final word until the school has more insight on just how many admitted students will accept their invitation to attend and register for classes. That means, for some students, you could find out as late as August. If you’re going to keep a school that has waitlisted you on your list of potential destinations, be sure to have a backup plan (whether it’s a gap semester or year, a short stint at your local community college first, etc.).

How to respond to a college acceptance letter

Your next steps may hinge on whether or not you’ve applied (and been accepted to) more than one school. Since the average student applied to four colleges or universities in 2018, let’s assume you have a few options.

Now may be a good time, if you haven’t done so already, to create a spreadsheet of the schools you’re still considering. You’ll want to include the decision deadline noted in your acceptance letter – don’t lose track of this! The last thing you want to do is miss an opportunity to attend your dream school just because you couldn’t remember when you needed to notify them you intend to register (and submit your deposit; more on that below).

If you’re still in comparison mode, use the spreadsheet to keep track of information on housing, meal plans, and even the details of your financial aid offer letters (which will arrive separately – learn more about award letters). Your offer letters are particularly important if you’re not sure which school to attend. One school, for example, may offer you a large financial aid package, while another may have little to give you. The budgetary implications may help you choose between your various options. You can use a College Planning Calculator to help figure out the full cost of college, further informing your decision.

Once your college acceptance letters are in and you’ve decided which college or university to attend, it’s time to notify your school of choice. You can usually do this by filling out a form and sending it to the college along with a non-refundable deposit. This deposit (which can typically range from $50-$500) is used to secure your spot in the incoming class of students. It’s important to note those deadlines and make sure to send the deposit before the deadline hits, so you don’t lose your spot.

This is also the time to let the other schools know that you don’t intend to enroll. Again, this can be done with the form given to you as part of acceptance letter packet. You should aim to do this by May 1.

Next steps after responding to your college acceptance letter

So, you’ve taken the next step in your journey and enrolled in college – congratulations! So, now what?

You have a few key things to remember:

  • Whatever you’ve been doing to get into college, keep it up! Colleges can rescind their offers, so now is not the time to slack off. Use this time to continue studying (maybe you have some AP tests that you can take to save money on future college courses), look for summer internships in a field you think you might want to study or a summer job so you can save money, or enjoy the last few months you have with your high school friends before you’re off to your next chapter!
  • Be sure to keep your social media profiles free of any content that would portray you in a negative or inappropriate light. Your social media accounts are an extension of your transcripts and resumes. Don’t do anything that would embarrass you, your family, or your future college and classmates.
  • Your college is chosen, but there’s a lot of planning that still needs to take place. For example, how are you planning to pay for college?

    Remember those financial aid offer letters I mentioned? Those are really important, and now that you’ve chosen your college, you just need to reference the one that came from your school. It should list what types of financial aid you qualify for, and can include federal loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study. You’ll need to formally accept part or all of your financial aid offer (or none of it, if you choose), so be sure to do that in the timeline indicated by the school.

    If you haven’t already, start your scholarship search now. Contrary to popular belief, scholarships aren’t just for valedictorians and quarterbacks; there are scholarships for everyone! Are you left-handed? There’s a scholarship for that. Love to bake? There’s a scholarship for that. An expert asparagus grower? There’s a scholarship for that, too! Make sure you’re using this time to find scholarships, carefully apply, and make the most of the free money out there earmarked for your future.

    After you’ve nailed down scholarships and accepted parts of your financial aid offer, you’ll have a better idea of how much of your college costs (tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, etc.) are covered by the funds you’ve outlined. If there’s a gap, you have a few choices to consider, including using some of your savings or income, or taking out a private student loan. This monthly budget worksheet and student loan calculator can help you determine what’s right for you. Helpful hint: don’t take out more in student loans than what you expect your starting salary in your desired profession to be.

That’s a lot to soak in – so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember to pause, celebrate, and keep your eye focused on your future. You’ve done the tricky part and now it’s time to show the college why they were smart to admit you.

Sallie Mae does not provide financial, tax, or legal advice and the information contained in this article does not constitute tax, legal, or financial advice. Sallie Mae does not make any claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in this article. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors regarding any financial strategies mentioned in this article. These materials are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of Sallie Mae. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.