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College Acceptance Letters: Process & Results

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Once a student applies to a college, the student must wait for notification of the college's admission decision. This lesson discusses college acceptance letters, including the impact of early decisions and deferrals.

The College Acceptance Letter

Applying to colleges is rough. The applications are often long and tedious. However, many students find that the toughest part comes after the applications are submitted. That's when the waiting period begins.

Students are anxious to receive acceptance letters from the colleges to which they applied. As a student, you should receive some sort of communication for each application you submitted. The communication will contain the school's official notification regarding their admission decision. But the term 'acceptance letter' is a fairly broad term. The communication can indicate a number of things:

  • The college accepts your application and wishes to admit you as a student in the upcoming semester.
  • The college defers their admission decision to a later date.
  • The college denies your application.
  • The college wishes to place you on a waitlist for possible admission should spaces become available.

Traditionally, students could expect to receive large, thick envelopes filled with admissions materials if they were accepted. Students could expect to receive thin, one page letters if they were denied admission, deferred, or waitlisted.

The College Acceptance Email

Most colleges still use mailed notices. However, many also now use email notifications and website portals to inform applicants of their admissions decisions. For example, Harvard sends emails notifying students that they have been accepted and also sends formal letters and admissions materials to those students in the mail on the same date.

The University of Texas uses an application portal. This is a private website where students submit all application materials and can track the status of their applications. Once an admission decision has been made, that decision is posted in the student's 'status' on that student's private page. The university sends formal admissions letters and materials through the mail at a later date.

Due to the increased use of online applications, most colleges use electronic notices of some kind. If you submit an online application, you should expect a confirmation email within one to three weeks. This is not an acceptance letter, but simply a notification that your application was received. You will still need to follow up to ensure that all individual application materials, such as transcripts and recommendation letters, were also received.

Early Decision Acceptances

Most college applications are due between December and April. Each college sets its own deadline. Each college also sets its own date for the release of admissions decisions. For these regular decision applications, students can expect to hear from the colleges in March or April. Regular decision simply means the student submitted the college application according to the college's standard deadline.

Keep in mind that some colleges use a rolling admissions model, meaning students can submit applications within a particular window of time, and the college releases admissions decisions also within a particular window of time. For example, some students might hear from the college in December, while others do not hear until March.

Most colleges offer, and many students choose, early decision. The colleges each set their own early decision application rules and deadlines, but typically the early decision applications will be due by early November. Early decisions are binding, meaning that if a student is accepted, that student is committed to attending that college.

Some colleges use early action, instead. Early action applications are also usually due by early November but these decisions are not binding. The student typically has until May 1 to accept or reject the college's offer of admission.

Both early decision and early action acceptance letters are most often sent in December. Keep in mind that some of these notifications will neither accept nor deny the applicant. Sometimes the letters inform applicants that they've been deferred. This means the college would like more time before issuing an admission decision. The student's application will be considered with the other regular decision applicants, and the student will be notified of a decision using that timetable. The admissions decision will not be binding for the student.

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