All across the United States, universities are waiting for May 1. They’ve sent out their admissions offers and May 1 is the deadline for students to respond, making a final university choice. This last step in the application process is perhaps the simplest but sometimes also one of the most anxiety-provoking. Whether you’re ready to celebrate the day this year or not, we can offer you the information you need to get there and to handle your choice successfully.

The U.S. Admissions Calendar

U.S. admission closes early compared with most other countries. Most U.S. institutions require submission of applications by winter for entrance the following fall. Between January and February is the typical deadline period. Students applying during this period, by far the largest group, receive results in late March or early April, and are the ones facing their decision day on May 1.

Early Application

An “early decision” or “early action” deadline round is also offered by some institutions for incoming undergraduates, with October/November deadlines. This earlier round is intended to show applicants’ dedication to a particular school, with “early decision” applicants actually guaranteeing they will go there if accepted. Sometimes applying early gives an advantage in admission chances, and it can offer the relief of knowing where you will go early. These applicants generally receive answers in December and send in their acceptances in January. They can now relax.

Exceptions for Late Applicants

Each institution has its own application process and sets its own deadlines. Some have later than normal application cut-offs. “Rolling admissions” schools go against the general trend by accepting applications until all seats for a class are filled. Applying early to even these schools is recommended however, to ensure a place, have maximum financial aid availability, and perhaps even gain advantage in choice  of housing and other opportunities.

Some universities offer winter/spring entry as well as fall entry, with correspondingly later deadlines. However, this option won’t always, or even often be available.  It is unusual for undergraduate programs and also doesn’t often work for graduate programs taking a “cohort” approach such as many MBA programs

Recommended: Start Even Earlier

Common advice is to start the U.S. application process with a long lead time. While success is possible in a tighter time frame, we recommend starting a year or even eighteen months before your planned date of university entry. So if you wanted to enter study in September 2020, ideally you would already be planning for admission. You want this great block of time to prepare for, take, and perhaps retake required tests (check out our preparation services); complete forms and essays; obtain transcripts and recommendation letters…. First and foremost,you need to choose your favorite institutions from among the many thousands of accredited U.S. options.

University Choices

In the case of the United States, we recommend applying to 4-10 universities. All should be institutions you want to attend, but they should vary in terms of selectivity. You want some you feel certain will admit you and some that may be more selective but have a student body with qualifications similar to your own. Then you may want to add a couple of “reach schools” to which you may be admitted but where you face serious competition. Our expert advising service can help you choose best-fit institutions for you.

A 2018 survey of over 36,000 U.S. high school seniors found that almost half ended up applying to at least five institutions. Around 60 percent were accepted to at least three. Having such choices is what can make the period leading up to May 1 difficult.

Diving Deeper in Comparing Institutions

While family preferences, local connections, immediate gut reaction, or other factors may end up playing a critical role, it’s wise to compare the institutions that accepted you against each other point by point. Which do you prefer based on each of the following characteristics?

  • Academic programs. Presumably all those that accepted you offer the field you want to study, but now it’s time to look more closely. What courses do you have to take to complete your major? What specializations and elective classes are available? How many faculty, and who? Internships, special projects, etc? Also, are other fields that you might like to explore offered, and what’s available there?
  • Support. How active is the international student office; what kinds of activities do they offer? What about the English language program if you’re planning such study? What other support sources will you have, such as an academic adviser, a resident housing adviser, a career adviser, and so on? How involved will they be with you from the start?
  • Campus/community life. Ideally you would visit campuses but that is often unrealistic for international students. If so, still dive as deep as you can. Consider points such as enrollment size and makeup; extracurricular activities (sports, student groups, and so on); and the many factors related to location, from weather to crime rates to local mosques and sources for types of food you’re likely to miss. Explore university website content thoroughly and watch related YouTube videos. See if the university can help you arrange a Skype or other video call with a student who you can ask lots of questions.
  • Cost. Now you have an idea what, if any, financial aid you will receive, how do tuition costs compare? Housing? Local cost of living? Any campus employment opportunity? Under what conditions will your financial aid be renewed for future years?

About Aid

Cost is usually a big part of the university choice picture. While hard line negotiation is frowned upon by U.S. universities, it is reasonable to ask universities to “reconsider” expanding their financial aid package within the limits of their institutional resources and policies.

If you are receiving or are eligible to apply for need-based aid and your financial situation has changed for the worse, you will definitely want to contact the university financial aid office. Be sure to provide solid documentation of the change.

Even if nothing has changed, you can contact the admissions office with a polite request for added merit assistance. A typical situation where you would have some leverage would be if this university is your preferred choice but other institutions have accepted you with more aid/lower cost. The university wants you to enroll, not only for your tuition payment but also for what you will add to their student body in terms of quality and diversity. Their pot of extra funds may be small (or nonexistent) but they do value you.

Special Case: The Wait List

Sometimes students will hear from a university that they are not accepted, but not rejected either. The university has more qualified applicants than it has places, so it has started a “wait list.” If more places open up, then students from the wait list will be admitted. But you won’t know if you’re in until sometime after May 1, and there’s no guarantee. One survey of selective colleges by U.S. News and World Reports found that on average the institutions admitted about 20 percent of wait list candidates.

Considering this information, even if you want to go to a university badly enough to stay on their wait list, you will also want to accept an offer from a second institution, in case the wait list offer never comes through.

Final Steps

Generally you will receive some simple instructions on how to accept a university offer as part of your notification of admission.Follow these instructions; following up with an e-mail to the admissions office if you have any concerns about the message’s arrival. You also will want to inform the institutions that you will not be attending as soon as you have made that decision. This courtesy will be much appreciated by them and may allow another student to be admitted from their wait list.

As part of your notice of acceptance, universities will require a deposit, which may range from around $50 to around $500 (or occasionally even more). If you later decide to go elsewhere, for instance to a university where you had been wait listed, you will lose this deposit but you will not typically suffer other consequences. If you find you can’t enter your chosen university in the fall but may be able to later, you can ask to “defer” your admission to the next semester or year, holding your place and your deposit.

May 1 is sometimes painful, but most often it’s the pain of growth. We wish you the best in moving forward and welcome your questions.