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A Higher Offer: When Should I Wait to Commit to a College?

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Each year, high school seniors look forward to May 1 as an informal culmination of the college applications season. It’s the day that decisions are due back to colleges, the deadline by which seniors must decide and commit to the institution they’ll attend in the fall.


But these decisions aren’t binding and more and more often, colleges are starting to vie for candidates even after this deadline has passed. As reported by The New York Times, in 2017, at least four private liberal arts schools reached out to students from whom they did not hear a response by May 1st. Though their promises were vague, each hinted at the possibility of increased financial aid packages available, should the students choose to attend.


The ethical questions raised by this practice are many. Is it all right to lure students away from one school with the promise of more money at another? Are rising college freshmen fair game up until they move on campus? And for the students, should they hold out for higher offers, or even play schools against one another to get the best deal? There are no easy answers, and it’s likely that only time will reveal the new standards of practice in this changing landscape of the college admissions game.


If you’re a high school senior looking forward to choosing a college this spring, you may be wondering if you should still commit to a school before May 1st. Perhaps you’re tempted to hold out for a better offer, or even withdraw your committal to attend another school if they have more financial aid available. Is this practice going to become the new normal? Should you give it a try?


In this post, we’ll outline the pros and cons of waiting for a better offer, and we’ll lend some insight towards how to make your choice if another college reaches out to you — even after you’ve committed somewhere else. These complicated issues are bound to become more and more common over the years to come, so don’t miss this important insight.


What are the advantages of waiting to commit to a college?

Most colleges will tell you that the deadline to commit is May 1st, but as we discuss above, this isn’t hard and fast. Perhaps your top-choice school has offered a financial aid package that doesn’t meet your needs. Maybe you are considering a better package at a school that isn’t so appealing to you for other reasons. In many cases, finances are a primary consideration in choosing a college, so rather than choosing your top choice, you’re selecting a school based on the financial package it offers.


If you wait, there’s a chance that you could be offered a better package at a more appealing school. You never know.


While this might seem like a pipe dream, it’s not impossible. In 2017, several competitive private schools reached out to students after May 1st, including Hampshire College, Elizabethtown College, Washington & Jefferson College, and Ursinus College. But can you count on this happening to you?


What are the disadvantages of waiting to commit to a college?

Ultimately, you can never count on a better offer coming your way, so if you don’t commit to a school by May 1st, you may lose your place entirely. In fact, after May 1st, many colleges start accepting students off their waitlists if they still have spaces to fill. By waiting to commit to a college, you risk losing your place to another student who has anxiously stayed on the waitlist in hopes of someone else not taking a place.


In addition, the ethical questions raised by the practice of poaching students away from one college to another are not insignificant. Often, the new offers aren’t cut and dry and may require significant bargaining on your part. Even then, you’ve put yourself in a difficult situation by potentially reneging on a written agreement you’ve made with another school. It’s important to ask yourself how comfortable you are with this situation and whether it represents a moral line you’re not willing to cross.



What’s the bottom line when it comes to committing to colleges?

If you get into a top-choice school and are offered a financial aid package that works for you, you should definitely accept it. The odds of another desirable school coming along and offering something better are pretty slim, and even so, if you’re happy with what you have, there’s no need to shop around anymore.


If you wait until after May 1st to see if you’ll get a better offer, you could end up without a place anywhere at all, so this strategy is not recommended. Instead, if you get an offer at a school you’d like to attend but aren’t sure that the financial aid package is feasible, you do have some room to negotiate. Check out our post Can I Appeal My Financial Aid Award? to learn how. Keep in mind that you should try to have this conversation well before May 1st, so that you know what your final offer is before you make your decision and decide where to send your deposit.


If a college reaches out before May 1st to discuss your plans, know that this probably means that you’re a highly desirable candidate to them. This is a good sign and could mean that you have room to negotiate. Don’t accept their first offer right away. Instead, take some time to discuss it with your family and ask the institution if that’s the best they can do for you. You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and the worst that can happen is they tell you that their current package is the max they have to offer.


Finally, if a more desirable college reaches out to you after May 1st with a better offer, you should know that you are not required to attend the school you’ve committed to. At the same time, keep in mind that you will not get your deposit back if you decide to go elsewhere.


While the college admissions season used to be considered officially closed on May 1st, more and more often this boundary is becoming hazy. Instead, some colleges may reach out to extend more tempting offers to highly desirable candidates, even after they’ve likely committed elsewhere. While this is a potentially advantageous situation, it is far from a guarantee and you’re still best off to have your final decision made and deposit sent by the May 1st deadline.


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For more information about committing to colleges and financial aid packages, see these CollegeVine posts:


Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.