Being a transfer student has benefits, but it can be even harder to navigate than applying as a freshman straight out of high school. Transfer student requirements can be tricky to figure out, as many college application guides are written with freshmen in mind.
Despite the difficulty, being a transfer student is worth it. Whether you want to transfer because you’re ready to move from community college to a four-year university or because your school isn’t the right fit, this guide will help you learn what colleges look for in transfer students and how to make your application more appealing to colleges.
Knowing the unique obstacles transfer students may face gives you a better chance to avoid them.
What Do College Expect From Transfer Students?
There are many reasons to transfer from one college to another. Regardless of what reason you're transferring, it’s important to understand that being a transfer student, though beneficial and helpful for many people, isn’t necessarily easy.
The acceptance rate for transfer students is generally lower than it is for freshman. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a transfer student or that it’s a bad choice—it means you need to plan ahead and follow through, just as you would if you were a high school student applying to a four-year school.
You can transfer schools for all kinds of reasons, but be sure you have a good reason when you’re applying. You’ll be writing essays and potentially conducting interviews and visits, and being prepared to answer the question of why you’re transferring will make you a stronger candidate.
Setting aside people who have no option but to transfer, such as those reaching the end of community college transfer programs or people in the military, there are lots of reasons you might want to transfer. But when you’re applying to schools, you should be aware that there are some reasons schools will see as “good”—as in, reasons that will make you an appealing student—and some they’ll see as “bad.”
What Are Good Reasons to Transfer?
Good reasons to transfer are pretty much the same as good reasons to apply to a college from high school:
- You like an academic program a school offers
- You can see attending helping your ultimate career goals
- You like their mission as a college
- Your current school doesn't offer the program you want
- Your current school isn't a good "fit"
What Are Bad Reasons to Transfer?
Even if one of the reasons you want to transfer is something a college might see as bad, that doesn't mean that transferring isn't the right option for you. Keep in mind that colleges are looking for stronger reasoning—think more in terms of your long-term academic growth and potential than any immediate problems. Reasons for transferring that colleges might frown on include:
- You're not getting along with your roommate
- You're struggling to keep up with classes
- You're homesick
If any of these are the reason that you're thinking about transferring, that's okay. But instead of framing your essay around how bad your roommate is, see if you can find another way to look at that problem. Is it really about your roommate, or is it because your school culture isn't a good fit?
If it’s the latter, how will your new college fix the issue? Have you done more research to ensure the same problem doesn’t happen again? These are the kinds of questions you should be able to answer to assure your school that they’re the right fit for you and that you won’t want to transfer again later.
How To Transfer Without Losing Credits
Most transfer problems occur when trying to transfer credits. Some 40 percent of transfer students receive no credits when transferring schools, equating to hundreds of lost hours and dollars with nothing to show for them.
That’s why it’s important to make transferring part of your plan from the beginning if you’re starting at a community college—you need to be sure that your time and money are well-spent.
Too few credits isn’t the only problem. Students can also end up with too many credits, which can be a hindrance, especially if you’re seeking financial aid or trying to get into a new degree program. Again, this means that planning is vital. The sooner you can be sure that you want to transfer, the better—a plan will help prevent wasting your time and money.
To be sure you’re on track to transfer successfully, consult with an adviser and start researching your next school’s transfer department as soon as possible. If you can, contact your school’s transfer admissions office and see if they offer advising sessions or planning assistance.
Don't feel like you're chained to your college if it's not a good fit!
Basic Transfer Student Requireents
To be a successful transfer student, the most important thing you need to do is be a successful college student. The criteria colleges look for from transfer students is much the same as it is for graduating high school students, just scaled up.
Good grades are one of the most important things admissions offices look for in transfer applications. If struggling in school is one of the reasons you want to transfer, be prepared to explain what steps you're taking to improve them in your college essay. The main focus of your essay should not be that you're struggling to keep up, but rather that you're addressing the reason for the struggle, such as a program that isn't a good fit. Even better, demonstrate that you're working to improve by continuing to work hard and improve your grades as you're going through the transfer process.
Test scores are less important as a college transfer. Though schools may request them if you're transferring after just one or two semesters, the further you are into your college education, the less test scores matter. If it's been more than five years since you were in school and since you took a standardized test, you may consider taking the SAT or ACT again so that your transfer school has a good idea of where you're at academically, but if it hasn't been long and your college transcripts are solid, it shouldn't be necessary.
If you’re an international student, you may have some additional considerations. It’s important to work with your designated school official and be sure all your paperwork, including work and student visas, is up to date and accurate. As an international student, you’ll be contending with all the same obstacles as domestic students, with a few additional hurdles like language barriers, transferring papers properly, and visas. Plan as early as possible to avoid hiccups in the process.
Finding the right transfer school is its own form of homework.
How To Find the Right Transfer School
No matter what your reason for transferring is, you want to know for certain that your next school will be a good fit. Transferring is a lengthy process that can result in wasted money if it’s not done properly, and the more you try to do it, the more likely you are to run into trouble.
To minimize your need to transfer, research extensively. Make sure your new school:
- Has the degree program you’re looking for
- Offers extracurriculars that appeal to you
- Has a campus culture that you can see yourself participating in
- Has a mission statement that aligns with your values
Those are just some of the things you should know before transferring. Imagine that you only get one shot, and whatever school you end up at will be your last. Are you happy with your choice? What concessions are you willing to make?
As if you were applying straight out of high school, make a list of schools that appeal to you and narrow it down to a manageable amount. Be sure these are all schools you can see yourself at until you’ve completed your degree program.
The Common Data Set and College Board can give you valuable information about school statistics, including transfer rates. Transfer rates should be factored into your list of colleges you’ll be applying to, as transfer rates can move a school from safety to reach depending on how many transfer students they admit per year. Many high-profile schools accept only a handful of transfer students per year, so your application needs to really stand out.
When you’re applying, be sure that you’re following the guidelines specifically for transfer students. Deadlines may be different for freshman admissions, so keep an eye on when things are due specifically for transfer students. Coordinate with your adviser if you can to be sure that you’re on target with everything you need.
You don't want your new school to see you as just another interchangeable Lego.
What Do Universities Look for in a Transfer Student?
One of the most important factors in your transfer application is why you’re transferring. This is also true for students transferring from community colleges—”because I want to finish my degree” is only half an answer, as schools will also want to know why you’ve chosen to transfer to your new school in particular.
Even if your school doesn’t require a “Why this school?” essay as part of the transfer process, it’s good to have an answer in the back of your mind. It’ll help inform your answer to whatever essay prompt they require, which can strengthen your writing.
Because transfer acceptance rates are lower, it’s even more important that your essay be polished, interesting, and informative. Follow the typical best practices for writing a college essay, but also be sure that your essay tracks your growth as a college student and why transferring to this specific school is the right move for you.
Aside from the question of why you’re transferring, colleges also want to see good grades. In the same way that AP and honors courses in high school demonstrate that you’re ready for college, success in college courses prove that you’re a strong student. Because college is an investment in you as well as for you, good grades are a reliable measure of success at your transfer school.
The further you are from high school, the less your high school grades matter. Your transfer school will want to see college courses if you have them, so even if your high school grades are overall stronger, they’re less likely to be a determining factor in your application if you’ve already put in a year or more at your current school.
Distance from high school also means that your standardized test scores matter significantly less. If you're in your first or second semester of college, it's wise to include them since you haven't yet had a lot of time to establish a college-level academic record. If you're a full year or more into college, you probably won't need to include them, with rare exceptions.
If it’s been five years since you last took a standardized test and your grades aren’t quite up to your new school’s standards, it might be wise to retake it. You can calculate your percentile versus the school average to better evaluate whether or not retaking the test is a good choice for you.
Despite the additional criteria and lower rate of admissions, four-year schools are often looking for very similar features in freshman students and transfer students. They want to see a demonstrated effort to do well and commitment to a program, as well as a plan for how your new school will help you achieve your goals. A strong transfer application will look much like a strong freshman application, but with letters of recommendation and grades from college instead of high school.
You need to work as hard on your transfer application as you would if you were transferring as a fresh high school graduate.
What Information Should You Include on Your Transfer Application?
Again, a good transfer application will look very similar to a good freshman application. However, you’ll need to scale everything up—with lower acceptance rates for transfer students, it’s even more important that your application be polished and strong.
When it comes to test scores, grades, and letters of recommendation, be sure you’re getting them from recent sources. By college, your high school biology teacher’s assessment of you isn’t as relevant as a college professor’s assessment.
If you’re just starting out in college, you might have a hard time getting letters of recommendation from your teachers as they may not have spent as much time with you. Seek letters from instructors who know you best, though be sure you know your new school’s policy on letters from teaching assistants. Some schools will only take letters from professors, so look that up ahead of time.
Don’t reuse your high school letters. A positive letter from a college professor carries far more weight, so seek those out by meeting with your professors during office hours and by participating in class.
These tips will help you make your application and beautiful and unique as this flower.
Key Tips for Making Your Application Stand Out
Knowing what universities look for in a transfer student is only half the battle—you also need to know how to turn that knowledge into action.
#1: Know Why You’re Transferring
Of course, you should know why you’re transferring to a different school. But you should also demonstrate that knowledge in your application and interviews—schools want to understand the reason behind your decision, and it will almost certainly factor into your application essay.
As discussed above, you should have a strong reason why transferring is necessary. Maybe you’ve changed programs or you’re looking to join a new community because your current one isn’t fulfilling. Don’t knock your current school to prop up your application—instead, focus on the positive aspects your new school has to offer.
For example, say the community at your school isn’t really your scene. Maybe you were hoping for a thriving arts community, but your school doesn’t really have one.
Instead of saying that you expected one thing and got another (suggesting to your new school that you didn’t do enough research, or accusing your current school of misrepresenting itself), frame it as a time of discovery.
For example, “As I’ve developed as a student, I’ve found myself more interested in being part of an artistic community, which [New School] is famed for. When I look at photos from poetry readings on campus or browse the current gallery exhibits, I want to see myself there, too!” is a much stronger way of phrasing disengagement from your school community than, “Pictures led me to believe that [Current School] had a lot of artistic events on campus, but that hasn’t been the case. I want to attend poetry readings and see artwork produced by students, not just football games.”
#2: Focus on Grades
Grades are the biggest factor in transfer applications. Your grades need to be strong, especially with the limited acceptance rates for transfer students. If you’re struggling in your current school, identify the cause and try to remedy it before you apply.
Even if you’ve already made up your mind to transfer, that doesn’t mean you should slack off in your current school. Transfer applications often require mid-year reports, which will ask your current professors to evaluate your performance and predict your grade at the end of the term. You want that report to be good, so keep performing well in your current classes.
#3: Treat Your Application Like a Freshman’s
Despite having some college courses under your belt, you don’t necessarily have an advantage because transfer rates are typically lower than freshman admission rates.
Because you’re not guaranteed a spot, put time and effort into polishing your application to its finest. An application is your opportunity to make a good impression, so don’t lean on your college experience to do the work for you. How would you promote yourself if you didn’t have it?
College experience, even an associate’s degree, is like frosting rather than a whole cake. Don’t deliver your school a tub of frosting—deliver them a beautifully baked cake with the additional embellishments that come from college experience.
The earlier you start planning, the better.
When Should You Plan to Transfer?
Ideally, you’ve been planning to transfer from the beginning, and you’ve been working with your adviser and transfer school to make the process smoother. But that’s not always the case—sometimes you don’t foresee a program switch, or maybe you’re moving due to military enlistment.
The best time to start planning for your transfer is when you start school. The second best time to start planning for your transfer is now, so get started right away!
Once you’re certain that you want to transfer, set up an appointment with your adviser and go over your current credits, what credits will transfer, and what additional things you’ll need to successfully move to a new school. Create an academic plan and follow it.
If you need to transfer sooner than a plan will allow, work with an adviser to determine your best path forward. Don’t try to do it all on your own—navigating required credits versus transferable credits can be extremely difficult, and having an advocate will make everything easier on you.
If you do want to do some individual research, you can use College Transfer, a tool that helps students compare college transfer programs and find out if credits transfer, to get a good sense of how well you’re prepared to transfer.
When to Transfer From a Community College
Universities and community colleges often have partnerships, called articulation agreements, to make the transfer easier. These are a huge boon in transferring, as it means there’s already a pathway for success. Take advantage of it if you can!
If your current school and your desired school don’t have an articulation agreement, that’s okay. It just means that you’ll need to be a little more diligent in your planning and research—again, the help of an adviser will be invaluable.
Generally, community college students transferring to a four-year university will want to do so after completing the requirements for their associate’s degree, meaning you’ll enter your four-year school as a junior.
An associate’s degree effectively locks your credits in. If you want to take some time off before transferring, you can do so without worrying that your credits will depreciate. If you transfer before receiving your associate’s degree, your credits may actually lose value, meaning you’ll have to take more classes to transfer successfully, costing you more money and time.
There’s no foolproof time in the year to transfer. Stay on top of your academic plan and your required credits, and plan to transfer when you’re finished.
When to Transfer From One Four-Year School to Another
There are plenty of reasons to transfer from one four-year college to another, but be sure that if that’s your plan, that you’re not transferring for frivolous reasons. Roommate problems and homesickness won’t read particularly well to admissions offices, so try to seek other solutions before deciding to transfer.
The most important thing to consider is that many of your credits may not transfer. This might set you back in time and money, as you may end up retaking courses similar to those you already completed. Meet with an adviser to understand how to best select courses that will help you transfer successfully.
There’s no best time of year to transfer, though if you don’t have enough credits, you may actually be transferring in as a freshman alongside first-time college students. Again, meeting with an adviser is your best bet to make sure you apply properly.
When to Transfer if You’re in the Military
If you’re in the military, the decision to transfer schools may not be entirely up to you. Moving is common and often required, which means that the military has measures in place to ensure your education won’t be seriously impacted provided you follow the rules.
The GI Bill ensures that you have special allowances to attend multiple schools at the same time, provided that your courses are all part of the same program. These courses and credits can be transferred from one school to another with ease, meaning your transfer won’t be as difficult as some others.
However, the restrictions mean you need to be sure all your courses are part of your program, or you may run into trouble. Meet with an adviser regularly to be sure that you’re on track.
Because you likely won’t have much say in when you’ll need to move schools, the GI Bill ensures that you don’t have to be concerned about when you transfer. Just stay on target with your academic plan!
When to Transfer if You’re an International Student
International students may transfer from secondary school in their home country to a four-year school in the United States, or from one four-year school to another. However, because of additional requirements for international students, it’s even more important that you be aware of deadlines, paperwork requirements, and credit transfer.
Your visa may actually restrict which colleges you can attend, so be sure that you’re familiar with what schools you can transfer to. Schools may also have additional requirements or specific deadlines for international students, so always check that you’re in contact with the designated school official as well as any advisers you have. You should always look for international student-specific information if it exists to prevent yourself from missing a deadline due to it not applying for international students.
As with transferring schools for other kinds of students, there’s no hard-and-fast “best” time to do it. All other information applies—if you have an associate’s degree, you may be able to transfer as a junior and lock in your credits. If you don’t have an associate’s degree, you’ll be evaluated on a course-by-course basis. Keep all that in mind as you’re planning your transfer to ensure that the picture you present to your next school is as flattering as possible.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.