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Transferring to another college can be bumpy. Here’s how to help your child through it.


My husband knew early in his freshman year at the State University at Buffalo in New York that he wanted to transfer. He had a variety of reasons for wanting to leave, but 33 years later, he can clearly recall the moment that sealed the deal: “I was heading into a windowless basement classroom for a final, and it had just begun to snow. When I got out three hours later, there were two feet of snow on the ground. All I could think was, ‘Get me out of here.’”

Nine months later he matriculated at the University of Virginia, weather woes and other worries mostly behind him.

Sometimes it’s the climate. Sometimes it’s the location. Sometimes it’s just too big or too small a school. Sometimes “the best school I got into” isn’t the right school. And sometimes it’s a realization that a particular course of study isn’t available.

“I decided I wanted to pursue South Asian Studies,” says Barnard College sophomore Katherine Surko, who transferred from Washington University in St. Louis. “My previous school didn’t offer that as a major, and at Barnard, there is easily triple the amount of courses in my discipline.” Most often, of course, a number of factors add up to the decision to make a change.

And transferring is not uncommon, although estimates vary on how many students switch schools. According to a special report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a third of students end up transferring to other colleges or universities. Some of these students are transferring from community colleges, but many are also moving from one four-year school to another. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 37.2 percent of college students transfer at least once within six years.

These students are in good company: President Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University. Six other presidents changed schools, too. Warren Buffet transferred from the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Margaret Mead transferred. So did Henry Kissinger, George Lucas and Zora Neale Hurston.

Knowing this doesn’t make it easier when a parent gets that Phone Call of Misery (or a series of them), or if the student comes home at Thanksgiving and announces, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Are the feelings situational and will they lift given time, or is it time to start looking at schools again? After all, freshman year in college is stressful. There are academic challenges, social stresses, new skills to develop and old habits to hone — or to banish. Carving out an independent life has its ups and downs, and too often, the experience of doing so is freighted with the cultural expectation that “these are the best four years of your life.” Throw in social media photos of high school classmates apparently having a great time elsewhere, and dissatisfaction can quickly morph from occasional blues to full-blown unhappiness.

Experts recommend taking a deep breath. “Encourage them to stick it out,” says Debra Felix, a former director of admissions at Columbia University and the founder and director of Felix Educational Consulting, a college counseling firm in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. “They’ve only been there a couple of months. Kids that age often have trouble looking forward, and they can’t see that socially and academically, it gets better.”

But what if it becomes clear the situation is not temporary? “After advising him to give it time, we knew he’d done all the soul-searching he needed to do and had tried ‘hanging in there,’” recalls Trina Gandal, whose son transferred from Lafayette College to the University of Maryland at College Park. “He’d been unhappy from the beginning, so it was time to do something.”

Here are some tips to help make the transition:

1. Buckle down. Grades in college are the most important factor admissions counselors use to evaluate transfer applicants. More than 90 percent of schools in a NACAC special report on transfer students rated the overall postsecondary GPA as “considerably important.” According to Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, “Grades a student receives in college are far more predictive of how they will do at other colleges than anything else they have done.”

“Once I realized I was planning on transferring, I definitely spent more time in the library than ever,” recalls Surko. “I wanted to make sure my grades would not be what stood in the way of my transferring.”

Don’t forget, it’s not always easy to get in. The overall acceptance rate for transfer students (64 percent), according to NACAC, is slightly lower than the acceptance rate of first-year students (69 percent). The more the student can demonstrate college readiness and academic success, the better.

2. Do Your Homework. The thought of thumbing through Peterson’s or attending open houses in hopes of a better outcome the second time around can seem daunting, but after time in college, you should have a better sense of your expectations and goals — and the benefit of knowing what went wrong the first time. Try to pick a handful of schools that seem right, and really get to know them to see if they are a good fit.

Some schools will even let you simply reactivate your application if it’s within a year or two of the original submission. You’ll have to include a final high school transcript, a college transcript, and one or two letters of recommendation.

Find out ahead of time from each school how the financial aid process for transfers works to determine if it is still a good option. The bottom line? Don’t rely on the website. Call and email with questions.

3. Research schools that are transfer-friendly. Some schools have a lot of transfer students, which might make for an easier transition. Check out the U.S. News & World Report Education list of schools with the most transfer students. Another good resource, suggests Felix, is the Common Data Set. If a school has a high freshman attrition rate, “you know there will be space in that sophomore class.”

According to the NACAC, nearly 90 percent of four-year public institutions offer separate orientation programs for transfer students, and roughly 64 percent of private colleges do so. And just over half (53.3 percent) of four-year schools offer grant aid dedicated to transfer students (other institutions offer aid from funds available to all incoming students.)

Here’s some more good news: NACAC also found that more than three-quarters of colleges reported that they provide merit scholarships for transfer students. The smallest institutions were more likely than medium and large institutions to offer merit scholarships, and less selective colleges also were more likely to award them to transfer students. Be sure to check out housing options and transfer peer mentor programs.

It’s important to try to determine how your credits will carry over and how they will be applied to your graduation. Many schools require a transfer student to commit before they will give out information about transfer credits. It can be frustrating. “First I have to evaluate your transcript and evaluate what courses will come in, how those courses are equivalent to courses at my institution, and then how those courses will apply to specific programs, which you may or may not have chosen yet,” Flagel says. “What appears to be an easy question is often very complex. The schools that do a lot more transfers can move a little faster at this.”

4. Know transfer deadlines. “These tend to be all over the map,” says Felix. “Some are in October, some in spring, some are rolling.” For example, Amherst College, Brown University and Colorado University Boulder have March 1 deadlines; Vassar College, Wesleyan College and Boston College have March 15 deadlines; Occidental College and the University of Georgia’s are April 1; Hamilton College and Carleton College’s are April 15; Emory University and Villanova University’s are June 1; and Baylor University’s is rolling. Always double-check with the admissions office

5. Prepare for arrival at your new school. “Avail yourself of orientation,” Flagel says. “You may think you’ve already been through it, but if you don’t go, it’s a missed opportunity to connect with your new school.”

Surko recommends living with other transfers, joining clubs and taking small classes, but says “I am just so much happier here. That alone has made me more confident socially and has made making friends much easier.”

Maura Mahoney is a writer and editor who lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and three children. You can check out her writing on parenthood, books, travel and other subjects at, and follow her on Twitter @mauramahoney.

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