Last Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Artwork by Matt Bradshaw of Gerbil With a Jetpack
If you’re thinking about transferring colleges, you have a lot of work ahead of you. From getting all your past transcripts to filling out another Common App (new essay prompts included), applying to transfer can feel like you’ve added a whole new class in the middle of your semester. But it’s a lot easier if you stay organized, make a list of everything you need to do, and get it done as efficiently as possible.
As a former transfer student myself, I can say transferring was the best and most unexpected decision I ever made, and it would’ve been a real shame if I hadn’t been able to do so because of a lack of information or organization. Here’s what you should (and shouldn’t) do to make your own experience as painless as possible. (All this work will be worth it—I promise!)
Do’s and don’ts of the application process
There is a lot to keep track of during the transfer application process. Here’s what you should know about…
If you want to transfer, you’ll most likely need to submit your ACT or SAT test scores again. Just like the first time you applied to college, simply go online and send your scores to your prospective schools. Even if you applied to this college back in high school, you’ll still need to send your scores in a second time.
If the school you want to transfer to has higher average test scores than your current institution, there’s no shame in taking your standardized tests a second time. “I retook the SAT as a college freshman and improved my score,” said Caitlin Wagner, a transfer student at the College of William & Mary.
However, a lot of colleges have different expectations for their transfer applicants versus their high school applicants. Some schools are easier to get into as a transfer, while others are more difficult. Be sure to dig through admission statistics before you apply to see if your scores even need improving as a transfer versus a high school admit.
You’re going to need to send multiple transcripts to all your prospective transfer schools. Give your high school a call and have them send over your high school transcript just like they did when you first applied to college. Don’t be afraid to be persistent: your former high school counselor has a whole new senior class worth of transcripts to send, so yours could easily get lost in the shuffle. Be sure to follow up until you’re absolutely positive that your transcript has arrived at all your chosen institutions.
Additionally, you’ll need to get your transcript from your current college and send that to your prospective transfer schools as well. Usually you can do this at your current school’s registrar office. You might need to do this twice—once for your first semester grades, then again for your second semester grades once they come in at the end of the school year. Again, be sure to get your transcripts in early during the application process and continue to check in with all parties to make sure everything is sent and arrives on time. Set up Google Calendar alerts once or twice a week to remind yourself and keep track of all these processes.
Remember senior year of high school when your second semester grades “didn’t matter that much” because you just had to “pass your classes” to stay in the college you were admitted to? That’s not the case anymore (nor was it then!). If you transfer after freshman year, your prospective school will only have one semester’s worth of grades to judge your performance and success as a college student. You’ll want to kick butt that second semester to prove to them that you can handle a more rigorous curriculum.
And don’t wait until finals week in April to start making those A’s: the schools you’re applying to may also want your midterm grades before deciding whether or not to admit you. That’s right: every grade you put on your transfer application counts. Deciding to transfer means you’ll need to get the best grades you’ve ever received, so make sure you’re ready for that challenge.
Be prepared to write an essay on why you want to transfer. If you remember your original Common App essay, this one will go in place of that and gets sent to the schools you apply to the same way.
Writing these essays may sound challenging, especially if the reason you want to transfer doesn’t come in a pretty little package. But if you give yourself time to brainstorm and work only on your essay, you’ll find your word count met before you know it.
Personally, I wrote about how my first college helped me thrive and grow for a season, but because I didn’t feel particularly academically challenged there, I sought new soil. It was all framed with a metaphor involving my seventh-grade basil plant that only lived for one short winter (may she rest in peace).
After you receive your admission decisions
So you applied and got accepted as a transfer student—congrats! Before sending in your deposit, here are a couple more things to consider…
Some schools are well known for accepting transfer students. For instance, when I transferred, I lived in a hall with all transfer students, and we even attended our very own transfer orientation.
Even though I went to a transfer-friendly school, the entire experience still felt emotionally taxing. For that reason, make sure you choose a school where they know how to help transfer students assimilate to their new environment. Seek out specific programs for transfer students, and look for a high rate of transfer students joining the campus community each year. (I cannot stress how important this is!)
Having your hard-earned credits from your previous school go to waste is not ideal. Most schools that accept a lot of transfer students make a big effort to ensure that all your credits will transfer and count toward your degree. But what most transfer students don’t realize is that even if a college accepts all your credits, most of them will only be accepted as electives.
Before I transferred, I knew I wanted to major in English, so I took a lot of English classes at my first school. However, at my new school, all those credits only counted as English electives. I had to retake the freshman English seminar and a lot of intro classes at my new school as a result.
Luckily all my credits transferred in one respect or another, because I probably wouldn’t have transferred if I was going to completely lose them (which can happen, depending on where you transfer to or from). Moral of the story: remember that getting your credits approved to transfer might not mean they transfer the way you want them to.
Every school that accepts transfer students is different. Some aren’t on the Common Application, others have different requirements for transfers, and schools’ policies on financial aid, GPA requirements, and application deadlines vary greatly. Research what each of your individual schools needs from you while applying, and get ready to have the best college experience you could ever imagine, even if you took the scenic route to get there. Remember that it’s not where you start—it’s where you end up that counts!
Find the right transfer school for you with our College Search tool.