First, take the time to enjoy this fantastic moment. Experience excitement and emotions as you see fit. Some students cry, others laugh, some jump up and down, and others dance. After spending the last year or more focused on the future, enjoy the moment. Happiness is a normal an expected response to being accepted and choosing a graduate program. However many students are surprised that they also feel antsy and even a little sad. Unsettling feelings are common yet unexpected response to being awarded admission to graduate school and are usually an expression of emotional exhaustion after the stress of waiting for an extended period.
Survey the Terrain.
Get your bearings. How many applications did you submit? Is this your first acceptance letter? It may be tempting to accept an offer immediately but if you have applied to other graduate programs, wait. Even if you are not waiting to hear about other applications, do not immediately accept the offer. Carefully consider the offer and the program before accepting or declining an offer of admission.
Never Hold on Two or More Offers
If you are fortunate this admissions offer is not your first. Some applicants prefer to hold on to all admissions offers and make a decision once they have heard from all graduate programs. I advise against this for at least two reasons. First, choosing among graduate programs is challenging. Deciding among three or more offers of admission, considering all of the pros and cons, is overwhelming -- which can impair decision making. Second, and more important in my book is that holding on to an offer of admission that you do not intend to accept prevents wait-listed applicants from gaining admission.
As you consider offers examine the specifics. What specific program? Masters or doctorate? Have you been offered financial aid? Teaching or research assistantship? Do you have enough financial aid, loans, and cash to afford graduate study? If you have two offers, one with aid and one without, you might explain this to your contact in admissions and hope for a better offer. At any rate, be sure that you know what you are accepting (or declining).
Make a Decision
In many cases decision making entails choosing among two graduate programs. What factors do you consider? Funding, academics, reputation, and your gut intuition. Also consider your personal life, your own desires, and your quality of life. Don't just look within. Talk with other people. Close friends and family know you well and can offer a fresh perspective. Professors can discuss the decision from an academic and career development perspective. Ultimately the decision is yours. Weigh the pros and cons. Once you have come to a decision, don't look back.
Once you have made a decision, do not hesitate to inform graduate programs. This is especially true of the program whose offer you are declining. Once they receive word that you are declining their offer of admission, they are free to inform an applicants on the wait list of their admittance. How do you accept and decline offers? Email is an entirely appropriate means of communicating your decision. If you accept and decline offers of admission by email remember to be professional. Use proper forms of address and a polite, formal writing style thanking the admissions committee. Then either accept or decline the offer of admission.
Now that the work of evaluating, decision making, and informing graduate programs is done, celebrate. The waiting period is done. The difficult decisions are over. You know what you will be next year. Enjoy your success!