Graduate School Offers: Making the Decision

In the next few weeks, you will have heard back from most of the graduate schools you applied to. What should you do if you’ve received more than one offer of admission?

Take a deep breath. Yes, this is a big decision, and not one to take lightly. This guide takes you through the steps, from deciding on a program to accepting (or declining) an offer.

First things first. All American graduate schools have a national acceptance deadline of April 15. This means that, if they don’t hear from you by then, that you will not be attending that school. It does not mean, however, that you simply ignore their offer. (See below for declining an offer.) This also means that a school that has made you an offer cannot force you to make a decision before them—as much as they’d like to know whether or not you’re coming so they can tell person #1 on their waitlist that they now have an offer. Remember: you are allowed to use all the time you need until April 15 to make your decision, if you need it.

Evaluating Multiple Offers

If you have multiple offers, evaluating these offers by a few criteria (perhaps you want to enter these on a chart), will help you make your decision. Consider using a few of the following:

Funding. Does the program offer a fellowship (no additional work required), a Teaching Assistantship, or a Research Assistantship? Find out whether this funding is generally the same for all students in your program, or if you will be doing more work outside of seminars than others will. Knowing the amount of work you’ll have to put into teaching or research will help you evaluate whether you’ll have enough time to work on your degree while also meeting the department’s requirements for receiving funding.

Time to completion. Research how many classes you’ll have to take, and what usual time span is from start of coursework to completion of the dissertation. Do the math to find out if you’ll run out of funding before you are done; this will help you figure out if your funding package is a good deal.

Location. Location matters. You need to consider whether the funding package offered will be sufficient for living there. A funding package of $20,000/year will allow you a good standard of living in Lincoln, but it might only cover half of your living expenses in Washington DC.

Waiting for Other Offers

Let’s say you hear from one school, and the offer is good, but you’ve not heard from two of your other schools. Rather than accepting an offer that might not be best for you, you can wait and see what the other schools will say. Remember: the universal American acceptance date is April 15, and they can’t make you accept an offer before then. So if you haven’t heard from those other schools by mid-March, feel free to give the graduate chair a call. Maybe your letter was misplaced, maybe you’re on the waitlist and that’s why you’ve not heard from them yet.

If you are accepted to a school, but without funding, give the graduate chair a call. Ask if there are any funding opportunities you did not see on the website (of course, you’ve done due diligence and applied for all available sources of funding until this point).

Also remember: your funding might increase above the initial offer. Schools will offer top funding to their most selective candidates. If they do not use that funding, then department might be able to offer it to the next candidate, and so on down the line (this is part of why your schools want to hear from you before April 15). But keep in mind, this is graduate school, not a corporate job.  You’re not negotiating for more funding, you’re just asking what funding is available!

If you were on the wait list and you haven’t heard back from your top schools by April 8, give the grad chair a call. They can let you know if you’ve been accepted or the status of your application.

Declining an offer

Once you know for certain you will not be attending an institution, go ahead and send an email to the graduate chair (remember—don’t send a letter declining the offer if you are still on the fence about the institution!). Always follow up with a (hard copy) letter addressed to the whole admissions committee. The letter should be signed and dated, and include a brief explanation thanking them for their offer, and that you have decided to attend another institution (you needn’t say which).

Accepting an offer

Congratulations on making your decision! Send an email or make a call to your contact at the university (usually the grad chair) to tell them your decision. The chair may ask to forward your information to other graduate students, or you can ask for the names of a few students you can contact. These are some of the people you can ask about where to live, what to expect, and if they’ll meet you for a coffee when you’ve just arrived in a new city and know no one. Follow up your call or email with a letter, dated and signed. This letter can be fairly short; the program will follow up with more information when they get the good news. If your institution sent you a letter of acceptance and included a contract, you can simply sign, date, and return the contract.

Still concerned about making your decision? You can always make an appointment to meet with Dr. Bellows or Dr. Lombardo, or the McNair staff, to talk about your offers. Your mentor, as always, is a great source of advice.


Good luck!




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