How to Transfer Colleges: The Ultimate Guide

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Many students believe that attending college is a simple process, that is, once you’ve decided which one to go to! You may simply expect to spend four years at the same school. However, for many students, the college experience involves multiple schools! This article is the ultimate guide for transferring colleges.

Why would I want to transfer colleges?

There are many reasons why a student might want to transfer colleges. The first is if they attend a two-year institution, like a community college. Community colleges are great options for students who want to save money, stay close to home, or explore different classes and majors.

After spending one year taking general education requirements, some students will transfer to a four-year university. Other students will stay at a community college until they earn their associate degree (typically, two years). From there, many students will opt to finish a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college. This can be a great option to save money and avoid student loans.

Another very important reason students transfer colleges is because their current school just isn’t the right fit. People can change a lot over the course of a year, and what seemed like the perfect college during the application season might not prove to be the dream school you hoped it would be.

Also, the location of a school may be much different than anticipated when you applied. A student might realize they prefer an urban environment, but they are attending a rural school. Additionally, sometimes there are emergencies or crises in a student’s family that might make a student want to move to a location that is closer to family.

Due to any of the reasons listed above, many students will “reverse transfer.” This phrase refers to students who spend their first semester or year at a four-year school and then decide to transfer to a community college to complete their associate degree. From there, many students will transfer again to a different four-year school.

Regardless of the reason or the number of times you transfer, transferring colleges doesn’t have to be scary. This guide will help you through the process!

How many students transfer colleges each year?

The National Student Clearinghouse released data in 2019 that revealed percentages of students who transferred in and out of universities. The data show that 37% of students transfer schools at least one time over the course of a six-year study. Of those, 45% of students transferred more than one time!

These numbers might seem scary, but really they represent an extremely flexible and mobile picture of post-secondary education. Circumstances change, and students often have to change their plans as well. Many famous people actually transferred colleges themselves, including George Lucas, Barack Obama, and Lucy Liu. If you decide to transfer, you will certainly be in good company!

What should I consider before transferring colleges?

Keep in mind that unlike applying for college right after high school, when looking at transfer applicants, colleges are not all that interested in your ACT or SAT scores or high school transcript.

Colleges want to see what kind of work you’ve been doing since graduating high school, and they will be most interested in your college transcript and resume. Because of this, it’s important to remain engaged and involved in your current school even though you are in the process of transferring out of it. Your GPA and letters of recommendation from college matter a whole lot!

Additionally, consider which programs and schools you want to apply to. Schools have different admission requirements, especially for students looking to apply as a second- or third-year student.

Even within the same school, specific programs will have even more specific prerequisites and admissions requirements. Especially if you are looking to transfer into a program in the STEM fields, it’s important to research and fulfill that specific program’s requirements.

Finally, make sure that your dream schools accept transfers in the first place. Not all schools do. Acceptance rates of transfers also varies between schools, and they differ in terms of which credits will transfer over and what those credits will count toward. Some schools offer special programs if you are staying in-state. Do your research!

Is the college transfer process more competitive than the regular college admissions process?

It can be. In 2017, the acceptance rate for transfer students was 62%, compared to a 65% acceptance rate for first-time freshmen. However, these numbers vary widely depending on each school’s criteria and profile.

The most selective schools (think the Ivy Leagues) are likely to have the strictest criteria and lowest acceptance rates for transfers, whereas some other schools are proud of their robust transfer student community.

Transferring in after earning an associate degree can certainly help your chances, especially if you have already completed all of the required prerequisites and general education requirements. Showing admissions boards that you can succeed at the post-secondary level, at any college, is always helpful for an application!

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When should I transfer?

Some students transfer colleges after one semester. Some students transfer after one or two years. It really depends on what you are looking for in your education and experience.

If you are attending a community college with a pathway program that sets you up to enter a four-year university as a junior after completing your associate degree, you might not transfer until two years. If you realize that your school doesn’t offer your dream major or majors, you might want to transfer as soon as possible.

Be aware of graduation requirements, though. Many colleges require that students earn at least 51% of credits at the school where they are earning a degree.

Also, as mentioned, not all schools accept all transfer credits. Because of this, if you transfer later on in your college career, there might be more classes you already took that won’t count for credit at your new institution. This may result in you having to retake and pay for classes you’ve already taken! These rules influence when you may decide to transfer.

When is the deadline to transfer colleges?

Transfer deadlines vary across colleges, so make sure to research. However, in general, the deadline for a transfer application for the following fall semester is around May 1. Some schools, particularly highly selective schools, have deadlines in February or March.

If you are looking to transfer at the start of the spring semester, the deadline might be as early as October or November.

The good news is that many schools have rolling admissions for transfer applicants. This is a great option if you find yourself needing to apply for a transfer late in the game. In these scenarios, as long as there are spots open in the school, admissions offices accept applications!

Regardless of which path and which deadlines you are working toward, it is most important to manage your time well and submit your application as soon as possible.

How do I find the right college to transfer to?

Much like applying to colleges right out of high school, research is a huge component in selecting a college. Prioritize the things that are most important to you when choosing a college.

Do you want a specific major or program? What kind of school size are you looking for? Is location an important factor? Once you decide which aspects are most important to you, find colleges that meet those needs for you.

It is smart to apply to a variety of schools, including both reach schools and safety schools. You want to give yourself plenty of options.

Once you have acceptance letters, it’s also important to consider finances. Which colleges offer you the best scholarship or financial aid packages? Will you be able to save money by living off-campus? Return on investment (ROI) can be a helpful statistic to research as well. Some colleges might be more expensive, but they may offer more opportunities for their graduates.

Most important, find a school that is a good fit for you. You want to transfer to a college that will challenge you and set you up for future success.

How do I know if my credits will transfer?

As mentioned earlier in this article, not all credits will transfer over. You usually won’t want to have to retake courses you have already taken, so try to do some research ahead of time to avoid this!

As usual, it depends on each school which credits will transfer over. Your best resource is to find a page on the school’s website dedicated to information for transfer students. You can usually do this by Googling “[school name] transfer credits.”

Earlier in this article, we mentioned pathway programs. A pathway program is a coordinated effort between a community college and a local (usually in-state) four-year college that grants guaranteed admission and credit transfers. There are typically strict GPA and course requirements to stay in the program.

This is a great option for students in community college because, since the program is done in conjunction with a four-year university, you can be certain that your credits will transfer. Options for pathway programs, if a school offers them, can be found on websites for both community colleges and four-year universities.

What is the process of transferring colleges?

Like most things, the process of transferring colleges depends on which college you transfer to. Many schools offer a transfer orientation. In these orientations, you might be given tours by a fellow transfer student. You might be grouped with other incoming transfer students. You will all learn the ropes together with the help of a guide.

Sometimes, transfer programs are a little less formal. You may call ahead and schedule a campus tour sometime during the summer or semester before you begin classes. Similarly, you might have the opportunity to schedule an overnight visit.

Regardless of transfer orientations, one of the most important steps in the process of transferring colleges is to meet with an advisor. This advisor will be able to tell you which classes you need to take for your desired major and which general education requirements you might still need. They also help students pick a major. They can also help familiarize you with campus resources!

How do I get my college transcript?

When you apply to transfer schools, your application will almost certainly require you to send your transcripts from any colleges you have previously attended. In order to do this, you must go through the registrar.

You can call the registrar, but you can request most transcripts online. Find the registrar’s web page on your college website. There will almost always be a tab for “transcripts” or “requesting transcripts.” There, you will usually be redirected to a third-party service (such as Parchment) that handles official transcripts.

Most electronic transcripts cost between $8-10, plus a processing fee. Be sure to check with the colleges you are applying to. Often, you will have to order a transcript to be sent directly to the college, rather than sent to yourself.

If you are applying after one 1-2 semesters of college, your application might require a high school transcript as well. To do this, contact your high school’s registrar or the relevant third-party service.

How do I get great letters of recommendation from my professors?

As mentioned, even if you know you are transferring out of your current school, it’s vital to stay engaged in your classes and on campus. One of the reasons for this is to maintain positive relationships with your professors.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, try to ask a professor who you have a good relationship with. It doesn’t have to be a class you got an A in, rather, focus on classes where you were engaged and showed a lot of effort.

The best way to ask for a letter of recommendation is to ask in person, if possible. If that is not possible because either you or the professor aren’t on campus, an email will work just fine as well.

If your professor says “yes,” send a follow-up email with all the relevant information: what you are applying for, why, and what you’d like them to include (if anything). They might also have specific requests as well, such as a brag sheet. Also, make sure that you provide the information where they can submit the completed letter. Is it a link to a portal? Do you need a PDF? Be specific!

Always (always!) thank your professors after they write you a letter. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a good letter! A thank you email will never be amiss, but a handwritten thank you card in addition to an email is the best way to express your gratitude.

How do I stand out when transferring colleges?

There are many, many aspects to your application that can help you stand out to an application committee. Here are some important things to consider:

  • Transcripts: As mentioned earlier, your transcripts and GPA at your college(s) will generally have more weight in your application than your high school transcripts and GPA. Regardless, colleges look for rigor in your transcripts, such as AP courses in high school or honors courses in college, as well as good grades. Different schools will have different GPA requirements for admission.
  • Personal Essay: Your personal essay is your place to shine. There’s so much of you that can’t be captured in test scores or letter grades. Use your personal essay to tell a story that highlights the best parts of you! You can also use essays to explain any extenuating circumstances you may have experienced.
  • “Why This College” Essay: Many colleges have an essay where you explain why you are applying to that specific school. This is your chance to show how committed you are to contributing to their community.
  • Transfer Essay: Many schools and applications ask you why you are interested in transferring. Make sure not to dwell on why you are leaving your current or old college; focus instead on what makes this school so great and what you can offer them.
  • Letters of recommendation: We covered this earlier, but colleges do read letters of recommendation! They are looking for a more personal side of you that they can’t get from your grades. That’s why it’s important to foster relationships with professors and teachers.
  • Test Scores: SAT and ACT scores hold more weight coming out of high school, but many colleges will still look at them for transfer students. Checking out the school’s average scores can be helpful to gauge if a school is a reach or safety school; however, don’t let those ranges discourage you from applying to a school you are passionate about attending!
  • Resume: Your resume is where you can show off your extracurricular activities, jobs, internships, and leadership roles. These activities can include high school and college athletics and clubs. It’s also a great place to include any awards or scholarships you have won.

What is the college transfer timeline?

Your college transfer timeline will depend on what schools you are applying to and when you want to begin classes. An example of a typical timeline might be as follows:

  • January-February: Research colleges you want to apply to, begin brainstorming and writing essays, and ask for letters of recommendation.
  • March: Finalize applications and essays – make sure to proofread!
  • April: Submit applications. You may be asked for interviews.
  • May: Hear back from schools and decide where you will be attending. Decide on a school and put down any deposits.
  • Summer: Prepare for your next adventure!
  • August: Transfer orientation and school starts.

Again, this is just an example. Adjust as needed for any deadlines that are earlier. The most important thing is to plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to get all your documents submitted and essays completed.

Conclusion: How to Transfer Colleges

Transferring schools is an individualized process. Only you know for sure what you want next. However, with plenty of research, good organization, and lots of preparation, it can be a really exciting process!

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