Time to transfer? What you need to know
Come winter break, many first-year college students have second thoughts about the school they’ve chosen to attend.
Ultimately, one third will transfer (a figure that includes community college students who finish at a four-year institution).
My son Kjell entered a Canadian college in the fall of 2013 and, for the entire first semester, his dad and I got nothing but enthusiastic reports. It wasn’t until Kjell arrived home in December for winter break that we heard the first inklings of dissatisfaction, along with the announcement, “I think I want to transfer.”
If you are hearing the same thing, the first step is to help your student decide whether a transfer is indeed the right move. We assumed that once our son caught up on sleep and processed some of his disappointments, he would opt to remain where he was. After all, he had chosen this small, innovative liberal arts college for a host of right reasons.
As it turned out, he had right reasons for transferring, too. While Kjell’s initial year at the small school in British Columbia was a rich and interactive learning experience, he determined that the programs and resources of a larger academic setting would better serve his aspirations. A transfer to Western Washington University to pursue a major in Visual Journalism (not an option at his original college) brought the breadth and connections he needed to prepare for a career as a photojournalist.
Making the move, however, was more challenging than we expected. If your student is ready to transfer, here’s what you should know in order to navigate and expedite this often-complicated process.
Be aware of financial implications
Changing schools can be expensive. While federal need-based financial aid should not be affected, merit scholarships are another matter. Many colleges offer merit scholarships to transfer students, but they are typically much less than those offered to first-year students with the same credentials.
In my son’s case, when he reapplied to two private schools that had previously offered him merit awards, he assumed he would qualify again for similar assistance. However, the transfer awards were just 50-60 percent of the original offer. We were forced to rule these options out.
Likewise, some public universities participate in interstate tuition exchange programs through which non-residents may attend at in-state or discounted rates, but often these are limited to first-year applicants. Had Kjell enrolled at WWU as a freshman, he might have qualified for an $8,000 Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) award. The award is not available to transfer students.
Finally, if your student has taken courses that are not accepted for credit at the new institution, it may take longer to graduate. Every additional semester adds to the overall cost of your student’s college education.
Investigate admissions criteria
Many colleges have different admissions criteria for transfer students. These may include application deadlines, GPA (both college and high school grades may be requested), whether or not transcripts and SAT/ACT scores are required, and essays or letters of recommendation. Applying to transfer during a student’s first year of college can in essence involve a “double application”: both the high school record plus current university performance are taken into account.
You and your student should scrutinize application policies in detail, including the transfer acceptance rate. At some universities, the ratio for transfer acceptance is lower than for entering freshmen. This was the case for my son at WWU, where far fewer non-resident transfers are admitted (preference is given to those entering from a Washington state community college). It’s important that transfer applicants achieve top grades in their current college classes if they have their sights set on a competitive alternative.
Quickly assemble all necessary documents
Since many students don’t decide to transfer till midway through the year, and application deadlines can loom quickly, it’s crucial to be organized. You may need to assist with pulling together transcripts, letters of recommendation, high school activity logs, test scores, midterm grade updates, and any required essays. Encourage your student to remain engaged in class and to meet with professors during office hours to build relationships that will support strong letters of recommendation.
Don’t assume all credits will transfer
Unfortunately, many colleges will not evaluate transfer credits until a student is admitted. If your student is attending a regionally-accredited institution there shouldn’t be many problems, but in some cases, not every class will receive transfer credit. This can also be the case with AP and IB credits: the exam scores some colleges require to grant credit may differ from standards elsewhere. Check university websites in detail. You may also be able to get advance insight if your student speaks with a transfer admissions officer.
Pursue academic advising immediately
Once an offer of admission has been accepted, your student should talk in detail with an advisor at the new college. Trying to figure out which transfer credits fulfill which university requirements can be daunting. It may be helpful to bring course syllabi from the previous university for comparison purposes.
Placement tests for math or languages may also be necessary. It’s imperative to get a jump-start in order to register for desired classes without delay. When there are prerequisites for an intended major or higher-level courses, transfer students may be at a disadvantage if registration priority is based on number of credits attained at the new institution. A good advisor is invaluable in helping a transfer student plan a strategy for obtaining necessary courses on an efficient timetable.
Be proactive in seeking community
Socially, it can be tough to transfer to a new campus where everyone seems to have established friendships and connections. Though many second-year students live off campus, especially at larger schools, living on campus can make it easier for transfer students to meet people. Encourage your student to apply for housing as early as possible after finalizing the decision to transfer, and to research campus clubs, sports teams, musical groups, etc. ahead of time in order to plug in as soon as the new term begins.
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