Second Time Around: The Transfer Admission Process

Any college student who transfers from one institution to another has a story. Here, one university insider explains how to translate that story in your transfer application.

Any college student who transfers from one institution to another has a story. These stories are as varied as the students themselves; perhaps changing schools was due to a newly desired major, a family issue, or military assignment, or perhaps the initial college was simply not a good fit. Whatever the case, students all over the country change schools. What impresses me most about the transfer students I work with are the characteristics of persistence and resilience. The goal to achieve a degree is strong enough that barriers will not deter the student from receiving his or her baccalaureate degree. Further, the dedication to education and the ability to adjust to new circumstances speaks volumes about character.

Students hoping to overcome obstacles to achieve a degree live in a place and a time conducive to success. The United States is such a unique and special country because it provides its citizens with opportunity. Hundreds of outstanding higher education institutions are available to assist students in gaining knowledge, obtaining valuable experience, and achieving the diploma that stands as witness to the accomplishment of the baccalaureate degree. And in this day and age, the flexibility of how education is delivered is greater than at any time in history.

Where to begin? 

If you are considering transferring to a new institution, or perhaps you have not attended college in a few years and you wish to return, begin by taking an assessment of where you are at academically and what you need to accomplish your goal.

A) Do you know what course of study you wish to pursue?

B) What are the limits within which you need to work?

a. Hours of the day?
b. Geography? (Do you wish to attend in person rather than virtually?)
c. Accommodation of credits?

C) What is your current academic history?

a. How many college-level credits have you taken?
b. Are they in quarter hours or semester hours?
c. Were your grades solid or will you need to repeat courses?

D) Are you in a financially secure place?

a. Do you have any outstanding debts at other institutions that need to be reconciled?
b. What level of loan debt can you realistically take on to achieve your degree?

Academic pursuit

Transfer students tend to be more focused than students entering straight out of high school. The commodities of time and money resonate in a new way, and the cost/benefit analysis of time spent in school causes them to lean towards efficiency. Therefore, knowing an academic area of interest is important. While an 18-year-old may have the luxury of academic exploring for a year or two, a transfer student should have an academic major in mind or at the very least a strong leaning. If honing in on a major is one of the obstacles to a degree, pursue an interest inventory at your local community college as a means of discerning academic interests.

Eliminating the wrong majors and schools is as important as finding the right ones. For example, a student I worked with once wanted to be a physical therapist ever since she worked with a great physical therapist to overcome a sports injury. She registered as a human physiology major and began her course work. But within a semester, she was miserable. When thinking back on what had happened, she realized that the aspects she loved about her time with a physical therapist were interacting with the person and the physical nature of the work. The student decided to change her major to sports management and opened her own yoga studio after graduation, which has been quite successful for the past five years.

Working with your life—not against it

Transfer students are acutely aware of the limits they must contend with in pursuing a degree. Whether it is time to completion, time of day to pursue course work, or for almost everyone, money, it is essential to be aware of the limits surrounding changing colleges and then create a plan for how to pursue and complete a degree given those limits.

Begin by reflecting upon the time you can dedicate to your academic pursuit. Can you transfer as a full-time student and be flexible in course times? Is time to completion a substantial factor in considering your options? Or is time of day the most important driver due to job or childcare issues? Sorting these things out will help you choose a school that can accommodate your needs.

At one time, geography was an overwhelming barrier to achieving an academic degree. Living in a rural area could limit school options unless a person had the flexibility to move. Now, there are excellent online options, hybrid degrees (part online and part on campus), and of course, traditional college campuses. That being said, understanding your own learning style is important. I have two colleagues pursuing the same graduate degree that is offered two ways: on campus and via a virtual campus. One colleague struggled mightily with the online option because he desired real-time interaction with a faculty member and classmates. Within one term, he switched to the on-campus option. Another colleague found she was able to interact more online than in class, where she was more hesitant to share views. She blossomed with the virtual campus option.

Finally, reflecting on your academic successes and shortcomings is essential before beginning again. If you had an outstanding academic experience at your previous institution(s), reflect on why that was the case. Did you enjoy the learning environment? The class sizes? What characteristics of the learning environment contributed to your success?  

If your academic experience was difficult, and you are transferring in hopes of a fresh start, reflect on why you were not successful in the first place. Were there environmental causes or motivational causes? Illness? What is different now? What do you believe will help you be successful? Do you need to find a school with a smaller student-faculty ratio? Or perhaps eliminate activities that distract from your course work?  

Honest reflection on your previous experience and then planning accordingly for the next part of your academic journey will only help.

Academic history

When applying to a college, an official transcript is requested from each institution a person attended post high school. While sometimes you may wish you could ignore a school where things didn’t work out, an official transcript from each institution must be submitted.

Understanding the “nuts and bolts” of transferring is essential in your decision making. It is important to review the credits from your previous institution(s) and assess the types of course work you have completed. Did they fulfill core requirements at your previous school? Were they remedial or college level?

Look at the degree requirements for the institutions to which you are considering transferring. How many credits are required for graduation? Does the institution have policies surrounding graduation requirements for transfer students? For example, at XYZ University, can students only transfer 50% of major requirements? Is the school a quarter-term or semester-term school? Does that have an impact on your grades?

Finally, be aware of transfer admission criteria. If grades don’t currently meet admission criteria, meet with a transfer admission counselor to discuss strategies. For example, taking courses at a community college and then applying to a four-year college may boost the opportunity for admission.

A few years ago, a young man was determined to attend Gonzaga University, but his academic performance in the first year of college was poor, and his high school records showed signs of apathy. He swore to me he was ready this time. We made a deal; if he was to take two terms of college-level work at a local community college and achieve a 2.8 minimum cumulative GPA, he would be granted admission. Although displeased, he understood that he had to prove to the institution that he was ready. He rose to the challenge, achieving a 3.4 GPA in his community college course work, and was admitted for the next fall term. His time at the community college raised his academic confidence as well, and he was an incredibly engaged student at the University.

Dollars and sense

Recent articles from The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Chronicle of Higher Education have debated the value of a college diploma. But research continues to show that people with a college degree make more money than those without. I would argue that the intrinsic worth of academic enrichment can only be measured by students themselves, and often that answer depends upon how much time, energy, and value an individual places on obtaining a college degree.

That said, it is important to have a handle on the costs and the financial opportunities a college education provides, especially in consideration of a person’s current financial standing. Prior to delving (back) into college, an audit of one’s financial circumstances is essential. Sometimes, working for a year to pay back debt or save money for tuition is a better plan than jumping immediately into school.

Having a reasonable understanding of how much it will cost to attend a college is essential as well. Most schools now have a net price calculator on their websites. This tool is designed to give an estimate—although a broad estimate—of what it might cost to attend that institution for a year. The tool is certainly not exact, but it is a good starting place for financial planning and for understanding what amount of loan debt per year could be expected.

It is important to note that if a student holds outstanding debts at another college, and there is no payment plan in place, that college may not release an official transcript, making admission at a new school impossible. Resolving any financial issues with previous institutions is necessary prior to moving on.

Before making a decision about where to attend college, assessing how much financial debt you are able to take on is essential. Given your current financial situation, the prospects of work and average salaries in your field after graduation, and current financial obligations, how much loan debt are you able to shoulder? That may be a significant factor in your college choice.

The road not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,    
And that has made all the difference.    

Robert Frost wrote a poem about the path he chose not to take once upon a time. This poem is often misunderstood and even misquoted as “the road less taken.” The poem actually says that both paths look trod upon, but that he could imagine himself someday saying he took the less traveled one. I think Frost was encouraging us to own our paths—our journeys—and do the best with them we can.

As a transfer student, you will bring great gifts to the college you choose to attend. Some of those gifts lie within the unique perspective you bring, given your own journey. As you proceed with transferring, be both reflective about how and when you will be most successful, and be active in your research and pursuit of options. As you engage reflectively and actively with your options, I am confident you will find the college that works for you. You have a lot to offer many colleges, and a college education is worthy of the investment. Own your path, be both practical and poetic, and don’t stop until that degree is in hand!

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