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Transferring Colleges: A Detailed Guide

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Every year, according to National Student Clearinghouse research, more than a third of all undergraduate students in the U.S. transfer – that’s more than a million students! The reasons why are enormously varied, including students transferring into or out of community college, students seeking better financial aid, students moving from two-year to four-year institutions, students moving between four-year universities, and more. All of which is to say, if you’re thinking of transferring, you’re definitely not alone!

The college transfer process has some commonalities with the first-year application process, but there are also some key differences. If you’re thinking of applying to transfer, it’s crucial to understand those differences so you can move to a new school that’s right for you.

Why Transfer Colleges?

There are many different types of colleges, which means there are many different types of transfer students. Students’ reasons for transferring may be as simple as unhappiness or as complex as financial and family situations. Some key categories are:

If any of those descriptions fit you, read on for our best advice on understanding the transfer process.

Standard Admission Requirements for Transfer Students

In general, colleges and universities require the same basic materials from transfer applicants as they do for a first-year college application. These traditionally include:

Additionally, there are two very common forms that you’ll need to keep track of, too. These are the College Report, through which your current school says you’re in good standing, and the Mid-Year Report, in which your current professors project your semester grades. Similar forms were likely part of your first-year college admissions process, too, but your guidance counselor almost certainly handled them. Now, it’s up to you to take the College Report to your school registrar and the Mid-Term Report to your teachers.

Just as with first-year admissions, transfer policies and requirements vary by school. Be sure to check college websites, as well as the Common App transfer application (or other relevant application site), to ensure you know what you need for each different school.

How to Be A Strong Transfer Applicant

Strong transfer applicants have much in common with strong first-year applicants: they have a clear goal of what they want to accomplish, strong grades and scores (where relevant), are actively involved on campus at their current schools, and procure enthusiastic letters of recommendation. However, there are some key differences to keep in mind.

Assess Your Primary Reason for Transferring

First, it’s important to understand why you want to transfer schools in the first place. Does your current school have insufficient lab or research opportunities in your field? Did your academic program face significant cuts? Is the student body too large, too small, too homogeneous? Does the career advising at your current school not meet your needs? Do you need to be closer to your family for personal reasons?

Whatever it is, having a strong reason for transferring into a new academic program will help ground your application and make you a more competitive applicant.

Check Which College Credits Will Transfer

Another thing you’ll want to bear in mind when looking to transfer to a new college is which of your current college credits will transfer. Many schools’ transfer policies require applicants to have a minimum GPA, or at least minimum grades in the classes they wish to bring with them.

This is doubly true for students applying to competitive programs like engineering schools, business schools, and nursing programs. If you’re hoping to transfer into a program like that at a new college, you’ll need to ensure your current coursework meets the requirements, which may extend beyond the standard requirements for transfer admissions.

Maintain a High GPA at Your Current College

Having good grades was important the last time around, but it’s doubly important as a transfer applicant. Whereas college admissions officers have to imagine what kind of college student a high school student will be, they can see it plainly for a transfer student! For this reason, your college coursework and grades are paramount in your transfer application.

It’s especially crucial that you have good grades in your major coursework, whether in the subject in which you’ve already declared your major or the subject you intend to study at your new college. Those are the grades that matter most to transfer admissions officers, as they will become essential transfer credits at the school where you continue your degree.

Procure Strong Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters are crucial to your transfer application. To start, you’ll need at least one and maybe two academic letters. Ideally, these letters should come from professors at your current college who have had you in class; admissions officers will be skeptical if you can only present letters from high school teachers.

Additionally, many schools allow or encourage transfer applicants to submit additional, non-academic letters. Consider asking for a letter of recommendation from an employer, internship supervisor, or administrator at your current school.

Keep Track of Transfer Application Deadlines

The timeline is another potentially confusing aspect of the transfer admissions process. Many schools actually offer two application deadlines for transfer students: one in the fall and one in the spring. Others offer only the spring deadline. The fall deadline, usually in early November, is for students who want to start with the spring semester. The spring deadline, usually in early or mid-March, is for those who wish to arrive on campus the following fall.

It’s imperative that you keep careful track of the deadlines of every school on your list, as well as the credit hour requirements for each deadline.

Write an Outstanding Transfer Essay

Writing an application essay (or multiple essays) is a commonality between the first-year process and the transfer process, although they are not identical. A good transfer personal statement addresses both a prospective transfer student’s reasons for transferring and the objectives they hope to achieve at a new school. It’s important that this essay be honest but positive; you should never trash your current school or anything about it.

On top of this essay, you may also need to respond to more specific prompts for certain schools. Some of these are the same as for first-year applicants; others are different. Be sure to make a complete list of all the required essays once you’ve decided where to apply.

Visit College Campuses

Lastly, visiting colleges as a prospective transfer student is as important as it was when you were in high school. Many colleges offer transfer visit days, where you can meet with a designated transfer counselor, learn about resources for transfer students, and meet current students who transferred in. These visits will help you decide which schools to apply to and signal to schools that you are serious about attending if admitted.

Where Should You Apply?

As you research and visit the schools to which you’re considering applying as a transfer student, pay attention to what kinds of resources and programs they have specifically for transfer students. Here are some things that a “transfer-friendly” college or university should have:

Transfer Counselors

Does the school have designated counselors or advisors to help transfer students? When you arrive, you’ll need to figure out which of your credits transfer, where you are in your program of choice, where to live, what resources exist for students, and more. Having a transfer advisor office can make the transition process much smoother.

Dedicated Transfer Orientation

Similarly, do the schools have a specific orientation for transfer students, or do they have you do it alongside incoming first-year students? As a transfer student, you’ll have different concerns than other new students, so it’s important that your new school offer some way to get you up to speed that addresses concerns specific to the transfer population.

Housing Arrangement

If you plan to live on campus at your new college, it’s a good idea to explore what housing arrangements for transfer students look like. Will you be placed based on your incoming year, so you’ll be with students your age, or wherever they have room? Can they guarantee transfer students on-campus housing? Alternatively, if you’re thinking you might want to live off-campus, ask whether that’s permitted under the school’s residency requirement.

College Transfer Acceptance Rate

You’ll also want to make sure you target schools where you have a strong chance of admission. One way is to look at the transfer admission rates. However, be aware that transfer admission rates vary much more than first-year admission rates. Especially for small colleges, the number of open spots for transfers can vary widely from year to year, as can the number of applicants. As such, it’s important to look at the raw numbers, not just the admissions percentage. How many spots do they usually have, and how many prospective students apply?

Reserved Spots for Transfers

Another thing you’ll need to consider is what courses you’re going to take at your new college, particularly if you are admitted after course selection has passed. Are there reserved spots for transfer students in courses? Will you be able to get into the classes you need to fulfill your major requirements? What academic support exists for transfer students?

Transfer Scholarships

As a transfer student, there are some scholarships for which you’ll be eligible that weren’t on the table when you applied as a first-year student. Many of these are specific to individual universities, while others are offered by states, companies, or other community organizations. Be sure to ask what kinds of scholarships are available for transfer students at the schools to which you intend to apply.

Articulation Agreements

Lastly, some institutions have relationships with other schools that allow for students who meet certain minimum academic requirements to transfer without going through a full application process. These are most common between two-year institutions and four-year universities. As you think about your path forward, look into whether your current institution has any of these “articulation agreements” with other universities you might be interested in attending.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here, we’ve compiled some short and sweet answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about transfer admissions.

Should I Transfer Colleges?

That depends! Are you being academically and personally fulfilled at your current school? This may be the most important degree you ever get, so it’s essential to make it count. If you don’t think your current school is setting you up for success, it may be time to look for a change.

Can I Transfer Out of Community College?

Yes! A significant number of community college students transfer every year, whether between community colleges or into four-year institutions. Spending some time at community college before transferring to a four-year university can be a strategic path for some high school graduates who may not be fully academically prepared for college.

Will My College Credit Transfer?

In general, most college credits earned in a degree program with a grade of C or above will transfer to a new institution. However, if the language on a school’s website isn’t clear, don’t hesitate to reach out to a transfer admissions counselor and ask them to help you figure out which of your credits you can expect to transfer.

How Do I Send Transcripts to Transfer Colleges?

Every school you’ve attended has a registrar’s office that handles transcripts. As a transfer student, you’ll need to get in touch with both your high school registrar and the registrar at your current college and ask them to send your transcripts to all the schools to which you’re applying. Be sure to find the correct addresses for each school; some may ask that transcripts and similar documents be sent to a PO box instead of the main office.

How Hard Is It to Transfer Colleges?

Some colleges accept hundreds of transfer students every year; others rarely, if ever, have room for more than a handful. In general, bigger schools have more movement, which can make transferring in easier, but not always. Your transfer application will be evaluated on the extent of your academic preparation, recommendation letters, and the strength of your story regarding why you are interested in transferring.

How Much Does It Cost to Transfer Colleges?

Just as in first-year admissions, the transfer admissions process generally involves an application fee, although fee waivers are available. It’s important to research whether a new school will offer financial aid or scholarships, as those will not automatically transfer over with you. It’s also worth considering the cost of living in the area to which you’d be moving, the cost of moving your things, and other associated costs, like for a new car registration.

How Long Does It Take to Transfer Colleges?

Between finding people to provide letters of recommendation, writing the application essays, and getting all the forms together (on top of your college coursework!), the transfer process can take multiple weeks of sustained effort. It’s always a good idea to start early so that you’re not rushed and have time to recover if there are any unexpected setbacks.

Can I Transfer Colleges After One Year?

Most universities require that you have completed at least one year of college before you enroll. That means that for most places, the earliest you can apply is the spring of your first year, after which you’ll start anew as a sophomore at a new school. However, you should also double-check how many credit hours you’ve earned; just spending time at a college may not be sufficient if you haven’t taken a full course load or passed enough courses.

Will My Financial Aid Transfer with Me?

Unfortunately, financial aid is tied to a specific school, so if you are currently receiving aid, your package will be reconsidered at your new school. You’ll need to resubmit your FAFSA forms, just as you would for another year at your current school, and see what happens. Stay in touch with your current institution’s financial aid office; if you leave with outstanding bills, you may find it very difficult to get future aid or even to transfer credits.

Final Thoughts

For many students, transferring is the right path. By changing institutions, they can achieve a better and more fulfilling college experience. If you’re one of the thousands of students considering becoming a transfer applicant, just be sure to ask the right questions and prepare accordingly. By keeping all this information handy, you’ll both increase your chances for admission and gain a deeper understanding of your own academic and personal goals.

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