Making the Move: How College Transfers Work Resources, scholarships, and expert advice for students switching schools

Imagine choosing a particular school only to learn that it’s not the right fit. Imagine going to a school you love but circumstance throws a cross-country move your way. Today, one-third of all college students transfer at least once before graduation, including those who switch from one university to another, move into or out of community college, and transfer into school from the military or from abroad. All of these transfers require time to choose the right course of action, complete the paperwork, and secure funding. This guide lays out the necessary steps and goals to make the transfer process easier.

College Transfer Quick Facts

One in three students transfer to another school at some point during their higher education.

58 percent of four-year colleges expect the importance of transfer student recruitment to increase over the next three years.

The acceptance rate for transfer students is about 64 percent.

Among students who transfer, 45 percent make the move more than once.

Why Transfer?

Is transferring from one school to another the right way to go? A successful transfer student looks at every option before making a move. The following questions are designed to help students decide if it’s time to make that leap, or if it might be best to stay put for now.

Are you interested in a degree that your current school does not have?

Are you uncomfortable with your current school’s social environment?

Did you move a long way from family and friends to attend this particular school?

Is your financial situation tenuous due to high tuition costs?

Are your grades suffering right now?

Does your coursework feel too easy for you, making you bored with your classes?

Are you feeling more depressed or sad recently, and dread the thought of another class?

Did you choose your current school because you didn’t get into your first-choice school?

Are you constantly wondering if the grass is greener at another college?

Are you prepared to take the time and effort to make a big change?

If you answered “YES” to five or more questions, transferring out of your current school might be the best option for you.

The Four Kinds of Transfer Students

The most traditional transfer student is the one moving from a successful community college experience on to a four-year college in the hopes of finishing with a bachelor’s degree. But there are numerous other types of transfer students that don’t fit that traditional mold. Some students choose to transfer because they change their mind about their major. Others are faced with life-changing circumstances, such as sudden financial strains or starting a family of their own, that necessitates a move. Some simply find that the school they chose in the beginning is no longer right for them. Others are coming from the military, or moving from overseas.

The right time to transfer depends upon the situation. For example, students finishing up their two-year degree and looking forward to a transfer to a four-year university should start preparing at the beginning of their second year of community college. Those who are leaving the military soon should start the process of transferring credits at least a year in advance. For those who are looking for a change of atmosphere, transferring is something that should be carefully considered, and the process should begin within six months to a year of the anticipated transfer date.

This is a quite common type of transfer, initiated by savvy students who have chosen to save money and time by attending their local community college, then transferring their hard-earned credits to a four-year institution. Not only do students leave community college with a good number of credits, they might actually walk away with an associate degree. In fact, 82 percent of students who earn an associate degree at community college have a higher rate of completing their bachelor’s degree after transferring to a four-year school compared to those who simply accumulate credits.

Sometimes students get well into their college experience before they decide to make a change. Those who transfer from one four-year college to another do it for any number of reasons: they might feel as though the first college is just not for them, they might be facing social pressures that make studying a challenge, or they might undergo life changes that require a different approach to higher education. In many cases, it boils down to changing their choice of major and seeking out the school that offers the best program for their future–between 50 and 75 percent of students change their major at least once during the course of their degree pursuit.

These men and women have spent time serving their country, and now they are looking forward to settling down and completing their college degree. While college courses taken during their time in the military will almost certainly count toward transfer credits, their military service and specific experience might also be taken into account as a way to earn further college credit. Since many military transfer students will be looking for funding from the armed services, such as the GI Bill, veterans may anticipate more paperwork, red tape and waiting periods than a traditional transfer student.

These students come from far-flung corners of the globe with the intention of getting a top-notch education. Many have already begun their schooling in their home country and are hoping to transfer to a college or university in the United States. In addition to seeking out a major that might not be readily available to them in their country, international students should also have a strong grasp of the English language. It’s also good to be aware of the social pressures; international students will be quite far from home, and might be embarking on an entirely new lifestyle in addition to a different classroom culture and educational system.

Scholarships for Transfer Students: Affording A New College

Transfer students often run into financial issues that require them to get creative about financing their educational endeavors. Scholarships that are specifically designed for transfer students fill that need. Here are some of the promising opportunities available for those who are moving from one institution to another.

Sponsoring Organization: Jack Kent Cooke Foundation
Amount: Up to $40,000 per year
Deadline: December of each year

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation offers up to $40,000 for 85 deserving transfer students, making it the largest private scholarship award available for two-year and community college transfer students. The award applies to tuition, fees, books, living expenses and more.

Sponsoring Organization: Coca-Cola
Amount: $1,000
Deadline: May of each year

This popular scholarship is awarded to 200 students, with 25 of those scholarships dedicated for those in the military. Students must be members of Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society for two-year students.

Sponsoring Organization: Phi Theta Kappa
Amount: $7,500
Deadline: December of each year

These ten scholarships are awarded to Phi Theta Kappa members. Students must be preparing to transfer to a senior institution during the next fall term, and should be in excellent academic standing.

Sponsoring Organization: Phi Theta Kappa
Amount: $5,000
Deadline: December of each year

Those under consideration for this scholarship must be planning to transfer during the next fall term and show exceptional participation in Phi Theta Kappa. A total of 15 scholarships are awarded.

Sponsoring Organization: GEICO
Amount: $1,500
Deadline: December of each year

This scholarship is available to those who plan on pursuing their bachelor’s degree in the next fall term, have held a significant leadership position, and have already applied for the Guistwhite scholarship.

Sponsoring Organization: The Hispanic Scholarship Fund
Amount: $500 to $5,000
Deadline: March of each year

This scholarship is available to those of Hispanic descent, and can be awarded to community college transfer students who plan to enroll in a four-year university in the fall term following the scholarship award.

Sponsoring Organization: Transfer Times
Amount: $6,000
Deadline: May of each year

This scholarship contest is open to students enrolled in a two-year college in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. Scholarships can only be applied at universities that advertise in the Transfer Times.

Sponsoring Organization: Loyola University
Amount: $1,500 to $16,000
Deadline: Varies

An excellent example of the possible scholarships for transfer students through their transferring institution, Loyola University offers merit-based scholarships for those who have earned a minimum of 20 transfer credits and are transferring to pursue their bachelor’s degree.

Sponsoring Organization: Univision
Amount: $5,000
Deadline: March/April of each year

This scholarship is designed for a variety of students, including transfer students. Students must be of Hispanic heritage, be the first in their family to attend college and demonstrate financial need.

First-Year vs. Transfer Admissions: What’s the Difference?

Those who choose to attend a college as a freshman versus those who choose to transfer later face a few differences in the admission process, such as minimum GPA requirements and even a different acceptance rate. The following chart offers comparisons of some of these key points. Keep in mind that some statistics change from one year to the next, depending on how often schools report their numbers, the overall climate of admissions acceptance and tuition woes from states facing budget cuts.

  First-Year Students Transfer Students
Acceptance Rate

69 percent of first-year applications are typically accepted into college.

64 percent of transfer students are accepted in an average year.


Most colleges expect applicants to have a 3.0 GPA from high school as a baseline for admission, with higher GPAs getting more attention.

As with first-year applicants, GPA requirements vary by school, although much more attention is given to grades from college credits rather than high school.

Standardized Test Scores

The vast majority of schools require first-year applicants to complete standardized testing, such as the ACT and the SAT, to see how they fare against their peers for admission decisions. For instance, many school require at least a score of 21 on the ACT, with 24-28 being the average.

Many colleges require transfer students to complete the same standardized tests as college freshmen, and consider the scores in conjunction with the current college GPA. However, standardized test scores may hold less importance in transfer student admission.

Admissions Essays

The essay is a vitally important part of the admissions packet, as good writing, excellent communication skills and a compelling story can make a freshman stand out among the field of applicants.

The admissions essay for transfer students should focus on the reasons why a college would be a great fit, and why transferring to that college would lead to greater academic success.

Letters of Recommendation

Most admissions packets require at least three letters of recommendation or reference.

Some schools do require them; however, many waive this requirement for transfer students. Letters from college connections, such as professors and athletic coaches, fare better than those from high school acquaintances.

Essential Steps to Transferring Colleges

Now that the decision to transfer from one college to another has been made, students are ready to begin the transfer process. The simple thought of all the paperwork and effort involved can be overwhelming; however, it can be made much easier with a solid checklist that lays out the steps needed to embark on the transfer adventure. Here’s what students should expect, and how those items fit into the transfer timeline.

1 Be clear on the reasons why

Moving from one school to another is no small feat. Being very clear on the reasons why will help get you through the tougher moments, as well as help to convince transfer counselors, admissions officers, and friends and family exactly why a college transfer is an excellent idea.

When: As soon as transferring is considered.
2 Narrow down the options.

Some transfer students have one particular college in mind. But many others simply know they need something different, such as those entering a four-year institution from community college or looking to change majors. Thorough research on each of those possibilities can help students create a short list of the best opportunities.

When: One year before transfer date.
3 Visit the ‘short list’ of schools.

Learning all about the schools on the short list is great, but to truly get a feel for what the college is like, an in-person visit is essential. This allows for time to wander the campus, talk to professors and current students, and explore housing and food services. These visits can help students to further narrow down options.

When: Nine months to one year before transfer date.
4 Ensure credits will transfer.

The last thing any student wants is to see all their hard work go to waste. Before getting too far into the transfer process, make sure that credits earned at the current school will transfer to the new one. Remember that most colleges require a “C” or better in any class in order to accept the credits for transfer.

When: As soon as possible.
5 Push to excel in all current classes.

With the possibility of transfer looming, it can be very easy to slack off on homework and class attendance. But maintaining good grades matters; remember that those classes might transfer to your new school. At the very least, the higher the GPA, the better the chances of transfer admission.

When: Throughout the entire transfer experience.
6 Complete applications well ahead of deadlines.

When preparing for a transfer, students face the added burden of keeping up with current classes, work schedules and other obligations, making it challenging to keep a deadline. Remedy that by keeping a careful schedule in a calendar, and giving plenty of time for each application milestone.

When: Six to nine months before transfer date.
7 Seek out financial aid.

Sometimes students are quite comfortable with their school in that they know what fees to expect, how much tuition is covered by financial aid, and even how much they might pay for books. Things might not be the same at the transfer school, so it pays to seek out even more financial aid. Some financial aid is specifically earmarked for transfer students. Just as with application deadlines, pay attention to scholarship deadlines and plan accordingly.

When: Three to six months before transfer date.
8 Focus on the positives

When it’s time to fill out those college essays and explain all the reasons for a transfer, never bash the previous school – that sets a negative tone. Instead, focus on the positive reasons why the new school is a great fit.

When: Throughout the entire transfer process.
9 Make the best of the current situation.

Transferring takes time. Though the desire to leave a current school might be quite strong, don’t slack off on homework or let grades slide. Look at the present situation as a learning experience, one that still has good things to offer. Embrace it even while remaining hopeful for the future.

When: Throughout the entire transfer process.
10 Make plans for the big move

Some transfers are just to the college across town, but what if the change will require moving hundreds or even thousands of miles away? Start making plans early for packing up, getting everything moved, finding housing, and of course, saving up the money to pay for it. Remember that most scholarships and financial aid will not cover these essential expenses.

When: Three months before the transfer date.
11 Take a leave of absence

Let’s be honest: the reasons for choosing a transfer might not work out. Taking a leave of absence from the previous school means that if things don’t work out, there is always a place to go back to and continue your education.

When: One to two months before the transfer date.

Tips to Getting Accepted

Knowing that a transfer needs to happen is one thing; getting accepted to the school of choice is another. These tips can help up the chances of getting into the desired school or program.

  • Start the process early

    Just as with freshman admissions, those who start the application process early might have better odds at snagging the spots that fill up quickly. As soon as transferring becomes a possibility, research what typical transfer applications require.

  • Write a sterling essay

    The essay included with the application is often the best opportunity to get noticed. An essay that makes a passionate case for transferring out of the current college might sway the admissions committee in your favor.

  • Look to prior acceptances

    If you chose to attend a school that now doesn’t seem to be the right fit, look back to those schools that offered acceptance at the start. Some will be happy to take a second look at students who have changed their minds about attending.

  • Volunteer or work during breaks

    Transfer students must prove themselves in every way, so bolstering the resume is always a good idea. Make a point of working hard during breaks, either in a paying job or an internship, or in volunteer positions.

  • Keep your grades high

    In order to have the best opportunities to transfer, top-notch grades matter. Strive to get the highest grades possible in all courses. Grades not high enough? Fill in the gap with summer courses and strive to get all A’s.

  • Get the best recommendations

    Letters of recommendation are usually required with transfer applications. Go to the professors who know you well and will gladly attest that you are a great student with potential.

  • Hit every single deadline

    It cannot be stressed enough: Deadlines can make or break the entire process. Never miss a deadline in the application process, no matter what. Keep reminders on your calendar, your computer, and anywhere else that you will take notice.

  • Consider visiting programs

    Some colleges might be tough on transfer admissions, but they are much kinder to visiting students who want to attend full-time. Look into visiting programs as a ‘back door’ to get into the college through an easier transfer process.

  • Expect more than one application cycle

    Remember that many colleges have extremely competitive placements for transfer students; you might not get chosen the first time around. Be prepared to repeat the application cycle in order to get into the program you really want.

Is This a Transfer-Friendly School?

Some schools work very closely with community colleges, the military and more to ensure that their transfer students have a smooth transition–others, not so much. A school that is transfer-friendly will make it clear through some key incentives and programs. Here’s what to look for to determine if the desired school is ready, willing and eager to accept transfer students.

  • Transfer counselors are available.

    A school serious about making the transition easier for students will have professionals poised to do just that. Schools with a dedicated transfer counselor send a signal to prospective students that they understand the challenges and welcome transfer students to their institution.

  • Housing is available for transfer students.

    Just as with providing a dedicated counselor for transfer students, schools that are serious about accepting new students will provide the proper housing for them. Rather than having to wait on a list to get into housing that was already taken up by the current class, transfer students should be able to move right into a particular dormitory or otherwise have provisions made for them when they make the move.

  • School boasts a favorable transfer acceptance rate.

    Some schools say they welcome transfer students, but only accept a small number of them. To put things in perspective, remember that the national acceptance rate for transfer students is around 64 percent; some of the most transfer-friendly schools have transfer acceptance rates that are much higher, such as Arizona State University at 84.4 percent, and the University of Texas at Arlington at a whopping 91.9 percent.

  • There is a dedicated transfer orientation.

    Students who started out as freshman already have the advantage of knowing the school and campus, having plenty of friends and feeling very comfortable in their environment. Transfer students can feel as though they have been dropped into a completely new world. Transfer orientation will connect students with others who have walked the same path, as well as provide an insider’s look into the school’s academics, social scene and extracurricular opportunities.

  • Courses have reserved spots for transfers.

    Students who transfer in might be at a disadvantage when it comes to choosing courses; many classes might already be full, leaving them with very few options. A transfer-friendly school recognizes this problem and works with each department to ensure that students have ample opportunity to take the courses they really need.

  • Transfer agreements are in place

    Many schools have transfer agreements in place that will ensure anyone who completes credits at one school will see them transfer to another. One example of this is the Bridge Program through the University of South Carolina-Columbia. It ensures that students who begin their educational career in the South Carolina Technical College System and complete at least 30 hours of study will see all of those credits transfer upon admission to the university.

Adjusting to a New College: Do’s & Don’ts

Whether starting out as a college freshman for the first time or transferring to a new school after a few years around the educational block, there are a few things that always hold true when it comes to adjusting to a new school. The following tips can help students start out on the right foot on their first day at a new college.

  • Get involved

    Interesting classes, new hobbies, college clubs and organizations, Greek life: these are all ways for transfer students to quickly find their place in a new environment. Don’t hesitate to jump at the chance to do something new with friendly people.

  • Attend student orientations

    Orientations for new students, especially those geared toward transfer students, can provide valuable information on everything from the best times to hit the dining hall to deadlines for student aid. Come prepared with questions; most orientations include a Q&A session.

  • Live on campus

    Being on campus can open students up the pulse of college life, help them integrate into the student community and give them a better opportunity to learn about all parts of the school. It also offers the social network that comes along with new roommates.

  • Consider an on-campus job

    Whether living on campus or not, a campus job further integrates students into the college world and offers a great opportunity to get to know new people. If that new job is a work-study, even better.

  • Have patience

    Many transfer students go into their new college believing that everything will change and be much better than it used to be. Have patience with the process, making new friends, getting into a schedule, and all the other must-do things that come along with such a big change.

  • Give in to feeling isolated

    Feeling isolated is quite possible for transfer students; they are coming into a college where everyone already has their own social circles. Hiding out in the dorm can seem easier than engaging potential new friends, but giving into that isolation can do more harm than good.

  • Go overboard with the social life

    On the other hand, staying up to party with new friends until the small hours of the morning does not bode well for getting to class on time the next day. Balance a new social life with the responsibilities of classes and homework.

  • Forget to take care of yourself

    Any big change can lead to emotional challenges, including depression, anxiety and the like. Simple things like eating healthy and getting enough sleep can stave off these problems; however, if feeling overwhelmed happens more often than not, it’s time to get some help.

  • Hesitate to reach out

    Help for anxiety, depression, or even concerns about how to register for classes is right there for the asking. Never hesitate to reach out to student services, health services, professors and well-meaning peers to get the assistance that makes life at a new college easier.

  • Have lofty expectations

    Sometimes transfer students believe that a new college will solve all their problems, only to be disappointed when they realize that most of the problems are actually still there. Keep expectations reasonable when transferring, and understand that it might take some time before the choice to transfer proves to be the right one after all.

Learning from an Experienced Transfer Student

Interview with Matt Brady

Matt Brady has been around the transfer block a time or two, first by transferring from one community college to another, then as a military transfer student. We asked Matt about his experiences.

You have transferred between community colleges and from the military to a four-year college. Which transfer was easier, and why?

The transfer between community colleges was the easiest. The community colleges were all part of a network for the County. Once you register for one college in the network you are registered across the entire system. All I had to do was enroll in classes at the other college.

What was the most difficult part of a college transfer for you? 

The uncertainty and feeling like an outsider was the most difficult part. This was especially true when I left the Army and went back to college full-time. I was older than my peers and I found it difficult to make connections in class. It’s also difficult to learn the ins and outs of campus when you’re a transfer student. Other students have been on campus since their freshman year, but I transferred as a junior. Figuring out where everything is, policies and the way things actually work on campus, takes some time. 

What do you wish you had known then that you know now—what would you have done differently? 

I wish I had known about the difficulty of transferring to a four-year university with two years already completed. I didn’t spend much effort to learn about the campus or the programs and resources available. If I could do things differently I would have tried to be more involved with campus life and learn more about the university early on. 

Did you run into any financial aid issues when you transferred?

When I went from the Army to Murray State University I relied on the GI Bill to pay for tuition and other expenses. Unfortunately navigating the complexities of registering and certifying to get compensated was a big pain. There was also a delay of several weeks before my claim was finally approved even though I applied early. That was tough financially. But after I finally started receiving funds from the VA, things went pretty smoothly. The Veteran’s office on campus was a big help too. 

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a college transfer?

Pay attention to accreditation and the college’s reputation. There are for-profit colleges with questionable accreditation and poor reputations. Research your college choices carefully and make your money and time count! 

If you’re transferring from a two-year community college to a university the transition may be a culture shock. Try to allot some time to learn about the campus, policies and resources available to you. Also attempt to make some connections with other students early on and get involved in extra-curricular groups.

You really have to put in extra effort as a transfer student. Existing students have been through the “this is new” phase together and found support and new friends along the way. You won’t have that luxury. You have to reach out. 

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