College is a time of massive academic and personal growth for most students. Goals and interests can change, and sometimes, students can realize that the college where they started a degree isn’t meeting their needs. That’s where the college transfer process can come into play. But the transfer process can be competitive, and there are several factors that hopeful applicants need to be conscious of before they apply. Here are the things you need to know when deciding whether a transfer is the right choice for you.
Understanding colleges: what they look for in a transfer applicant
At the top universities, transfer applications can be extremely selective. But why is that the case? In our previous articles on admissions trends at the Ivies, we explored how enrolment figures can be skewed by special interest groups for these universities – for applicants who are simply strong students but lacking any “+1s” for these colleges, spaces can be tight. When it comes to transfer students, then, what do the colleges want to see?
The first thing to understand about admissions for transfer students is that besides meeting all of the freshman criteria for acceptance, universities also need to assess one critical factor:
Axiom 1: Will this transfer applicant graduate on time without problems?
This one question impacts all of the decision-making for transfer applicants, from academic criteria such as how they assess transcripts and coursework, to bureaucratic concerns such as credit transfer policies. Accepting a transfer student can be a bigger risk for a university, since these students will have less time on campus. When you consider the fact that after graduation these students will only be using their graduating college as their alma mater, these universities need to ensure that the transfer acceptances they give can represent them.
The next crucial question that a university will ask about any transfer applicant seems obvious but introduces a fundamental difference between freshman applications and transfer applications.
Axiom 2: Can this transfer applicant handle college-level work?
While this question is relevant to freshman and transfer applications, transfer applicants have more direct control over showing this – after all, the work that you do as a high school student, from the SAT to extracurricular activities, shows that you can succeed in high school. But for transfer students, colleges are interested in seeing what you have accomplished within college, and in comparison to your college peers. At the end of the day, Admissions Officers will want to see how likely you are to graduate on time and without problems, and the easiest way to see that is through a candidate’s college work.
These two questions are two main additional criteria through which admissions officers will assess a transfer application, on top of the other criteria that would normally already be considered in a freshman application.
Now, let’s take a look at what this means for students who intend to transfer.
First of all, who qualifies as a transfer student? In a nutshell, any student with more than 1 semester’s worth of credit, or less than or equal to 4 semesters’ worth of credit (though this can change depending on the circumstances). Credits that are in progress do count towards these criteria as well.
From a university’s perspective, transfer students with more than 4 semesters of college credit may not be able to graduate on time, especially if they intend to change majors or haven’t completed their general education requirements. This can be a risky prospect for universities, as the overall graduation rate is a key factor in many ranking systems, and a student who fails to graduate will negatively impact the university’s standing – this ties into our first axiom above. At the same time, universities also need to be protective of their own reputation and name, thus disincentivizing them from accepting students who have already completed most of their degree elsewhere and want to graduate from a different university only in name – thus, why most universities require that a student complete at least two years at their institution before graduating.
On the other hand, students with less than 1 semester of college experience would not qualify as a transfer student, and instead should apply as a freshman – this connects to our second axiom. Students who still mainly have their high school record as the main component of their applications do not make strong transfer applicants. As a rule of thumb, one semester of college work is seen equivalently to one year of high school work.
What this means for students intending to transfer is that you need to plan in advance if a transfer might be something you want to consider. Too late, and universities may be wary; too early, and you won’t have enough achievements as a college student yet. As admissions consultants, the sweet spot that we typically suggest would be to transfer after your fourth semester. Which brings us to our next point, deadlines.
Deadlines and Requirements
Unlike freshman applications, where the vast majority of applicants are accepted, the admissions offices work on a much tighter schedule for transfers. The deadlines can range from early March to May for Fall/Winter terms, or October to December for Spring terms. This means that transfer applicants who are applying for Sophomore standing (i.e. applying during their first year) will need to juggle their applications together with their college work, internships, research, and other commitments. This can be difficult to do as you juggle excelling in your college classes (more on this later), building relationships with your professors, and preparing for your upper-level courses, which is why it is more common for students to have strong transfer applications for Junior standing.
Applying for Junior standing during the fourth semester also allows applicants to develop their academic records, one of the other key criteria that can show a college that you would be an ideal transfer candidate according to both axioms above. There are a few goals that any transfer applicant needs to complete academically:
- A first year college-level writing course
- General education requirements, including a mathematics class
- Introductory sequences in your major
- High GPA (3.8+)
Most universities have a required first year writing course, ensuring that everyone has the ability to handle college-level writing, no matter their high school background. This is also one of the first things a college will look at when assessing a transfer application, because it says a lot about whether a certain student will be able to handle their coursework (Axiom 1, again). If a transfer might be in your future, make sure you take that class seriously, and don’t skip it!
Universities also like to see students make progress on their general education requirements, to ensure that they have a solid foundation to work form, and to see if there are any roadblocks that may prevent a student from graduating on time. Many majors require that students take a calculus class in particular. As you prepare to transfer, keep in close contact with your college advisor or admissions consultant to ensure that you’re taking rigorous classes that are transferable, to show that you can handle college-level work. Your GPA will also need to reflect your ability to handle upper-level college work (Axiom 2), and the top universities will typically expect at least a 3.8 GPA to be competitive, with popular programs requiring 3.9+ or even 4.0.
For students who are looking into changing majors in particular, universities need to be able to assess how well you’ve done in the introductory sequences of your proposed major, and your reasons for transferring. At the same time, many universities also do not allow credit transfer for upper-level courses, and require transfer students to do all upper-level courses at their university. This means there’s a tricky balancing point you need to achieve – you need to both show that you’re certain why you want to transfer to a specific major, while completing general education requirements, and taking appropriate upper-level courses. This is why we suggest students plan in advance and aim to have more college work done before transferring.
Letters of Recommendation and Essays
Another of the major hurdles for transferring is the instructor’s letter of recommendation. It can be difficult for students to have a close relationship with a professor in a lecture with 500 other students. In order to stand out, serious transfer applicants need to take the initiative by going to office hours, doing research with professors, and making sure that the professor likes them enough to take the time and effort away from their own work to help you out. While many universities don’t require transfer applicants to submit a professor recommendation, it is always highly recommended to still provide one -as the saying goes, optional is never really optional in the admissions office.
Finally, the application essays are the most direct way that an applicant can show how they are a strong candidate. Unlike freshman personal statements, the transfer statements are to the point, asking students: “Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.” Universities use this statement to ensure that an applicant knows what he or she wants and is on the right track, and whether or not they would be able to meet that student’s needs. If a student is looking for opportunities that don’t match with the university, they may again be a graduation risk, after all! In addition to this, many universities still have their unique supplement essays from the freshman applications.
The transfer process can be grueling, but can be a worthwhile prospect especially when a student has had time to clarify their goals, and think about their future. But with even more moving parts involved, it’s important to plan in advance. Talk to one of our Admissions Consultant early, while you prepare to put your best foot forward.
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By Conrad Yu, Director of Development