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Tips & Info: Negotiating the Best Offer

Don't assume that your ability to influence application review committee decisions is gone once your applications are submitted. While decisions do rest primarily on your record up to the point of application--and on the application itself (including recommendations)--there still may be ways to influence outcomes. For example, if you didn't have a personal interview before sending applications, you might still be able to arrange one before final decisions are made. Two more scenarios help illustrate what else can be done after the point of submission to try to influence final offers.

SCENARIO ONE You are applying to college (or graduate school or professional school) and face an application due date in early January. You have done exceptionally well in your courses and would like the application review committee to see evidence of your success, but the academic period in progress doesn't conclude until late January.

Contact the admission office and request that you be allowed to submit a transcript of your grades for courses-in-progress a few weeks late. It is likely that the committee won't begin reviewing applications right away, so the transcript will probably arrive in sufficient time to be included in your file. Your request may be granted.

This advice applies in a number of other similar situations. Applicants who retake and do well on college board exams just after application due dates, applicants who complete a research project just after due dates, applicants who can contact their main professor for a recommendation only after the professor returns from a sabbatical, just after due dates, etc.--all face the same circumstances. It would make sense in every case to request permission to submit additional application materials shortly after the due date.

SCENARIO TWO You applied to graduate school at two closely ranked, competitive universities. You were admitted to one school and wait-listed at the other. Or maybe you were accepted at both schools but were offered a scholarship only at one. What extra measures can you take--in the first scenario--to get admitted, or--in the second scenario--to obtain funding at that school as well?

In these situations it is worth using your existing offer to try to leverage what you want out of the university you'd prefer to attend. It is also advisable to attack this problem at the departmental level as that's where decisions about graduate student admission and/or funding are often made (especially later decisions), and this is also where competition with the other university's concomitant department for getting the best students will be strongest.

With this strategy in mind, arrange for a personal interview at the department where you'd prefer to study. Start by speaking to the department chairperson or the graduate faculty representative. Indicate your strong interest in becoming a student in their department, but also let them know of your offer to attend the other school/receive a scholarship or funding. After you've had a chance to talk, make known your preference to study in their department. In the second scenario, let it be known that you'd choose to study in their department if they could help you find financial assistance. Luck, and rivalry, may be on your side, and you may get what you want right then.

If, however, you fail to get what you want out of the first faculty member you meet, don't give up. Talk to faculty members who specialize in your sub-field(s) of interest. Maybe someone with say over admissions in a sub-field could sway the decision in your favor. Maybe someone with control over grant money to do a research project could use your assistance and help defray your tuition cost with a stipend. Talk to graduate students. They might be able to point you to faculty members with influence and/or funding. You might also try these same general tactics over the phone, but being there for face-to-face discussions is most advantageous.

This same leveraging approach could be employed in similar situations where two or more universities/colleges/professional schools/departments are rivals. While undergraduate college applicants or professional school applicants may have less bargaining leeway than graduate school candidates (especially for funding) , it is worth trying the tactics suggested here. The competitive dynamics are especially strong in situations where the institutions are closely ranked and/or compete for students in the same geographic region. Students who try late-phase negotiating tactics--whether it be for financial awards or admission in the first place--may find themselves with choices they didn't have previously.

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