How To Transfer Colleges: The Ultimate Guide

A guide to transferring to your dream school (including a successful transfer essay example)

if you’ve decided to transfer colleges, preparing a successful application requires careful planning

if you’ve decided to transfer colleges, preparing a successful application requires careful planning

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Part 1: Introduction

Colleges promise their applicants an unforgettable four years and a lifelong institutional relationship. But many freshmen feel alienated from their schools just months after landing on campus.

The classes might not touch on their interests. The culture might not suit their personality. Or they might still have their heart set on another university.

Maybe you fit that image and want to transfer somewhere else—but feel daunted by the idea of going through the admissions process all over again. Your high school grades were less-than-stellar and transfer admissions rates are low; would you be better off just settling into your current school?

This guide is designed to show you what the transfer admissions process really demands—and how, with a little planning, you can become a first-rate transfer admissions contender.

We’ll start by talking about good reasons to transfer colleges and what schools look for in their transfer candidates. Then we’ll show you how to plan out your academics and extracurriculars, and how to tackle your transfer admissions essays, when the time comes.

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Part 2: Should I transfer colleges?

It’s normal to spend the first few months to a year adjusting to a new school. However, if you’ve given your best effort and still feel another college would be a better fit, transferring colleges might be a good idea.

Here are some good reasons to transfer colleges:

  • Your school’s program for your intended major is not strong

  • You’re facing a financial hardship and tuition is no longer affordable

  • There is an illness in your family and you need to be closer to home

  • Your school’s culture isn’t a good fit (e.g., you’re at a large state school but you’re looking for a more personal learning environment)

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Part 3: Transfer admissions at a glance

How hard is it to transfer colleges?

Admissions forums and college websites overstate how tough transfer admissions are.

The average difference between freshman and transfer admissions rates was only about 3 percent in 2016-2017, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). And while some middle-ranked schools—such as Grinnell and Carnegie Mellon—do take a significantly smaller number of transfer applicants (28.9 vs. 10 percent and 22.2 vs. 6.9 percent, respectively), the country’s most selective schools accept even fewer.

Stanford, for example, accepted 1.4 percent of transfer applicants compared to 4.7 percent of high schoolers in 2016-2017, while the University of Chicago took in 5.5 percent compared to 8.7 percent. To be clear: that’s still a significant gap. But it’s already difficult to get into top universities, so it makes sense that it would be challenging to transfer in. Don’t admit defeat yet.

In fact, The New York Times reported that colleges are making transfer students a larger part of their admissions strategies. Transfers help replace the tuition fees of students who’ve dropped out after one or two years. They also help boost a college’s yield rate—the percentage of accepted students who actually attend the school—because they’re more likely to accept offers of admission, adding to the university’s prestige.

So don’t lose heart. Colleges might need you as much as you need them.

Do colleges look at your high school grades when you transfer?

Admissions boards aren’t too concerned with transfer applicants’ high school grades—especially if they’re applying to be admitted for their junior, rather than sophomore year.

That’s partly because schools think that college grades are a more accurate predictor of whether a student will excel, and partly because transfer GPAs aren’t factored into a school’s US News ranking, allowing them to take more risks with who they let in.

NACAC’s most recent report, for example, says that the vast majority of institutions rated high school academics to be of only limited to moderate importance, while 74% of colleges rated admissions test scores (such as the ACT and SAT) to be of limited to no importance at all.

Our experience working with several transfers to some of the most prestigious schools in the country, such as Yale, shows us that some were admitted despite high-school GPAs of 3.3 and SAT scores as low as 1620 /2400 (in the old test format).

College grades, however, do have to be stellar. Most schools don’t post the average GPA of their transfer students, but in most cases it hovers just below the average GPA of successful regular admissions applicants. UC Berkeley, for example, says its average transfer GPA is 3.75 and Yale, 3.8.

(Note: If you apply to transfer to be admitted for your sophomore year, colleges will more heavily weigh high school grades and standardized test scores because you’ll have a minimal college record as a freshman.)

What do colleges look for in transfer students?

Transfer and regular admissions are similar in some ways and vastly different in others.

Both require strong academic performance, and tend to reward applicants who present themselves as “specialists” rather than jacks-of-all-trades. In other words, you should demonstrate a deep commitment to one or two extracurricular activities instead of spreading yourself too thin across several.

Students who specialize in one or two areas, by contrast, have usually experienced some pretty interesting stuff, standing out for the unique perspective they can add to campus life.

The transfer process arguably rewards specialists even more than regular admissions, since lower admissions rates mean it’s even harder to differentiate applicants based on scholastic excellence alone.

But there’s a key difference: high school students are allowed to list some hobby or casual interest as their specialization, because there’s no rush for them to figure out who they are. Colleges just want evidence that there’s something memorable about a student in general, so there’s potential that they’ll be valuable to the campus later on as well.

Transfer applicants, however, need their specialization to be more career-oriented, especially if they’re applying to transfer for their junior year.

Transfers have very little time to bed into their new school, so the ones who can take advantage of the opportunities and add something new to campus life are usually the ones who have a clearer idea of who they are and are ready to hit the ground running. This also means that schools reward students who have detailed, academic reasons for wanting to transfer.

Alex, for example, is in love with the tuba. She’s won tuba competitions, started a tuba mentorship program, even released an online tuba mixtape. But she has no real plans to turn the tuba into a career and is instead deciding whether to go into medicine or academia. She wants to transfer because she feels isolated at her current college.

The admissions committee’s reaction to this student would probably be: your tuba work is fascinating and we’re sorry you feel isolated at your current college—but you only have two years with us. What sorts of classes would you take? How would you use our alumni networks? What club would you really commit yourself to—the band, the pre-meds or the history journal?

In other words, they’re asking: Why are you better prepared to take from and give to our campus than some other candidate?

Now imagine that Alex, with all her tuba experience, decided after freshman year that she really wants to go into the music industry, and is transferring colleges because her current institution doesn’t offer the classes that she needs.

Admissions committees would probably be a lot more excited about her application in this case. They’d love the fact that the breadth and width of her specialization would give her all sorts of musical and community art experiences that few other students have had. But they’d also be confident that she knows exactly what classes she’d want to talk, what parts of campus she’d contribute to, and how she’d leverage their resources to become the nation’s tuba impresario.

This doesn’t mean that you have your whole life figured out. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t mention your hobbies and secondary interests in your application, or that they’re not important. It just means that your application needs to point in some general professional direction.

We’ll talk about how you can set this up later on in the guide.

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Part 4: How to be a competitive transfer applicant

Review the requirements for transfer applications

The requirements for transfer admissions are fairly similar across universities.

Students are usually required to have completed or be enrolled in between one and two years’ worth of college-level credits in order to qualify for transfer admissions (usually between eight and sixteen classes). Anything less and you have to apply as a freshman; anything more and you can’t apply at all, since if all your credits transfer over you’d be doing less than half your degree at your new university.

Furthermore, most colleges allow you to transfer in either your junior or sophomore year, depending on how many transferable college credits you’ve accumulated. In most cases the admissions committees themselves calculate how many transfer credits you have only after you’ve gotten in, and it’s not usually clear whether they have a preference for applicants who’d like to come in as sophomores or juniors. (The Princeton transfer admissions site, for one, suggests that they’ll more often accept sophomores than juniors, though their transfer program was only reopened in 2018.)

Final deadlines for applications are usually on March 1st or the 15th.

The required materials are usually as follows:

  • The Common Application (or the UC application, for University of California schools)

  • Supplemental essay questions

  • Official university transcripts from all postsecondary institutions

  • Official secondary school transcript

  • College report (a form summarizing your academics to be filled out by a college counselor)

  • Midterm report (summarizing interim grades from spring semester of application year)

  • All SAT or ACT scores

  • Two letters of reference from college instructors

Also be sure to note that:

  • A minority of schools, including Harvard, recommend taking SAT subject tests (though if you already took them in high school, you’re fine)

  • You are almost always required to resubmit documents that you may have sent in during the freshman admissions process

  • You’re almost never allowed to request an interview, though some schools, such as Yale, might offer them to some applicants (though these are not required for success)

Come up with a tentative professional plan

As we discussed earlier, admissions committees like transfer applicants who have a clear professional specialization driving them to make their scholastic switch (especially if they’re applying to transfer for their junior and not sophomore year).

If you already fit that bill, great. But if not—and if your reasons for wanting to transfer aren’t totally career-oriented—we’d still recommend that you come up with some tentative professional plan, for a few reasons. First, it’ll make you a more competitive transfer applicant.

Second, it’ll help you decide what schools to apply to. A lot of students, understandably, just want to transfer to a more prestigious institution, but in doing so they end up missing out on places which could help them flourish in the short and in the long term. Some students, for example, are attracted to Harvard and Columbia for their global affairs programs—and end up completely overlooking Cornell, where some of the most innovative theories of international relations have developed.

Third, coming up with and pursuing a tentative professional plan—even if you’re uncertain about it right now and will change your mind later—can help you figure out what you really want to do. They’ll help you narrow down what you like and what you don’t, what you’re good at and what you aren’t—and maybe even introduce you to activities that you hadn’t seriously considered before.

One student, Andrew, decided he wanted to be a speechwriter, and took up an internship at a small firm. The writing bored him and he wasn’t great at it. But after meeting a number of talent agents, through the firm, he found that he had a real talent for one-on-one networking and a strong interest in the entertainment industry.

So don’t think of this as deciding your future career, but as an excuse to take your first real look at what the world’s got to offer.

Here’s how you can sketch out a professional plan, step-by-step. We recommend that you start this process as early as possible—as soon as you think you might want to transfer. The most successful transfer applicants are typically those who start building their specialist profile during freshman year (or even earlier).

Step 1 — Research different career paths in the field that interests you

First off, you need a tentative end-goal around which to structure your plan—that is, a field that you can see yourself going into and a few potential jobs within that field. (There’s no need to limit yourself to any specific job, as long as you’re picking some roles with a lot of lateral movement—musician and music critic, for example.)

Pick your professional goal based on both your interests and your current resources. By resources, we mean your resume, connections and skills. These will make it easier for you to present yourself as a “specialist” in your chosen field when transfer admissions time comes, both by placing your goal in a wider narrative of who you are since high school and by making it easier for you to gather internships and other extracurricular accomplishments.

Step 2 — Take advantage of resources and extracurriculars on your current campus

Even if your current university isn’t a perfect fit for your professional plans, chances are that it offers some extracurricular activities and resources that touch upon your chosen field. Commit yourself to these and try to experience as much as you can through them.

Figuring out which of these activities you should do, though, really depends on the needs of your application.

The best activities are, generally, those that will mimic the experience of being in your chosen field. If you want to be a journalist, join a campus magazine; if you want to become a scientist, see if you can do some research. Those points may not always “wow,” but they’ll bulk up your specialist bona fides and possibly open up new professional opportunities.

Pre-med, pre-law and student government organizations, by contrast, are a bit of a time sink and will probably teach you more about ordering pizzas for guest lectures than about your chosen field.

At the same time, getting a position at one of these groups can be useful, if your application lacks a leadership component. And their events are often a great chance to connect with real figures in your field who can connect you to opportunities elsewhere, if your network is really meager.

So take a look at the activities offered at your school and ask which ones are really worth your time.

Step 3 — Gain some experience in your chosen field

Taking up an internship or other position in your chosen field is the perfect way to show that you’re a specialist, come time for transfer admissions. The prestige of the organization or of the role is irrelevant as long as the experience itself is interesting and edifying.

The Internet is overflowing with ads for internships in DC and other major cities. But many students have great luck asking friends and family members for ideas or cold-calling local organizations where they might be interested in working.

One transfer student who wanted to become an agricultural engineer, for example, spent their summer working on a farm. Another assisted their local pastor, to learn about community building.

Consider also reaching out to a mentor in your field. That could be a professor who studies what you’re interested in (many of whom were actually practitioners before they became academics), or a notable professional in your community. If they can’t give you a position, they might at least give you advice on where to find one, give you other opportunities to experience what you need, or keep you posted if anything comes up.

You could also consider starting some sort of project related to your field, on your own.

Plan out your classes

There are a few things you want to keep in mind as you plan out your college classes, to maximize the quality of your transfer admissions app.

First, show off your brainpower and work ethic by taking classes outside your year group, without taking too many and tanking your GPA.

Second, take classes that are important for your specialty field, while pursuing a few other interests to demonstrate your intellectual dynamism.

Finally, make sure that you take more than one class with each of your potential letter writers, so they’ll have enough material to write your letters of recommendation when the time comes. Admissions committees understand that you haven’t had much time to build relationships with your instructors, so don’t worry too much about this. But strong letters of recommendation can only improve your application.

The ideal reference would be a professor who works in your chosen field, has been impressed by your work, and is reasonably well known in their field. (Tenure isn’t necessary, but an associate professor’s reference will typically be stronger than one from a lecturer.)

So pick courses with relatively small class sizes, go to your professors’ office hours, and ask them tons of questions. (By the way, this goes for all college experiences! Don’t drop these habits if you get accepted to your dream transfer school.)

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Part 5: How to write a transfer essay

The Common App essay

On one level, the Common App transfer essay and UC transfer application give you an opportunity to convince admissions committees that you’re a specialist and that you have concrete, professional reasons for wanting to leave your current college. The prompt for both is almost always the same. For the Common App in 2018-2019, it was:

Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.

Whereas for the UC application—which we’re explicitly calling out because so many students wish to transfer from two-year institutions in California to the four-year UC system—it was:

Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.

Beyond that, though, the essay for transfers isn’t so different from the one for high school seniors: it’s your chance to show admissions committees who you really are. The professional and the personal have to be woven together in order for your application to be memorable, without going overboard and pretending that you were an activist straight out the womb.

The key is to actually reflect on your personal experiences and to articulate how they’ve informed your perspective on your chosen specialty.

Our comprehensive guide to the Common App personal statement will tell you step-by-step how you can brainstorm, structure, and finally write this essay compelling. Here, we’ll just focus on showing you can effectively explain why you’ve chosen your specialization through a memorable but measured personal narrative.

Transfer Essay Example

We’ll do so by looking at a Common App essay example by a successful transfer applicant whom we’ll call Amir.

"Living in the West, you might not understand this,” said a family friend of mine, discussing the clergymen who govern Iran. “But I can always recognize a mullah from the smell of feces which surrounds them.”

And so began a lecture that I’d heard a hundred times before, from a hundred Iranian émigrés obsessed with destroying the regime they’d fled. Hostility between Iran and the United States was a force for good, they’d tell me, and anyone who says otherwise is an apologist for evil. And for most of my life, I followed their lead.

I believed that the Islamic Republic could never be reformed or negotiated with; that the regime had to be isolated until its demise; and that politics was governed by laws and by essences that could never be changed.

But I began to realize, during my time in Washington, DC, that even the Islamic Republic could evolve if we greet it with an open hand.

I interned at the National Iranian American Council, while the Iran nuclear deal was being fought over in Congress. NIAC lobbied in favor of the agreement, saying that it would encourage reform in Iran. They cited the memo that former president Khatami sent to the US as evidence. It offered to limit Iran’s nuclear program and end support for militants, in return for friendlier relations, but was ignored by the Bush administration.

And so, NIAC said, the Islamic Republic’s anti-Americanism was no eternal essence. When the regime tried to change, it was spat on—and that arrogance has had real consequences. First, for Iranians, living under a sanctions regime which destroyed their lives and empowered their dictators. And for the people of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, caught in an Iran-Saudi cold war which America has no diplomatic leverage to ease.

With the nuclear deal we have another chance at a US-Iran thaw, NIAC argued—and that might mean a more secure world for everyone.

I went to NIAC because I wanted to draw my own conclusions about what was best for Iran. While I researched for their reports, articles and books, I also went to conservative think-tanks and Congressional hearings. I wrote articles critiquing what I saw, and the more I weighed the evidence, the more compelling NIAC's case became.

Iran can change—eventually. And hence, so can its relationship with the Middle East’s Sunni powers. But when we act like antagonisms are essential, we keep evolution from ever occurring—and none of our secular or democratic ideals can ever justify the slaughter that entails.

There are obviously strong tendencies in international relations. But tendencies aren't laws, they're constructions that can change if we have the bravery to allow them to. I want to be a diplomat so I can spot those openings and adapt policy to match. And I want to do it in the Middle East, where institutionalized distrust—egged-on by my myopic diaspora—has caused profound suffering.

But first, I need to understand the social constructions I hope we can alter. That means studying the Middle East beyond Iran—its cultures, histories, political institutions and political theologies. And it means hearing from IR scholars who disagree with me, so I don’t fight for a dangerously naïve cause.

I can’t do that at my current university. The faculty are wonderful, but we have few Middle East scholars, and none are political scientists. I’ve already taken every suitable middle-east course, and they’ve all been historical surveys. As for general IR theorists, we fare better. But they’re also few, and none hold the novel perspectives on international cooperation—its prospects, its limitations—about which I want to learn.

I’d like to go somewhere I can think deeply about whether culture matters in IR; about how economics may explain Middle-Eastern historical trends; about how Islam influences government; about how reconciliation and international law might heal old wounds.

About the ways we might construct the world anew.

Putting aside the structure and writing style of Amir’s essay, the content of it works for a number of reasons. First, it checks off the most basic boxes of the transfer statement: he clearly states his area of specialization (IR and the Middle East) and the reasons he wants to transfer (his university doesn’t offer the classes he needs).

Second, it clearly explains why this specialty and therefore transferring are so important to him via a personal narrative about who he is.

It’s useful to note that his experiences aren’t that remarkable. Most immigrant families have a tense relationship with the countries that they’ve left behind. And his internship in DC wasn’t at NATO or a high-profile embassy, but a small organization representing an ethnic minority.

But that’s okay. What matters is that he reflected seriously on the things he’d experienced and come up with something unique to say about why his chosen specialty is worth pursuing all the way to a new university.

In fact, his emphasis on what he’s learned rather than what he accomplished or what trauma he and his community had been through stop his explanation from sounding melodramatic and insincere. The fact that he doesn’t disparage his current university, of course, also helps him come across as humble.

Supplemental Essays

Whereas the Common App essay for transfer applicants is really all about their professional specializations, most of the supplemental essay prompts try to tease out their other interests and qualities.

In fact, nearly all of them are identical to the supplemental essay questions used in the regular admissions process. That includes old standbys like the “Why us” essay, Stanford’s “letter to your future roommate,” and Columbia’s “short takes.”

(Further reading: The Ultimate Guide to Supplemental College Application Essays)

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Part 6: Frequently Asked Questions

Do transfer students get a bachelor’s degree?

Yes, transfer students will earn the same bachelor’s degree as students who matriculated after high school.

Do colleges give transfer students credit for previous college-level work?

Once a transfer student has been accepted into a program, colleges will calculate the number of credits that they’ll give them for prior post-secondary work based on two criteria. First, whether a particular course has an equivalent in the university’s curriculum. And second, whether the student has achieved a minimum grade in that course (a C at Northeastern, for example).

Some schools, such as Yale, won’t offer transfer students credit for advanced examinations completed during high school (i.e. in AP, IB or community college classes), whereas others, such as Columbia, will.

Most schools, furthermore, will cut a student off from further transfer credits once they’ve amassed half a degree’s worth of them, regardless of how many of their classes would technically have qualified.

Check out your preferred schools’ websites for more details.

Do colleges offer housing to transfer students?

Some colleges, such as Columbia, guarantee on-campus housing to transfer students. Others like Yale and Northwestern don’t, though they maintain that such housing is available. Check out your preferred schools’ websites to be sure.

Do transfer students get financial aid?

Colleges typically offer financial aid to transfer students on pretty much the same terms that they offer it to everyone else, but check out your schools’ websites just to be sure.

Are transfer admissions need-blind?

If a school’s normal admissions process is need blind, then its transfer admissions process will typically be need blind as well. That also goes for schools such as Columbia and Rice, which are need blind for US citizens and permanent residents but not need blind for international applicants, whether applying for transfer or regular admission.

Should I explain why I got bad grades in high school?

Only if the schools give you an Additional Information section, and only if your grades were severely affected by a major hardship. Explaining why you got one B in sophomore chemistry isn’t really necessary. But if a serious medical condition, economic insecurity, or another personal crisis made your grades drop from straight As in junior to straight to Bs in senior year, you might want to mention that.

But even then, colleges weigh college grades so much more heavily than high school grades that it may not be worth your time. And it may be more useful to talk about a serious personal challenge in your Common App or supplementary essays.

Can I transfer from community college to an Ivy League school or other elite university?

Yes. In fact many elite universities actively court community college students because of the unique perspective that they bring. Princeton, Yale, UC Berkeley and a number of other schools explicitly encourage such transfer applicants on their websites.

When do transfer students hear back?

UC applicants can expect to hear back between March 1 and May 1. Ivy league schools, such as Harvard, typically release their decisions in May.