An e-mail question from a reader:
What's the best (most diplomatic?) way to reject an admission offer from a school?
For most places, you don't have to do anything except click on the decline option on a webpage, but if you feel that you should send a personalized e-mail to various people at the rejected institution, including faculty who were your potential advisers, here are my preferences:
I prefer a rapid rejection. As soon as you know you will not be accepting a particular offer, inform that institution so they can make additional offers to applicants on the waiting list. If you delay because you don't know what to say or you feel bad about rejecting an offer (for whatever reason), please get over this and give an opportunity to someone else. There are typically many highly qualified applicants on waiting lists, and the only reason some of them are there is because there are limited admission slots and they weren't as lucky as you to get a first-round offer.
If you interacted with particular people, including some who devoted time to discussing research opportunities with you, write to them and just say that you have decided that Other University is a better fit for your interests, thank them for their time, and that's that. Don't ramble on about how great the people at the declined institution are and how you wish them luck with their future research and hope to see them at meetings in the future. See also this old post for a cautionary tale.
I always find it strange when a student is vague about what university's offer they have accepted. If a student spends a day or two in my department, talking to me and people in my research group, and then they decide to go somewhere else, I am fine with that, but what is the point of being mysterious about where they do decide to attend graduate school? The webpage on which offers are declined or accepted may ask for this information, although of course it is optional to provide it. Similarly, you don't have to tell faculty at the declined institution if you prefer not to, but again, why not?
If you are feeling anxious about sending a rejection letter, perhaps this will help: I have never felt annoyed or angry at a student who was potentially going to work with me but who declined an offer from my university. Every individual makes the best decision they can about what the fit is for their interests and other factors in their lives. Most faculty respect and understand that.
The only exception to the declaration above is that I do get extremely annoyed with the occasional applicant who already knew they were going to accept another offer before they visited and wasted a lot of people's time and my department's money.
In a recent example of this, I found out via someone who is an applicant's friend on Facebook that the applicant had decided to accept an offer from another university before even visiting My University. That applicant was not a potential student of mine, but would normally be on my schedule for an individual meeting. Knowing what I know, why should I take the time to meet with him/her? On the off chance that the FB information was wrong? Just in case this person is so blown away by the visit to My University that he/she will change plans? Because I should take every opportunity to chat with bright young students? My delicate professorial ego is not bruised by a student's decision to go elsewhere, especially if they weren't going to work with me even if they came here, but I can think of better uses of my time than to meet with an applicant who has already accepted another offer.
But I digress. Regarding writing a diplomatic rejection letter: Keep in mind that, for students, the decision about where to attend graduate school is momentous, but for most faculty with established research programs, the loss of an opportunity to work with any particular student is routine (some students accept their offers, some don't, life goes on), so don't sweat the rejection letter. Just be sincere and professional, and then focus on the exciting things to come in the future.
6 months ago