The Ultimate Guide to Transferring Colleges

There is a lot to know and consider before making the decision to transfer to a new school. With some careful planning, you can avoid common pitfalls and make sure your transfer is successful.

The Ultimate Guide to Transferring Colleges

There is a lot to know and consider before making the decision to transfer to a new school. With some careful planning, you can avoid common pitfalls and make sure your transfer is successful. If done incorrectly, you could end up rejected from your target transfer schools and/or you may end up on a longer, more expensive path to graduation.

As a study abroad consultant, I am approached by transfer applicants on a regular basis, most of whom have the same questions about the transfer process. As such, I’m going to use their most common questions to guide this post.

In this post I will answer:

  1. How do I know if transferring is the right decision for me?
  2. What is the first step I should take when deciding to transfer?
  3. When is the best time to transfer?
  4. How difficult is it to earn admission as a transfer student? How does it differ by school?
  5. Can I apply to schools I was previously rejected from?
  6. How do I select the best school to transfer to?
  7. How do I know if my credits will transfer?
  8. Can I receive financial aid as an international transfer student?
  9. How do I prepare my application materials?
  10. What school-specific advice do you have for transfer students?

1) How do I know if transferring is the right decision for me?

In the United States, a little more than 30% of students decide to transfer to a new institution. Sometimes their reasons for transferring are valid, and sometimes they are not. Knowing why you want to transfer, and assessing whether or not it is a good reason, is important. It isn’t uncommon for students to transfer because they found a boyfriend or girlfriend who attends a different school, have failed an important class, or don’t like their roommate. These are unfortunate situations, but they are not good reasons to transfer.

However, there are also very good reasons to transfer to a new university. For example, wanting to change majors - in particular to a major not offered or under-supported at your current institution - is a great reason. Other strong reasons to transfer include increased academic challenge, location and access to off-campus resources (such as internships), and career- or major-driven social opportunities.  

I wrote about the process I take my clients through when considering whether or not to transfer, which you can read in full here. To excerpt:

When I work with transfer students, I ask them to consider a few things: their personal values, the expectations they had for their university and major when they started, how those expectations and / or personal values ​​haven’t been met in their current program, and how those expectations and / or personal values ​​will be met in an American university. Let me give you an example:

Personal values: Challenges; intellectual stimulation; growth; collaboration

The expectations you had for your current program: I wanted to study my major at University Y because it has a strong reputation for my discipline, and I looked forward to working under Professor Z. I expected a challenging and comprehensive education along with hands-on experience.

How are those expectations are NOT being met: The program is very easy for me, and I don't feel intellectually stimulated. While I thought I would be able to study under Professor Z and gain practical experience, he isn't able to work with undergraduate students. In fact, most of my education has been book- and test-oriented, which doesn't align with my learning preferences.

How studying at University X will be better for me: Because University X offers Program XX, I will be able to work with my peers and professors in an experiential learning environment. I have reviewed the course load for my major, and I know it will challenge me academically. 85% of students at University X are placed in field-related internships, so I know I will be able to grow my skills outside of the school setting.

Going through this process will not only serve as a basis for self-discovery in your transfer process, but it will help you immensely as you prepare your application materials.

2) What is the first step I should take when deciding to transfer?

Start by educating yourself on the transfer process. Every school and program has slightly different requirements, expectations, transfer admission rates, etc. For example, it’s helpful to know whether you can transfer as a Freshman or if you must wait until your Sophomore year, and understanding your chances of admission will likely have a big impact on the schools you decide to apply to. All of this information can be found on each university’s website along with application guidelines. I help my clients put together a spreadsheet of target schools that includes all of this information, as it serves as a wonderful springboard to the entire transfer process.

Simultaneously, begin building your applicant profile in earnest. US universities expect a lot from their applicants - not just good grades - and the earlier you start developing yourself beyond academics, the better.

3) When is the best time to transfer?

Transferring at the best time depends on different factors and is typically a personal decision.

Most importantly, all programs have different transfer requirements and you will need to begin by understanding your target schools’ policies. For example, some programs require students to have acquired a certain number of college credits before they are eligible for transfer or they expect students to have taken certain prerequisite courses before transferring into their desired major. UC schools, for instance, do not allow students to transfer until they have taken at least 60 semester credits or 90 quarter credits. On the flip-side, transferring too late can also be a challenge. All colleges and universities have policies on the number and types of credits they will allow you to transfer. You may have to retake courses or take additional courses to meet graduation requirements - adding time and cost to your program. The longer you wait to transfer, the more likely this scenario is.

Another factor is competitiveness. Transferring as a Freshman means that admissions committees have less college-level coursework to assess and are more likely to weigh your high school GPA heavily in admissions decisions. On the other hand, having more college credits will make your high school grades less important. As such, you will need to consider whether your high school performance will help or hurt your chances of admission.

4) How difficult is it to earn admission as a transfer student? How does it differ by school?

It depends. Most schools are more challenging to enter as a transfer student than as a first-year student; however, some schools reserve spots for transfers, which can actually improve your chances of admission. Additionally, using the time at your current institution to upgrade your profile can have a significantly positive impact on your competitiveness. I strategically apply this factor to client transfer plans, and you should too.

Transferring to top-tier institutions is often extremely challenging. Largely a numbers game, not very many admitted students opt to leave these colleges and universities, so not very many spots become available to transfers. You can find the most recent data on this here: Freshman Retention Rates.


According to the most recently published data, the top 30 schools with the most transfer students are:

  1. University of Maryland
  2. Florida International University
  3. University of Central Florida
  4. California State University-Northridge
  5. University of Texas-Arlington
  6. Liberty University
  7. California State University-Long Beach
  8. University of Houston
  9. San Jose State University
  10. University of North Texas
  11. San Diego State University
  12. California State University-Fullerton
  13. Pensacola State College
  14. California State University-Sacramento
  15. San Francisco State University
  16. California State University-Pomona
  17. California State University-Dominguez Hills
  18. Texas State University
  19. University of South Florida
  20. University of California-Los Angeles
  21. University of California - San Diego
  22. University of California-Irvine
  23. University of California - Davis
  24. National University
  25. University of Texas - San Antonio
  26. Fort Hays State University
  27. California State University-Los Angeles
  28. Arizona State University
  29. George Mason
  30. Texas A&M University

If you want school-specific transfer data, please contact me directly. As a study abroad consultant, I likely have access to information that is hard for others to track down.

5) Can I apply to schools I was previously rejected from?

Usually you can apply to schools that previously rejected you; however, some highly selective colleges and universities might not review your application. You will want to check the specific policies of your target programs.

When you submit new applications, focus on how you have improved since your previous attempts and make sure to rewrite your application essays.

6) How do I select the best school to transfer to?

Similar to my advice in question one, make sure you have a clear idea of why you are transferring. Figure out what needs are not being met at your current school so that you can ensure they will be met by your future college or university.

Additionally, finding the right schools to apply to requires a lot of time and research. As I’ve mentioned, factors like school location, size, cost of attendance, and transfer rate are important to consider. Aside from university websites, you can find valuable information through published Common Data Sets (CDS), which are standardized reports released by individual institutions and include information on transfer admit rates (they look like this). Although most colleges and universities make their CDS reports available on their websites, finding them can be difficult. I find this resource to be helpful because it centralizes a lot of the information: College Board.

7) How do I know if my credits will transfer?

The Higher Learning Commission (an organization that authorizes school accreditation) does not regulate the number of transfer credits schools must accept. This means that schools vary widely in the number of credits they will take, with some schools accepting more transfer credits than others. For example, some schools will accept 12 credits, while others will accept 94.

Whether you are changing majors with your transfer will also have an impact on how many credits will transfer. As a general rule, some of your current credits will count toward your degree at your new university.

Contact the admissions office for help predicting how many and which classes they will accept from your transcript. Admissions will either help you directly or send you to an online service they use for free.

8) Can I receive financial aid as an international transfer student?

Most universities do not offer financial aid to transfer students, and finding aid as an international transfer is even more challenging. The well-known schools that do offer aid to international transfers have low admissions rates, making full- or partial-funding through transfer highly unlikely. However, there is always a chance. The top colleges and universities offering aid to international transfers include:

  • Amherst
  • Brown
  • Colgate
  • Columbia
  • Cornell (fall transfer only)
  • Dartmouth
  • Harvard
  • MIT (fall transfer only)
  • Reed
  • Rice
  • Stanford
  • UPenn
  • Yale

(Financial aid opportunities can change, so please double-check availability.)

9) How do I prepare my application materials?

The application

The schools you apply to will determine the application system you will use. The most common portals are the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and the UC Application.

Transcripts

You will need to submit formal transcripts at some point during the application process. Some schools want to have them immediately, while others will require them only if you decide to enroll. Either way, you should prepare them early by requesting them from your school, getting them professionally translated (if necessary), and verified. The most common verification method is through WES. This process tends to take some time, so do yourself a favor and check them off your “to-do” list right away.

Standardized test scores

Whether or not you need to submit SAT or ACT scores will depend on where you are applying and how many credits you have already acquired. Generally speaking, SAT and ACT scores are not considered for transfer applications; however, you will need to check with each of your target institutions to know for certain.

TOEFL and IELTS scores are always required for students who studied less than 4 years outside of the United States. Some programs want these scores submitted by the application deadline, while others will let you submit them a bit later. Again, check with each of your target institutions for their specific language proficiency requirements.

Letters of recommendation

You will be required to submit 2+ letters of recommendation (LORs), and at least 1 will be required from a faculty member at your current institution. It’s important that you maintain and/or create positive relationships with professors who can write strong letters for you. Plan ahead and give your recommenders plenty of time to write on your behalf. Failing to do so may result in poor letters.

Activities list

The activities list can make a big difference in your application, so don’t take it lightly. By getting an idea of how students use their time outside of academics, admissions officers consider the activities list to be a good way of assessing whether or not an applicant is a good fit for their campus. You can write a great activities list by using strong verbs, showing a wide range of responsibilities, and using quantitative data to support your claims. Here’s what I mean:

Standard activity description:

Sports club

President of high school sports club; organized sports competitions and wrote about them for school WeChat

Great activity description:

President of XXX High School Sports Club

Elected by 90% of the student body; organized twice-monthly soccer, basketball, and dodgeball competitions; wrote and published commentaries on school social media, increasing student participation by 25% in 3 months

Essay

Different from a first-year application essay, the transfer essay must explain:

  1. Why you want to transfer
  2. How the the school you’re applying to is a better fit

Transfer applicants are considered “risky” from the university’s point of view, as the mere act of transferring displays uncertainty. For this reason, clearly explaining the two points listed above is particularly important to a successful transfer essay - it shows admissions officers that you understand your needs as a student as well as how their school aligns with your goals.

Although there are many ways to approach the transfer essay, I find one method to be very effective. Here is the exact outline I use with my transfer clients:

Paragraph 1- Hook the reader by telling a short story that demonstrates a key characteristic or personal value you possess (bonus points for using a personal value that’s important in your field of study).

Paragraph 2 - Explain why you are at your current school / why you chose your major.

Paragraph 3 - Explain why you want to leave your current school. How is your current school failing to meet your educational needs or goals?

Paragraph 4 - Show how you made the best of your time at your current school. What classes / experiences have you pursued that have prepared you for your next step academically.

Paragraph 5 - Why University X

Paragraph 6 - Close off and, if possible, link back to your introduction

To test the efficacy of your transfer essay, try replacing your target school’s name with a different university. If the essay still makes sense when you substitute the new school, your essay is not specific enough.

Resume

Some (though not many) colleges and universities require transfer applicants to include a resume with their application. Use it as an opportunity to add depth to your achievements and extracurriculars. Additionally, use a template rather than creating your own resume from scratch. Using a template will better ensure your resume aligns with American expectations and provides all of the necessary information. You can contact me for a template or find one online.

10) What school-specific advice do you have for transfer students?

I have written (and continue to write) school-specific transfer guides. You can find them here:

UCLA

NYU

UMich

UT Austin

UC Berkeley

💗💗💗  If you want assistance with your transfer application essay, or transferring in general, please reach out. I help many students successfully transfer into their dream schools every year, and I can do the same for you!

I offer hourly services, 3 different transfer packages, as well as a Fundamental Transfer Plan that includes a personalized transfer analysis, a 1-hour strategy call culminating in a formal transfer plan, and 5 hours of transfer application guidance.

Here’s what past transfer clients have had to say:

“I just want to let you know how thankful I am for your help. I'm able to make progress toward my degree because of your help in the process of transfer applications. Given my situation, it was amazing how many schools I got into! This wouldn't have been possible without your help.”

“I just wanted to share that I’ve been admitted to NYU!! You definitely exceeded my expectations and made me think deeply about things I had never thought about before. Thank you so much for your honesty and guidance. It helped me a lot.”

Thank you for reading my post; I hope it has been helpful for you!