The Ivy Coach Daily

May 17, 2023

How to Know If You Should Transfer Colleges

A panoramic of Yale University at sunset.
Many students debate whether or not they should transfer colleges (photo credit: Namkota).

Are you thinking about transferring colleges? Maybe you’re a high school senior, and you’re not happy with your college admissions results. Perhaps you’re a first-year student at a college you thought you’d love, but, as it turns out, it isn’t your jam. Or maybe you’ve just always had your eyes on another school that wasn’t in the cards out of high school but may be within sight as a transfer student.

If so, you likely have many questions surrounding the transfer admissions process — and we at Ivy Coach have answers.

Top 5 Reasons for Transferring Colleges

The following are the most common refrains we’ve heard over the last 30 years for wanting to transfer colleges:

  1. “I didn’t do as I’d hoped in the college admissions process. I was denied in the Early round and only got into my safety schools in the Regular Decision round. So I’m headed to a safety next year, and I’m not happy about it!”
  2. “I got into a good school but was a late bloomer in high school. My freshman and sophomore year grades weren’t as strong as my junior and senior year grades, so I hoped my earlier grades would be less critical in the transfer admissions process.”
  3. “I’m not happy at the school I attend. Making friends has been challenging, and I’d like a new start.”
  4. “I’ve always dreamed of attending a particular school, and with a solid academic performance during my first year of college, I feel now is the opportune time to give it a shot.”
  5. “I want to attend a college closer to home to visit my family more often.”

Is Transferring Colleges a Bad Idea?

Transferring colleges is not a decision to be taken lightly, as it means navigating the highly selective college admissions process again. It also means uprooting your life if you earn admission as a transfer to a school you’d prefer to attend.

But suppose you’re truly unhappy with your college choice. In that case, there’s little harm in giving the transfer admissions process a go — so long as you don’t let it distract you from enjoying the beginning of your college experience at the school from which you’re plotting your exit.

Is It Harder to Get into College as a Transfer Applicant?

But is it easier to get in as a transfer student or even more challenging than as a high school senior? The answer is that it depends.

At many highly selective schools, like Yale University, the transfer admission rate is significantly lower than the overall admission rate for first-year students. Yet the transfer admission rate is considerably higher at other highly selective universities, like Columbia University. The reasoning traces to institutional needs.

Elite colleges turn to transfer students to fill institutional needs. Maybe a school needs more underrepresented minorities, low-income or first-generation college students. Perhaps a school needs more engineering students. Or maybe they need more veterans of America’s military.

Unlike when students apply out of high school, the data of transfer students does not count towards or against a school’s US News & World Report college ranking: they’re data ghosts. As such, elite colleges are inclined to admit transfer students whose grades or scores out of high school would have all but precluded their admission because these schools can shore up the diversity of their student bodies.

Shoring up diversity in the transfer admissions process is why many top colleges, in particular, love to admit community college transfers. These students often fit neatly into multiple coveted groups — low-income, first-generation college students, underrepresented minorities, veterans of America’s military, etc.

In fact, some universities have schools within their university (like the Columbia University School of General Studies) specially designed for non-traditional students, like veterans. So if you’re wondering why Columbia’s transfer admission rate is so much higher than several of its Ivy League peer institutions, like Princeton, look no further than the Columbia SGS.

Overall Admission Rates vs Transfer Admission Rates

Below is a breakdown of the transfer admission rate for the 2021-2022 academic year juxtaposed with the first-year overall admission rate for the Class of 2025 at the Ivy League schools:

College/UniversityOverall Admission Rate for the Class of 2025Transfer Admission Rate for 2021-2022
Brown University5.4%Not Reported
Cornell University8.69%15.72%
Columbia University3.89%14.74%
Dartmouth College6.17%9.89%
Harvard University4.01%0.82%
Princeton University4.38%1.33%
University of Pennsylvania5.87%4.58%
Yale University5.31%0.75%

When Should Students Plan to Transfer Colleges?

So when should students intend to transfer if they wish to make the change? That depends.

High School Students Unhappy with College Results Considering Transferring

For high school students unhappy with their college results, we always encourage them to prepare their transfer applications during the summer before they begin college.

Why so soon? Because this way, they can focus on getting top grades, making friends, and enjoying their college experience rather than focusing on their transfer applications. Their transfer applications will all be set before college begins.

They’ll fill out their activity sheet and write their essays with a forward-thinking approach. They’ll know which activities they intend to participate in during their first year of college. And if anything should change, they’ll make some adjustments in early February before transfer deadlines, typically in early March of each year.

College Students Considering Transferring

For college students who only realize they wish to transfer after they’ve begun their first year of college, they’ll have no choice but to work on their transfer applications while school is in session, leading up to the typical March transfer deadlines.

When Should Students Transfer Colleges?

But for all high school seniors or first-year college students, we always encourage them to apply as transfers during the first year of college rather than the second year of college. The rationale is that elite colleges don’t love leftovers. They want to be the ones to educate you if they’re offering you admission. When you’ve completed half your college experience elsewhere, they won’t have much opportunity to do so.

5 Questions Students Consider Before Transferring Colleges

  1. Did you finish high school strong, or did you slack off as a senior? Because your senior year grades and even the AP tests you took in May of senior year will matter for transfer admission.
  2. Have you branched out to try to make new friends if you’re not happy with the friends you’ve made?
  3. Did you present yourself in a way that undermined your case for admission out of high school, and now you feel you can reposition yourself?
  4. Are there colleges you would much prefer to attend over your current institution?
  5. Are the things you don’t like about your current school emblematic of that specific school or the college experience in general?

Should Students Take Gap Years If Unhappy with College Results?

Yet no matter whether you’re a high school senior unhappy with your college results or a first-year college students, we implore you not to take a gap year before applying as a transfer.

Taking a gap year is a common move by many high school students. And we at Ivy Coach are all about taking gap years — after a student has earned admission to the college of their dreams (not before!). The reason is that admissions officers tend to get scared when you’re a year outside of a high school or college curriculum.

It doesn’t matter how you spend your gap year — even if you intend to take classes. Even if you’re making the world a better place by building homes in faraway lands (side note: this activity reeks of privilege and will not help your case for admission).

So if you’re a high school senior, enroll at the best college you got into — and transfer. If you’re a first-year college student, stay at your college and submit those transfer applications.

5 Steps to Prepare to Transfer Colleges

  1. Know which schools you’d prefer to attend. Your list of transfer schools should be a mix of schools you previously applied to and schools to which you’ve never applied.
  2. Start thinking about who you’ll be asking for letters of recommendation. Most highly selective colleges want three letters of recommendation for transfer students. Some schools require two professor letters, though most do not. We typically encourage students to submit letters of recommendation from a high school teacher, their high school counselor, and a professor unless a school has different requirements.
  3. Give your recommenders stories that showcase your contributions to that class or, in the case of your school counselor, to your school and community. Don’t just ask teachers, professors, and counselors for letters. That’s how you end up with generic letters that say little about you. Give them stories that showcase your intellectual curiosity. If well written, they’ll likely make use of your anecdotes.
  4. Start brainstorming and writing your essays, many of which need to be uniquely tailored to each school you’re applying to as a transfer.
  5. Fill out the non-essay portions of The Common Application and supplements for transfers. You’ll then see what else you must prepare (e.g., requesting high school and college transcripts). Have these applications ready to submit by February since most highly selective colleges have transfer deadlines in early to mid-March.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Transfer Applications

If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s assistance with your case for transfer admission, fill out our free consultation form, and we’ll write you back to set up a call to outline our services.

Ivy Coach’s services for transfer students begin with a PostMortem application review. During this session, we review every section of your Common Application and up to three college supplements you submitted out of high school — offering feedback along the way.

In our experience, students make the same mistakes as transfer students as when they applied out of high school. Thus, we first need to identify these mistakes and strategize on a game plan to present a more compelling case for admission.

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