College acceptance letters: What to expect & how to respond

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Prepare for college acceptance letters 

Whether it’s that much anticipated email or a thick envelope in the mailbox, college acceptance letters can come in many ways and 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 acceptance 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 to college, 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 acceptance letter. Usually, the school will tell you the deadline 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?

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.

  • Early decision: 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.
  • Regular decision: 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.

If you’re waitlisted: If this happens, 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 you can 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. Let’s assume you have a few options.

  1. Stay organized. 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). Use your spreadsheet to keep track of information on housing, meal plans, etc.
  2. Compare offers and costs. This is also the time to keep track of the details of your financial aid offers (which will arrive separately). These are particularly important if you’re not sure which college to attend. One school, for example, may offer you a large financial aid package, while another may have little to give you. The offers will contain the same information but there’s no standard format, so you’ll need to compare them. Use the figures you get from the offers to see how much of the cost of attendance you’ll have to supply through student loans or other methods—this can also help you choose between your various options. 
  3. Give the school your answer. Once your college acceptance letters are in and you’ve decided which college or university to attend, it’s time to respond to 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 you accept

So, you’ve taken the next step in your journey and enrolled in college – congratulations! 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 this isn’t 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 you can just 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. They’re 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 offers I mentioned? Those are really important, and now that you’ve chosen your college, go back and review the one from your school. It will list what types of financial aid you qualify for, and can include federal loansscholarshipsgrants, 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 opportunities for everyone! Scholarship Search by Sallie can help you find scholarships that are made for you. Best part? You don’t have to register—and you can use filters to narrow down your search based on your background, major, the state you live in, and more. 

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. Helpful hint: don’t take out more in student loans than what you expect your starting salary in your desired profession to be.

Congratulations! You’re going to college!

The process of researching, applying, accepting, and paying for college isn’t fast or easy. 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 accept you!

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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