Wednesday, March 15, 2023

“We’ll Take You—Right Now”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The student was unsure what to do. One of the colleges she applied to notified her she had been admitted. After offering their congratulations, the college then told the student that, since the program she had applied to had only so many slots, she had to tell them if she was accepting the offer by March 10th—about 15 days later.

The challenge here is that the student hadn’t heard from all the colleges she applied to, and while this program had a lot to offer, she wasn’t certain this was the best choice for her, and she wasn’t sure if this was the only choice for her. To her way of thinking, this put her in a tough spot. If she says she’s coming, and she gets more offers later on, she could later be perceived to be a liar—and who wants to live with that? If she says no, she risks losing a seat at a good program that may not be perfect, but has a lot to offer. If only she had more time.

The good news, dear student, is that you do have more time, if you will do just one thing—tell the college you’re coming. While most colleges give you until May 1st to make a fully-informed decision (it used to be that all colleges were *required* to give students this long to decide), some believe they need to know sooner. This often happens with arts programs, so drama programs can make sure they don’t enroll too many playwrights and not enough thespians, or music programs can make sure they don’t get too many bassoonists.

If you have any feeling you’ll be lying to the college by saying yes, reconsider what they’re asking. They want your answer today—so, based on how you feel today, and based on the colleges you’ve been admitted to as of today, is this the place you’d pick? If the answer is yes, tell them that. If the answer is no, telling them early really isn’t an issue. If the answer is you don’t know, you’re thinking too much about what you’ll know in the future. Based on Right. Now. Would you go there? If yes, you’re being honest in telling them yes, and in saving your spot.

But, you say, what if you change your mind once you hear back from other programs?

I know a counselor—let’s call him Pat—who got a call from his wife, asking what he wanted for dinner. His wife was a great cook, so he suggested a dish she loved to make. Three hours later, Pat’s brother called to say he got a promotion he wasn’t expecting, and could he and his wife join him for dinner to celebrate. They did, and a good time was had by all.

In other words, time went on, new information was available, and they changed their mind. That’s not lying. That’s life.

Any college that wants you to make an informed choice before you have the chance to get all the information should either tell you that when you first apply (like Early Decision programs do) or expect to get a lot of students who say yes to an offer, and never come. Colleges that don’t do that, but still want a rushed decision, are forgetting their real mission—to serve the students. Search your heart, give them an honest answer based on what you know today, and look forward to reconsidering that answer if you get more information tomorrow. This is how the world works, and it’s more than OK.


  1. Yes to all of this!!

  2. Today, this kind of stimulus is called "fear of missing out" (FOMO) but it's been an element of advertising forever. Every time you hear, "Call in the next 5 minutes to get free shipping!" or any such exhortation, it means they're trying to manipulate you emotionally by creating a false sense of scarcity. The idea is to maximize information for them but not for you -- the concept of information asymmetry. The intention is to create an unfair advantage -- not cool, whether that's to sell you the Ronco Cap Snaffler or a $150,000 college tuition bill.

  3. Many thanks for this article and perspective, and for pointing out that the students are the ones who lose out when colleges try to game the system.

  4. Are we considering the privilege that exists in being able to pay 2 deposits and potentially lose one of them? Maybe this is the “good news” for those who don’t have a limited income, but this article is a bit short sighted as it doesn’t account for the students where losing $200-500 dollars (or more) isn’t an option.

  5. I wish the colleges' real mission was to serve the students. Unfortunately, given the current climate, their primary goal appears to be to maximize their enrollment numbers in any way possible. I can understand that--the prospect of having to close has been given immediacy by the closure of several colleges recently, but it does make the job of providing advice to confused students so much more difficult.