Do I Need To Let A College Know I Won’t Be Attending?
Updated: May 10
If you receive acceptance letters to multiple schools (congratulations!), chances are you’ll be asking yourself if you need to respond to all of them.
Your first inclination may be to focus on communicating solely with the college whose offer you plan to accept and to let the others fall by the wayside. Schools won’t mind if they don’t hear back from you...right?
The truth is, it’s always in your best interest to be as thoughtful and professional in letting a school down as you were in applying to it. While you may feel uncomfortable or anxious about delivering the disappointing news to the admissions team, this seemingly small gesture could have a greater impact than you think—and could possibly help another student on their path to college.
In this post, we’ll walk through some best practices for clear, timely, and transparent communication with the admissions teams. After all, they put significant time and energy into reviewing your application and advocating for your place on campus.
When and Why To Formally Decline An Offer
High school seniors are expected to formally accept their spot at a college where they were admitted by May 1st, otherwise known as National College Decision Day.
As you carefully review your offer letters, weigh your options, and if applicable assess the various financial aid packages, you will inevitably have to start crossing options off your list. As you do this, follow up as soon as possible with those schools to decline their offer.
There are three reasons why:
1. It’s the courteous thing to do.
Just as you devoted a significant amount of time and effort in preparing your application, so did the admissions readers who spent hours reviewing it and considering your candidacy.
Taking ten minutes out of your day to thank those people for their time and effort and to update them on your plans shows that you acknowledge and appreciate their advocacy on your behalf.
Prep Scholar says it well on their blog: “If you don't notify a school that accepts you that you're not attending, that would be like if a school that rejected you didn't inform you that you had been rejected.”
2. It may help another prospective student. Pay it forward.
By keeping a school updated on your final plans in a timely manner, you may make it possible for them to offer a spot on the waitlist to another deserving student. This may not always be the case, since schools often admit slightly more students than they have space for, but as the team at College Raptor points out, taking this step may allow a school to offer additional financial aid or resources to another incoming student who’s eligible.
Consider the wisdom offered by one parent regarding his high school senior daughter’s path to college on College Confidential’s community forums:
“As one example, my younger daughter a year ago was offered very good merit scholarships at several schools. After she picked one and told them she was coming, she told the others that she was not coming. This in general might allow the schools to offer the scholarships to someone else. While this doesn’t affect us, it does open up the possibility of allowing some stressed out high school senior somewhere to get some very good news a bit sooner than they would have otherwise. [...] Remember that your safety is someone else’s dream.”
3. You set a good precedent with the school for the future (just in case).
Who knows what your post-undergrad future holds? Should you apply to graduate studies or a job opportunity at a college you declined for undergrad studies, it will only help your case to demonstrate respect and courtesy at this stage.
Plus, you never know if you may reencounter someone who reviewed your application and could help you down the road in your career. Even if your news isn’t what they want to hear, it will still leave things on a positive note.
4. Beware the temptation of “double deposits.”
In their post on Application Ethics, The College Board calls out a problematic practice known as “double depositing.” Essentially this means putting down deposits at multiple schools in the interest of buying extra time to make a final decision. While this may be tempting, don't do it. Not only is it unfair to the college admissions teams, who may be forced to take future actions such as increasing the deposit amount, but it puts other prospective applicants at a disadvantage.
Unless, as College Board notes, “you are wait-listed at your first choice and accepted at another school,” resist the urge to make this process trickier for your college-bound peers.
How To Gracefully Decline An Offer
Each school has their own process for responding to an offer. Carefully review each offer letter and check the school’s website for any specific guidelines on how to notify them of your final decision.
Before we discuss how to decline an offer, let’s first briefly address how to accept one. This may require simply clicking “accept” in their admissions portal and if applicable submitting a deposit (typically ranging from $50-$500).
In addition, while it won’t be required of you, it’s a good idea to write a personal note of thanks to the admissions representative you may have been in touch with during the process.
Now, onto declining an offer. Similar to the above, this could be as simple as selecting “decline” on their admissions page.
For example, Stanford’s admissions site allows accepted applicants to digitally accept their offer—no email or phone call required—via a dedicated portal and encourages incoming students to bookmark the site to stay informed on regular updates.
Otherwise, you may wish to draft an email to the admissions officers you communicated with at each school during the application process. While you can work with a template, be sure to personalize each note accordingly to leave a lasting positive impression.
In some rare cases, you may hear directly from a college admissions officer after you declined a school’s admissions offer. If so, it will likely be because they are curious why you declined and want feedback or suggestions for improving their admissions process based on your experience.
Feel free to provide as much or as little detail as you feel comfortable sharing. You are not obligated to tell them whose offer you decided to accept.
What About Scholarship and Financial Aid Offers?
There is no one-size-fits-all process for navigating scholarships, grants, and financial aid. Each school has their own protocol and deadlines for accepting or declining these offers.
Here are a few of our general rules of thumb to guide your decision:
1. Be upfront with the school about your intentions as soon as possible.
If you strongly anticipate not attending a school where you have received a scholarship, let them know as soon as possible before National College Decision Day. In many cases, this transparency will allow them to re-award it to another prospective candidate.
If you don’t tell them with enough time, it will be more challenging for them to reroute these resources, as other eligible candidates will likely have decided to attend a different school.
On the other hand, if you receive a robust offer from a school that you strongly see yourself attending and would be happy to accept, lock in the opportunity as soon as possible.
2. It’s ok to ask for more time, as long as you are considerate of the admissions team’s process and other students’ needs.
Admissions and financial aid teams understand the significance, economic and beyond, of this major decision for you and your family. While they will be happy to support you and answer any questions that arise—you are an accepted prospective student, after all—it is your responsibility to respect any extensions they grant you.
Don’t ask for one unless absolutely necessary, and don’t abuse it if granted. Spend it wisely to prepare to move forward with your final decision.
3. In some cases, it’s possible (albeit not ideal) to decline an accepted scholarship. But always read the fine print.
Admissions teams understand a lot can change quickly for prospective students, especially come April as students hear the final verdict from a number of schools. They know students must weigh many factors to make the best-informed decision possible for them and their future.
Let’s say you are in significant need of financial support and accept a school’s scholarship offer soon after receiving it. In this scenario, imagine the school did not require you to rescind applications from other schools.
Then a few weeks later, a more robust scholarship offer comes along from another school. You find yourself at a crossroads. In some cases, you can withdraw your scholarship acceptance, if you have not received and used any of the allocated funds.
From an ethical perspective, the sooner you can communicate any changes in your situation to the school, the better. This gives a school as much time as possible to redirect your scholarship to another eligible candidate.
All this said some schools put specific contingency policies in place to avoid losing students to another school at the last minute. They may require that students claim a financial aid offer by a specific deadline and withdraw any other outstanding applications.
Always read the fine print before accepting a scholarship and address any questions with the financial aid team upfront to avoid finding yourself in a tricky legal situation and/or leaving a lasting negative impression on a school. As always, consideration and courtesy are key.
Once you have received your various college acceptance letters, you embark on a new and exciting phase of the senior year experience: Choosing where you want to officially begin your college journey.
While you may feel some anxiety about letting schools down (it’s normal!), remember that this is part of the process. Admissions teams know they will inevitably lose out on some stellar prospective students like yourself. To manage your anxiety, focus on what is within your power.
Weigh your options carefully with the information you have; discuss the pros and cons with your parents, trusted consultants, or mentors; and always feel free to contact your admissions representative if you have lingering questions or concerns.
Once you have reached your final verdict, go the extra mile to communicate with conscientiousness and care.