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How to transfer colleges? When, how and where.

December 10, 2019 :: Jacob Allison

Making the decision to transfer to a new university can be challenging. You probably spent a lot of time, money, and energy in applying to your original school.

You researched the school’s catalogue, took time out of school to go on a campus visit, and edited and re-edited your admissions essays until they were just right. When you finally received that admission letter in the mail, the sense of relief you felt was overwhelming! Finally, you knew where you were going to college, and you couldn’t wait to get started. 

Fast forward to now, and things are a bit different. You know you need to make a change, but the idea of going through the college admissions process again seems daunting. In this article, we’ll provide you with some strategies for making the decision to become a transfer student, and how to actually do it. 

When to Transfer

Sometimes, the choice to transfer isn’t yours to make. Perhaps your family has to move across the country because of a job change, and because your family is so tight-knit, you can’t stand to go to school a thousand miles away from them. Another common reason is financial challenges. Something could have changed in you or your family’s financial situations that necessitates that you change schools, or perhaps you need to be on in-state tuition in order to make college work. These situations can be tough, but most universities understand that they happen and will have worked with students similar challenges. So as long as you’re upfront about the reasons for having to transfer in your application, facilitating the transfer shouldn’t be a problem.

A more complicated reason for deciding to become a transfer student is when your first university’s academic offerings or cultural fit don’t match up with you, your personality, and your goals. Perhaps you enthusiastically pursued your degree program in biological sciences in the hopes of becoming a pre-med student. You researched the best universities that specialized in that field, and secured admission to one of your top three target schools. However, after a semester, you now have realized that the isolation of spending hours in a lab just doesn’t match up with your team-based learning style. After serious reflection, you’ve decided that you need to change course, and you’re now focused on pursuing a degree in your other passion, business. The problem is, your current school’s business program has a middle-of-the-road ranking, but costs just as much as other schools that have undergrad business programs ranked in the top 20 nationally.

The situation outlined in this narrative is also a compelling reason to leave, so long as you can prove in your application essays that you’ve given it serious thought. There’s no sense in wasting time and money on a program that isn’t going to give you the best chances for success in your post-graduation career. If you’ve got a clear idea of what you want to do, and how to get there, you need to make sure you’re getting the best training you can afford.

How to Transfer Schools

The process of leaving your original university in between semesters or academic years shouldn’t be that difficult. Each university will have its own process, but a quick trip to the registrar’s office should provide you with the information that you need in order to get the process started. You may need to also contact your student loan provider to make sure they know that you’re transferring to a new university and not simply dropping out, to ensure that you don’t have to start making repayments. 

Additionally, it’s important to ask your school’s registrar what the process is for securing a certified or official transcript for the schools that you’ll be applying to as a transfer student. Sometimes obtaining an official transcript costs money, and some schools offer that service for free for up to a certain number of transcripts. 

Once you’ve made the decision that you need to transfer to a new university, it’s time to start the application process. For transfer students, this process is pretty much the same as when you first applied to schools after high school. You need to conduct thorough research into the schools you’re interested in, ideally, go on a couple of campus visits to get a feel for what the school and your targeted program is like, and write your admissions applications and essays. 

The Transfer Application

This application process differs for transfer students in a couple of key ways, however. When you first applied to schools, you probably didn’t have a sense of the intangible things about a college campus that you liked or didn’t like. Some campuses are isolated and on the edge of town, like Cornell University, and others are woven into the fabric of a giant metropolis, like the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. When you first applied to schools, you probably thought that both of these situations could be awesome, but now that you have some experience under your belt, you’ve probably got a better sense of what kind of campus environment suits you best and which you enjoy the most. Having this knowledge can be essential in making your transfer as successful as possible. 

Also, the campus visits you make as a transfer student can be a much more informed than the ones you made as a bright-eyed high school junior. You already know the kinds of activities, clubs, and organizations you’re interested in learning about, and what you’re looking for in campus facilities and dining. Before you go on your transfer school campus visits, dig into some thorough research of the campus resources that you know you need to see, the professors you need to talk to, and reach out to some organizations you might want to join. See if you can sit in on a meeting or an event while you’re on campus.

After you’ve done your research and picked out a couple of schools and programs you’d like to target as a transfer student, it’s time to write your applications and your admissions essays. These will be the same essays that high school students are writing, save for what is known as the ‘Transfer Essay.’ Most major universities in the U.S. accept the Common Application or the Coalition Application, and both of those application systems are also used for transfer students. Both applications feature the same prompt for transfer students:

Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve. (650 words) 

This essay prompt can be tricky, and there’s a lot of pitfalls that transfer students can be tripped up on when addressing this prompt. These include being too negative about your previous school, not being honest about your reason for needing to transfer schools, and focusing too much on what you’ve done, instead of what you plan on doing in the future. The general outline of a good transfer essay will consist roughly of 25% of the essay focusing on an open and honest discussion of why you need to transfer to a new program, and 75% of the essay focusing on what your goals are for your new academic path, how you plan on achieving them, and how that academic path will lead you to success in your career goals. 

Where to Transfer Colleges?

Once you’ve decided that you need to make a change, and ideally done some campus visits, you’ll hopefully have a half dozen or more target schools that you’re going to apply to as a transfer student (many more if you’re trying to transfer to a top-tier university in the U.S., where elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford accept less than 1.5% of transfer applicants). Schools outside the very top of the pile are more likely to have transfer acceptance rates closer to that of their traditional undergraduate applicants, but they’re still in the very competitive single digits. Given this extremely competitive situation, students looking to transfer to these top schools need to do intensive research if they want to have a shot at admission. Even if you’re not applying to Harvard, however, doing the kind of thorough research that we’ve outlined above is going to help you make your college transfer as smooth and successful as possible. 


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