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  • Jason Flurry, CFP

What to do with acceptance letters and scholarship offers

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

How to manage your next steps properly and know what to expect in the months ahead

When you were in grade school, did you ever write one of those notes that said “Do you like me?” and then put boxes there that said yes or no with the instructions to check one? I can’t remember if I ever did or not, but I certainly remember seeing them. And it reminds me how little things change over the years.


When you apply for college, you’re basically sending them one of those notes asking them to check the box for yes or no. Certainly, if you been following the advice I’ve been giving you in these articles, your chances of getting a check mark in the “yes” box should have gone up significantly. And, since it’s usually around this time of year that you begin to hear back from some of those colleges, I thought it would be a good idea to give you some insights into how those acceptances work and what next steps you can expect, both on your end and from the college.


Getting your timing right There are a lot of important deadlines to remember as you go through the college planning process. Most recently you may have been focused on admissions deadlines, scholarship deadlines, and financially deadlines. They are all definitely worthy of your attention. But, the most important deadline in the whole college planning process doesn’t happen until the very end. It’s the final decision deadline that happens on May 1st of your child’s senior year in high school. That May 1st deadline is the date that you have to declare which college you’re going to attend and to accept any of their scholarships and/or their financial aid awards. Most people don’t wait that late to make those decisions, but it’s critical that you understand how long your timelines are to make any final decisions before you move forward.


Whenever possible, I encourage students to apply early. Colleges like to receive applications early too. Not only do you have the whole freshman class wide open as those admission officers are reviewing your application; you also qualify to be notified early of your admission decision. For colleges that have rolling admissions, you may hear back within just two or three weeks after you submit your application. For most other colleges, those early admission decisions began to roll out in November, December, or right after the first of the year in January. It can be a pretty exciting time and the colleges like to play on your emotions by encouraging you to go ahead and accept their offer right away.


If you only apply to one college and you get into that college, and it’s the college that you want to attend, then there’s no reason to wait. Go ahead and finalize that decision and celebrate your success!


If you have more than one college that you’ve applied to, which I certainly hope you have, this first acceptance is still very exciting, but you optimistically hope that there’s more to come. Also, if there’s financial aid involved, you may have gotten into the university from the admission side, but you may be waiting to hear from financial aid to see if that college is ultimately going to be something your family can afford. Those financial aid awards usually trail the admission decisions by several weeks or longer.


Think like Winnie The Pooh In those situations where you’re waiting for more information, the best thing to do is simply file away the acceptance letter and see what else follows next. As you’ll see, sometimes the best thing to do in your planning process is nothing. In fact, it’s a lot like Winnie the Pooh says, “Doing nothing sometimes leads to the very best of something.” Let me explain.


The colleges are very aware of that May 1st deadline I mentioned to you earlier. They also know how excited students are to get accepted into the colleges that are tops on their list. It can be a very long time from the moment an anxious student opens his acceptance letter from the university and the time he makes his final decision. And, as those weeks and months pass by, more offers may also come in. Plus, some schools tend to be far more generous with financial aid than others do so the final prices between various colleges can be very different.


Planning for college the way I’ve been teaching you to creates a competitive environment for the colleges where you’ve applied. Remember how you first identified that you liked them? Well, if you handled your application process well and submitted things early, it’s highly likely that many of them will have also chosen you too. It’s in their best interest to go ahead and get you to sign up before anyone else changes your mind.


But they know that you’re probably going to need a little time to make such a big decision.

So, what you’re going to find in the months to come is a continuation of these colleges’ sales choreography. They want to hold your attention and stay top of mind with you hoping they can close the sale and get you to ultimately choose them. One of the best ways to do that is to offer a nice scholarship with the acceptance letter.


You may have received a couple of those, or you could soon as admission decisions begin to roll out. That’s always exciting, but remember – there still a long way to go between now and May 1st. The initial scholarship offers you receive are not usually the end of the conversation. They’re only the beginning of the conversation. But, if you don’t know that, and you go ahead and sign up, there is little reason for them to continue to send you more offers, right? After all, why spend more money recruiting someone who’s already agreed to join you?


Don’t get in a hurry Even if you’re offered a scholarship in the beginning, you have plenty of time to accept that scholarship. Let them continue to court you and show you more reasons why they should be your logical choice.


If a scholarship offer doesn’t come with the acceptance letter, many times you may find another letter welcoming you later and noting how distinguished they think your accomplishments are. In fact, these letter may state that it has come to their attention that you’re so fantastic that they’ve decided to give you their Super Duper Fantastic Award, or the Presidential Scholarship, or Chancellor’s Scholarship, or whatever they actually call it.


But here’s the thing. They knew when they saw your initial application that they were going toward that to you. Why did they wait to let you know? That’s right. They’re trying to drag out their offer and hold your attention longer to keep you interested in them.


I see this strategy played out in several different ways. Whether you received a scholarship upfront or not, it’s likely that you will be invited to attend some type of scholarship weekend on campus or given a chance to visit their campus sometime in the spring for an Accepted Students Day. There’s often some promise of additional scholarship dollars for those who attend and they make it sound like something that you really can’t afford to miss if you’re serious about attending that university.


What those events are really all about is a chance to get you back on their turf under favorable circumstances late in the decision cycle. They are strong proponents of reciprocity and if they can show you how important you are AND give you some extra money to deepen their commitment with you, maybe you’ll see what a great fit they are and make your decision to join them while you’re there or shortly after you return home. It must be a pretty effective strategy, because almost every college offers these kinds of opportunities to their top students.


Who’s the boss? What I want you to understand is that while you made the first decision to choose those colleges and apply to them, and they made the next decision to choose you back by accepting you, you get to make the final decision on where you’ll attend. That means you’re in control of the relationship, not them.


They recognize that at the colleges, but most families don’t see it that way. I want to make sure you do so you can see these recruiting efforts for what they really are. Make the most of them, and if they offer to cover your accommodations or pay for your airfare to visit their campus, go ahead and let them. If you’re not impressed when they show you the very best of what they have, you’ll know for sure that that’s not the college that’s right for you.


If, on the other hand, you get the feeling that you’re home when you step on their campus, pay close attention to that. Let that college court you with everything they have and make sure you’re getting the absolute best deal with their financial aid offer too. Then you’ll know that you’ve found the right fit college and gotten the best deal possible financially. That’s ultimately what you’re looking for, but you may not be ready to make those final decisions in the next few weeks or months.


The final word Be patient, remember who’s in charge of the relationship, and work your best offer like a pro. Even if you’ve applied and been accepted as an Early Decision applicant, don’t be shy about asking for something extra. You probably don’t have quite as much leverage as regular students because you’re usually committed to that college already, but it won’t hurt you to ask. The fact that they’ve accepted you says they already like you. You have nothing to lose by trying to sweeten your offer.


The farther you go along in this process, the more you begin to see that college is a little bit like a game. That’s something I realized very early on and also realized that the colleges knew the rules and the government knew the rules, but none of us as parents did. Most people seem to muddle through and find their way over time, but you have a huge advantage because you read these articles and listen to my podcasts. You’re learning the rules of the game from someone who’s already played it and beaten the colleges at their own game time and time again. It’s your best chance to make college affordable and I hope you’re taking full advantage of it.


This article has been about what to do when you’ve been accepted, but my next article will talk about what happens in those situations where you don’t get accepted or you get deferred. It’s likely that you’ll have that happen a few times if you built your college list correctly. It’s perfectly normal and I’ll show you the right steps to take in those situations next time. Until then, please don’t keep us a secret. I know your friends would appreciate hearing about this too!

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