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I graduated 2 years ago. I am now seeking to apply to a Master’s degree in Finance. I am currently applying to 6 universities.

My letters of recommendation are from renowned professors who are really putting time and effort to ensure i get approved in a top program.

The thing is I currently have a very good job. I love what I do, compensation is great and the company’s culture is great.

I am sure I would attend 3 of those 6 schools I am applying, but I am a bit unsure about the other 3, as my opportunity cost is high.

The most common advice is to apply for all programs and reject them afterwards if that is the case. However, I fear the scenario in which I get approved only to the schools I am not sure I would attend and decide not to do a master’s at all.

I think that this would hurt the professors who wrote letters for me. What should I do? Is this really as bad as it sounds? Should I only apply to schools I am sure ( as of today) i would attend?

  • For the "bad" schools, how and when would you decide whether you want to go there? Could you decide this before asking the prof? – user111388 Oct 8 at 12:44
  • I guess I would decide that after I got all offers in march/abril. The company’s department I am currently at is very new and by march I will have much more information about my career prospects. So I can’t decide this before applying. If I only get approved by “bad schools” my choice will mainly depend of my work opportunities here. – Jaglok Oct 8 at 13:11
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    When you decline a school's offer, you don't have to give a detailed justification. They are unlikely to be able to distinguish someone declining because they got an offer from a better school from someone declining because they've changed their mind. Nobody cares enough to spend time on Google trying to work out where you've gone. You should therefore not be concerned about hurting your referees. – avid Oct 8 at 20:39
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    A more significant consideration is that your referees may become less willing to invest time in writing references for you if they see you getting a bunch of reasonable offers and then declining them. – avid Oct 8 at 20:40
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    If it helps, your professors typically won't be informed of the admissions decisions. So if you don't go to a particular school they won't know whether you got admitted and decided against attending or whether you simply didn't get admitted. – user2705196 Oct 9 at 12:48
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The reason this is the “most common advice” is that it is the correct, logical, and ethical thing to do. You’re overthinking things. Asking for letters of recommendation does not imply any commitment on your part to attend a specific school, or to pursue a degree at all. The assumption the professors are making is that you are considering doing such a thing, among the various opportunities that may be available to you - nothing more.

Good luck with your applications!

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Apply.

If you don't, and the "top" schools all reject you, then you have no options at all. If you have options you can decide at the point that it becomes necessary which path you should take.

The alternative is certainly sub-optimal.

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You should apply to schools that you are not sure you would attend.

You should not apply to schools that you are sure you would not attend.

It may save you (and your professors) some time and effort to consider now which of these two your final 3 schools are, although as others said it is something that can be decided later.

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You phrase your question as a rational consideration. But the real issue here, I suspect, is an emotional one.

  1. It feels deceitful and opportunistic to apply for a college you are not keen to attend, just to have options. That's probably because applying for it somewhat implicates pretending that you do.
  2. It feels ungrateful and egoistic to ask for recommendation letters for some applications and then not accepting any of the offers they have helped you get.

Also, and maybe most importantly, there is a feeling of selling yourself short in applying for colleges “you don’t really want to end up in, but maybe would be better than nothing”. You are essentially leaving open the option for an act of desperation. And in preparing for despair, you are acknowledging that you would actually maybe act on it, which might feel undignified.

Hence I suspect this question has more dimensions than the purely strategic ones, which have already been handled well in the other answers. So I will give my considerations on these other dimensions:

If I am correct, I recommend you should come to terms now whether attending a college of second choice would indeed be an act of desperation for you and whether you would – in principle – be willing to act on desperation for your current goals or rather be willing to pursue a different path in your life. Only if you here realize that it would be an act of desperation that you actually are not willing to make, I recommend that you do not apply for these colleges.

If you feel just a bit unsure about your answers, you should also consider that you may be in a different emotional state when you are actually receiving offers. In this case, you should assume that you would want to have the option, that it will not seem like an act of desperation and, even if so, that you would be willing to do it anyway. Everything else may lead you to great regret.

Finally, you should realize that applying for colleges just to have options (as long as you don't go overboard) is an acceptable thing to do. You can be absolutely be forthright about your reasons for applying to them. If anyone else involved feels like these reasons are not good enough – well let them feel this way and let them act on it too. You will not feel deceitful or ungrateful. Worst thing that will happen is that you won’t get accepted to one of your second choice colleges, which is your alternative now anyhow.

So anyway: You write that you apply for three colleges you are unsure about. I think this is a very reasonable number for options. Hence I concur with everyone else in my recommendation, just with a minor reservation: Just apply to every one of the colleges you consider which to attend you would not consider an act of desperation you are not willing to make.

(Well, that’s basically what Orntt already said, just fleshed out.)

Come to think of it, my main advice would be that you don’t put off an inner confrontation you might face in the hope of avoiding it by being accepted to a first choice college. Confront yourself now.

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OK. First reply was deleted. So let me adjust.

If there are schools you absolutely would not go to, then you might ask yourself whether it is the degree you are looking at trying to get or whether it is the school you are trying to get.

More to the point, having sat on admissions committees: schools admit you if they want you, but they have little emotional or rational investment in you until you come. If you say no—which is likely, given that we know students apply to other places—that's part of the game. So you are not burning bridges because bridges are not built at this point.

If there are places you are SURE you would not go to, do not apply there, because you are wasting your own time. And frankly, again, having read apps, it often shows through that you are not interested in the "lesser" program, and they may reject you simply because they can tell that you don't want to go.

Finally, for the sake of your professors, just subscribe to a service (there are a few out there) that collect and send your letters for you in a confidential manner. Faculty have enough to do without having to submit to several different systems for each university. Such services take one letter from each faculty member and send it to all the programs you designate. And to be honest, faculty are almost all just sending the same letter over and over, changing only the address. So if you'd like to be nice to the professors writing your letters and to burn those bridges, do this to lighten their burden. Especially now when they are teaching online and lots of other stuff because of the pandemic.

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