How to Gracefully Decline a Law School Offer

This week, I've been fielding questions from applicants about the right way to turn down offers from law schools. This post is for the "Awesome Problems to Have" files, because it assumes, of course, that you've already received an offer from a school you really want to attend. Congratulations! I love this time of year, because this is when you start seeing the pay-off for all your hard work, planning, and patience. (Sometimes dumb luck helps too, but less than one would think.)  Here are some common questions related to turning down offers:

1. Do I have to turn down the offer before the stated deposit deadline?

Only if you've been accepted somewhere else through a binding early decision program (in which case, you have to withdraw/decline everywhere else pronto; more on that below). LSAC imposes rules on law schools designed to give you enough time to field different admissions and financial aid offers and weigh them properly. Here's the official language from LSAC:

Except under binding early decision plans, or for academic terms beginning in the spring or summer, no law school should require an enrollment commitment of any kind, binding or nonbinding, to an offer of admission or scholarship prior to April 1. Admitted applicants who have submitted a timely financial aid application should not be required to commit to enroll by having to make a nonrefundable financial commitment until notified of financial aid awards that are within the control of the law school.

There's no language there about declining offers, but it's implicit that you would be declining an offer just by failing to accept before the April 1 deadline. The polite thing to do, though, is to affirmatively decline if you are not accepting. So under the rules, you have until April 1 to accept or decline an offer, unless you applied under one of those specific scenarios above.

2. Is there any upside to turning down a school before the deadline?

For you, no. There's no downside to waiting until the deadline to accept (or decline) an offer, with the usual caveat about early decision obligations.

However, if you are 100% certain that you will be declining an offer from School X, you'll be doing your fellow applicants a favor by letting School X know sooner rather than later. Otherwise, School X will have to wait until April 1 to learn that you have freed up your slot and that it is now available to be offered to another applicant. Even if you don't think you owe that courtesy to School X, you can still be a "good citizen" to your fellow applicants, because the waiting game is tough.

3. Are you rushing into things by making a decision before the deadline?

Maybe. Say you're planning to turn down School X because you've received a coveted offer from School Y. Do you already have your financial aid offers from School X and School Y? If that's still up in the air, turn down School X only if you have already decided that you would turn down School X with a full ride in favor of School Y at full price.

If you don't have all the financing information yet, wait. If you do have the information, you might still need some time to decide where the tipping point is: At what point does School X become more attractive than School Y if the price is right? That will depend on different factors for different people, including your career goals and expected income projections. An immediate tuition discount could be a valuable thing, for example, for someone who knows she wants to go into public interest law. The possibility of future loan forgiveness is not nearly as certain as that immediate discount. I'm not saying there's a right answer here that applies to everyone, but give a lot of thought to those tipping points when you're stacking up any two schools.

Also, have you visited both schools? In some cases, you might not care, because the real-world reputation or caliber of the schools diverges enough, and it won't matter to you if School X turns out to have nicer facilities or nicer people or a better classroom culture; you might still decide School Y is a better long-term investment, and that you're willing to put up with a potentially crummier environment for three years at School Y in exchange for the longer-term benefits of that degree. But if the schools are more or less in the same orbit, you really should visit before making a final decision. You might be surprised how much you learn. There's only so much you can glean from school websites and online discussion board chatter. Would you buy a house without going to look at it? Probably not. Sometimes it makes sense to go see things for yourself.

4. I applied binding early decision and am obligated to withdraw my applications elsewhere. I'm really curious, though, about whether I'll get into Schools A, B, and C. How soon do I have to withdraw?

Withdraw within a week of receiving your ED offer. Any longer than that starts to smack of bad faith. More on Early Decision protocol here.

5. What's the protocol and etiquette for turning down or withdrawing your application from a school?

Whether you turn schools down now or wait until April 1, first check the language of that school's offer letter. Follow whatever instructions they give you. Do they want you to email them? Fill out a form and snail-mail it? Send your decision by Pony Express? Whatever they say, that's what you'll do. If they've sent you just the offer at this point with no further instructions yet about how to accept or decline, it's fine to email them at their admissions office email address. Here's a polite way to phrase your communication:

Dear Sir or Madam [if you have the person's name, that's even nicer; make sure to use the proper spelling and title]:

Thank you so much for your kind offer to join the class of 20XX. I must respectfully decline because

[option A] I've been accepted to a binding early decision program and am obligated to decline other offers/withdraw my pending applications

[option B] I will be accepting an offer elsewhere [it's totally up to you if you want to tell them where; they will be curious and might even follow up to ask]

Wishing you all the best,

Awesome Applicant

Stumped about other aspects of declining an offer? Any other factors that you're mulling over? Please share in the comments.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).