Deciding Whether to Defer Enrollment or Deny Acceptance to Graduate School | Education

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Students accepted to graduate school may come to a crossroads in their academic career and need to withdraw their acceptance or defer enrollment.

This can happen for any number of reasons, such as financial difficulties, a health crisis or difficulty obtaining a visa in time (for an international student).

Here are four steps that aspiring graduate students should follow if they decide to withdraw their acceptance or defer starting a program for another semester, year or longer.

1. Find Out Who to Inform

If you accepted admission and need to withdraw it, it’s important to notify the graduate admissions office right away and it is appropriate to inform the degree program that admitted you, experts say.

“Every institution operates a little differently, so it may be the program that admitted you, the graduate school or a central graduate admissions office,” says Suzanne T. Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Even if you aren’t sure whether you will try to attend the school in the future, she says, “it is still courteous to let them know in case you do decide to reapply later, and because sometimes there are waitlists for other students who are waiting for an open spot.”

Levon Esters, dean of the graduate school and vice president of graduate education at Pennsylvania State University, says a student seeking to defer enrollment “should speak with their graduate program head or director of graduate studies as soon as possible about the need to defer admission to a later semester.”

“While we recognize the student might want to keep some information private, providing as much information as possible can be helpful, e.g., the program might know of appropriate resources for the student,” he wrote in an email.

Esters adds that students should have that discussion before finalizing their decision. “While the decision needs to be the student’s, program leaders may know of resources or alternatives to deferral or withdrawal that may be better options for the student.”

Before you make any decision, it’s important to “make sure you have thought things through,” Sarah Larsen, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Houston, wrote in an email.

“Reach out to your graduate program director or graduate program adviser to discuss your reasons for requesting a deferral. The best approach is to be straightforward and honest about the reasons for your deferral and why you plan to matriculate in a future term. Some programs may be hesitant to grant deferrals because their experience has been that students rarely matriculate after deferring admissions.”

Ortega advises sharing your reasons regardless of whether you want to withdraw acceptance or defer.

“They may be able to point you to student support programs or other financial resources that can help you address your needs while allowing you to begin your academic pursuits,” she says.

2. Understand the Proper Procedures

Policies and procedures differ from college to college and “should be fully considered” before you act, Aviva Legatt, founder of Ivy Insight, a college admissions consulting firm, wrote in an email.

At the University of Houston, for example, prospective graduate students should contact the graduate program directly to discuss options for withdrawal or admission deferral, Larsen says.

For a deferral, the graduate program head or director of graduate studies typically would be the best source of information on procedures, Esters explains.

“For withdrawing, the student’s adviser may know the proper procedure, or may refer the student to the graduate program head, director of graduate studies or program staff member,” he says. 

Larsen notes that a graduate admission offer “is typically valid for one year from the original term of acceptance, contingent on approval of the specific graduate program. The point of contact for the graduate program is usually the graduate program director or the graduate adviser.” 

Either will work with the student to determine the length of the deferral, the reasons for the deferral request and, if appropriate, to approve the deferral, Larsen says. Then that official will coordinate with the graduate school to process the deferral.

If a financial aid package is included with the original admissions offer, the student should ask whether any scholarships or other financial aid will still be available when they ultimately enroll.

Whether withdrawing acceptance or deferring grad school, a student who has registered for classes “for the original acceptance term must be sure to drop the classes before the start of the term to avoid being responsible for some or all of the tuition and fees,” Larsen says.

3. Accept the Admissions Office’s Decision

In denying a deferral request, some institutions require the accepted students to withdraw their application and then reapply when they plan to return, which usually results in an acceptance, Legatt says.

Still, “I’d advise consulting the student’s academic department before contacting the admissions office as policies on the departmental level can vary,” she adds.

If your deferral request is approved, take note of any stipulations, experts say.

“Make sure that you understand the details of the decision of the graduate program regarding deferral of your admissions offer to a future semester,” Larsen says. “Specifically, inquire about the financial implications (if applicable) and whether you will need to reapply for admissions and/or financial aid. If you have arranged to work with a specific faculty member on a research project, be sure to inquire if that option will still be available.”

At some colleges, including the University of Houston, Larsen says, deferrals of admissions are ultimately “at the discretion of the admitting program.”

4. Know the Financial Aid Implications

Since an enrollment deposits is typically nonrefundable, a withdrawing or deferring student probably won’t get it back. And a deferring student typically will have to pay another enrollment deposit at the end of the deferment period, experts say.

However, “research degree programs at research-intensive institutions generally don’t have enrollment deposits,” Esters says. “In general, graduate education requirements and procedures typically vary more from institution to institution than do undergraduate education requirements.”

In terms of a scholarship, fellowship or assistantship that may have been awarded, whether the student will lose or keep it by deferring enrollment varies by institution and perhaps even by program, so be sure to ask, Esters says.

If you’ve accepted an offer of admission and an offer of funding such as a teaching or research assistant position, it’s important to be aware of the April 15 Resolution, Ortega says.

“The resolution is an agreement among signatory graduate institutions to provide graduate school applicants until April 15 to consider offers of admission that also include financial support,” she explains. As of June 22, 2023, more than 300 graduate schools that are CGS member institutions had signed on to the resolution.

It’s important to note that if you accept an offer before April 15 and want to withdraw that acceptance, you may submit a written resignation from the teaching or research appointment through April 15, Ortega says.

“Applicants are not required to obtain a formal release from the program whose offer they accepted, either before or after the April 15 deadline,” according to details about the April 15 Resolution on the CGS website. “Once applicants have informed the program that they are withdrawing their acceptance of the offer, they then can accept any other offers.”

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