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I received an email today from a university (should I specify which?) Physics graduate admissions, saying they hope to welcome me next year, that they will fly me in to an open-house event, etc.

However, they didn't say "congratulations" or "you have been accepted". When I asked for clarification they said that they can't say it more officially at this time due to "guidelines", but essentially confirmed I got accepted and will receive an official email later.

Q: what guidelines are they referring to?

Edit: I asked this question when I attended the open house. They explained that they technically need to wait for the graduate school administration to approve their selection before sending an offer letter. To give students a chance to book their flights earlier rather than later, they sent this "unofficial" email (I received the official email several weeks later).

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In the US it is common that the department reviews applications, and then makes a recommendation for who to accept, but not a final decision. This recommendation would then be sent to the a higher level (e.g., dean for graduate studies at the school or dean of the graduate school) for approval. In rare cases some candidates recommended by the department might be denied at this stage, for example a candidate who seemed promising to the department but doesn't meet an administrative GPA or GRE cutoff, or if there are budgetary changes. Official admissions decisions would then be sent out after official approval. Although different institutions may be subject to additional rules, I think this is the most likely guideline to restrict the department here.

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  • Thank you for posting this as an answer. My professor has a different explanation, which I give as an answer, do you agree with it? Commented Feb 10 at 15:44
  • @DavidRaveh Like others I'm somewhat skeptical. If GradCafe is to be trusted, several "elite schools" have already started sending out acceptance notifications anyway.
    – Anyon
    Commented Feb 10 at 23:03
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Could be anything, from department, university, state, to funding agency guidelines. The university is part of a huge bureaucracy, so there is no shortage of guidelines.

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  • Ok, but what's the logic behind the guideline (there must be some reason, right??) Commented Feb 10 at 11:17
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    @DavidRaveh In my experience, you can't expect to always find logic in bureaucracy, but perhaps this could be a department having made their recommendation that then has to be approved/rubberstamped by someone at a higher level.
    – Anyon
    Commented Feb 10 at 11:22
  • @Anyon I see, that makes sense to me. I would encourage you to make this an answer so people can vote on it Commented Feb 10 at 11:25
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    @Anyon Related, a lot of bureaucratic weirdness falls into two categories: Things that made sense a long time ago but can't easily be changed (sometimes due to one annoying stakeholder), and rules put into place as the result of one-time failures. None of these make sense except to the people who were there at the time.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Feb 10 at 18:59
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I asked my professor this question yesterday, and he had no idea. This is the email he sent me today:

I think I finally remembered/understood what is going on: many of the elite schools have an agreement on the earliest date that an applicant can be informed of an admission offer (I’m guessing mid-February), and the earliest date by which they must accept (mid-April).

And I guess ***** wants to get ahead, and give you time to book your ticket. (Most schools will want their recruits to visit in mid-March, so it may not be possible to visit them all… )

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    "Earliest date by which they must accept" of April 15 is a real thing, and not just elite schools but practically all US universities, but not relevant to your question. I've never heard of an agreement on "Earliest date that an applicant can be informed of an admission offer", and am skeptical. Commented Feb 10 at 19:47
  • @NateEldredge thank you for your comment. I had never heard of it either, and decided to ask if this exists as a separate question Commented Feb 10 at 20:14
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As Anyon says, this sounds an awful lot like the department has made their choice, and is waiting for approval of their choice through some administrative framework. If this is the case, the reason for notifying you in the manner that they have may be to urge you not to accept some university's "official" offer without considering this offer, or waiting for it to firm up.

Of course, if I'm misinterpreting this, the next most likely scenario is that you're in a second tier of candidates, and they're waiting to see how many in their first tier accept their offer before offering you something firm.

Although universities really appreciate early acceptances, so they can better understand their needs moving forward, your proper course of action is to do nothing until you start approaching deadlines for your decision. If this hasn't been firmed up as it's getting close to the time you really need to decide, and this non-guaranteed offer is something you might consider after knowing whether you're accepted to any the rest of the programs you applied to, then you should email your contact at this program, tell them you're under deadline, and need a firm offer. At that point, the program may need to circumvent their standard protocols, and directly ask the office who can approve your admission to do so before they're done with their entire process.

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    Yes, I can see, possibly, how that program's reaction means you're in the second list... but they don't want to tell you they've rejected you, because an unexpected number of the people in the first-round offers may reject them, and they want to preserve high-quality second-round offers. And, also, yes, it's only that students (in the U.S.) are not obliged to commit until April 15. Nothing about earliest possible firm offers, etc. Commented Feb 11 at 18:28
  • The "second tier" option doesn't seem very likely to me, the person I emailed for clarification said "congratulations" and that they look forward to seeing me at the open house, and apologized for being unable to say this officially at this time. If things were more uncertain I doubt they would have said this. Commented Feb 11 at 18:41
  • @DavidRaveh I agree that the effective waitlist is probably not what is going on here. I mention it because I consider it irresponsible not to. In any case, your course of action is the same regardless of what the scenario is, so at some level, it makes no difference why the program sent the kind of letter they sent. The message the university sent back in response to your request is very wishy washy. What it doesn't say is "We're recommending your admission to the people with final approval authority," which would have been a clear indication. Commented Feb 11 at 18:46

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