Every year, thousands of students arrive to campuses ready to start their first semester of college. And every year, as the weeks pass, a small percentage of those students begin to suspect that they chose the wrong place. If a student’s academic performance is up to standards but they still aren’t satisfied with their college, it may be time to look elsewhere. College is a pivotal time in a student’s life, and students deserve to be happy. If they’re not, they should absolutely consider transferring colleges.
Deciding Whether to Transfer: Defining the Student’s Struggle
Humans have a tendency to engage in “if only” thinking — imagining that one big change in life would make all the other pieces fall into place. It’s important to keep this tendency in mind when considering transferring colleges, because in this case, there’s some truth to it. College is an all-consuming endeavor, and positive college experiences can be transformational. At the same time, students sometimes encounter problems that transferring won’t fix. That’s why in deciding whether to transfer, students and their families must first work to clearly define the student’s struggles.
Students might encounter struggles external to their college experience. For instance, is the student dealing with ongoing mental or physical conditions? Facing substance abuse issues? Reeling from a romantic or friendship breakup? Undergoing a family divorce? College can exacerbate all sorts of stressful situations, and transferring might be part of the solution, but it cannot be the whole solution. In these cases, students and families should consult with professionals such as doctors and therapists to consider the next step.
Other struggles arise directly from college life. Is the student experiencing roommate conflicts? Not enjoying classes in their intended major? Feeling normal homesickness? Struggling with time management? Eating irregularly or unhealthily (which could be symptomatic of a disorder or could be the result of having myriad choices in the dining hall)? If the student is eligible for accommodations from the college Office of Disability Services, does the student know that, unlike in high school, they have to invoke accommodations for each class, and does the student know the process for invoking them? Has the student not yet found their people through joining student organizations?
With support from their families, professionals, and on-campus resources, many students can address these challenges without transferring. Even if the student applies to transfer, we recommend taking the steps to address these struggles, because most will not disappear at a new school and because the student may stay at the original college. Additionally, working through these problems helps students acquire more confidence and problem-solving skills.
When the student struggles with something about a college itself that will not change, the need to consider transferring colleges is clearer. Maybe the student is earning straight A’s but not feeling challenged. Maybe the college is too big, or too small. Maybe the student enrolled in an intensive arts program, only to realize that they instead want to study a subject a conservatory does not offer, or vice versa. Maybe the college formats lots of classes as large lectures, but the student learns best in small seminars. Maybe the courses the student wants to take have a hard cap and are impossible to get into until junior year. Maybe the research programs that enticed the student are largely for grad students, not undergrads. Maybe the student was cut from the sports team they hoped to join. Maybe the geographic location doesn’t suit. In these cases, the student and their family can immediately start the transfer process.
One situation in which we caution potential transfer applicants is when a student aims for a dream school that rejected them as a first-year applicant. It’s definitely possible that a student could apply as a transfer and get in. But some elite colleges, such as most Ivies, accept transfers at rates even lower than their first-year admissions rates. The enduring hope of the dream school keeps some students from engaging with the college they actually attend. Even if they do transfer, participating deeply at their first college will make for a more positive experience there (and give them more to talk about in their application essay).
Choosing Colleges to Transfer To
When students build their list of potential transfer colleges, they should work directly from the definition of the specific struggles they are facing and seek colleges that would help them move beyond those struggles. For instance, liberal-arts colleges offer more personalized experiences than large universities, and they tend to have robust undergraduate leadership and research programs. Schools in “college towns” or rural areas offer a tighter sense of community than colleges in cities, where many of the attractions lie off campus. Many college performing groups post recordings of their concerts and productions online. As part of considering transferring colleges, students should research each new school in depth, making sure to review the list of majors offered.
While the number of colleges a student applies to is highly situational based on the reasons for transferring — for instance, applying to conservatories requires many applications and rounds of auditions — we recommend applying to four to six colleges. All should be colleges that the student would prefer to their current school. If possible, at least one should be a college that previously admitted the student. Students may worry that schools that previously offered them admission would resent not being chosen the first time, but in fact, it’s the opposite. A student who was a good fit a year ago will likely be seen as a good fit now.
Our recommended number of schools may seem low compared with first-year applicants’ lists, but because transfer applicants are already in college, they should have a more concrete sense of what they do and do not want in their new institution.
When to apply to transfer
The break at the end of the calendar year, which typically occurs between the fall and spring terms on a semester system, is a good time for students and families to deeply consider transferring colleges. Then, before the student returns after the break, the student and family can work together to start a college list and to compose the first draft of the student’s transfer essay.
Most schools’ transfer deadlines are later in the year than their first-year deadlines. For instance, March 1 is a popular transfer deadline for fall admission, and many colleges also allow spring transfers, for which the deadline is in the fall. We recommend that students who want to transfer apply in time to start their third, fourth, or fifth college semesters at their new colleges — in other words, so they are able to enroll at their new school as a sophomore or first-semester junior. Applying earlier means starting transfer applications right after first-year orientation, when a student hasn’t yet given their college a fair chance. Applying later means having to take extra courses at the new college, since many only accept a certain number of transfer credits and want students to complete at least half of their undergraduate education there.
One exception to this timeline is intensive, conservatory-style arts programs, whose rounds of digital and in-person auditions start earlier in the fall. In that case, students might need to spend a summer getting their materials in order.
The Transfer Application Process
The transfer application process itself is similar to the first-year application process. Many colleges use the Common Application, and applicants submit essays, transcripts, and instructor recommendations. The question of whether to seek college or high-school instructor recommendations can be a delicate one. It can also be a challenge to strike the right tone in the main Common App transfer essay, in which students describe what they have learned at their current school and why they hope to transfer. Our team can help students and families follow an efficient and productive path through this landscape.
Don’t Forget to Visit
If at all possible, we recommend that students visit all colleges they apply to, if not before applying, then at least before deciding where to matriculate. This visit is important even if they’ve been to the college before. Applicants may be surprised by how much more they perceive this time around, now that they have spent lots of time on a single college campus. Everything they notice will help them make the right decision — one that will help them forge a rewarding and memorable college experience.
For help with your college transfer process, please contact our office.