Is it time to transfer?

January 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

We're getting a lot of questions these days from parents and students about transferring from one college to another. As students return home for the December holidays, or subsequently return to their dorm rooms in January, many begin to wonder if they are enrolled in the right college. For first-term freshmen, this can sometimes feel a little like buyer's remorse. Since one's image of "the perfect college" and the overall college experience often does not match the reality of daily life on any campus, many students experience a let-down during their first year of college. They may say to their friends, their parents, their advisors, and themselves, "Hey, this college thing is not all it was cracked up to be..." In most cases, such first-year transitional questions, questions about living on one's own, making new friends, working independently, paying new bills, and adjusting to a new culture, sometimes in a very different part of the country, settle themselves as students talk through their concerns with parents, friends, and professors. They realize that many, if not most students share similar questions and concerns, and gradually acclimate to their new environment. Yet a very large percentage of American college students do end up studying at more than one institution, and rates of college transfer admission seem to have been climbing in recent years. Sometimes students have indeed landed on the wrong planet. A college may be too small and provincial for them, or too large and unsupportive. It may be too far from home, or too close. Students may have begun college with one set of academic interests and then developed others. The financial burdens of college may be too demanding, and required hours or on- or off-campus work too strenuous. The social climate may be all wrong. The level of academic challenge may be too easy, or too difficult. It is healthy and wise for students to return to their process of self-discovery, which we hope they began during their original college admission process, in order to assess their strengths and interests, and where they are as college freshmen or sophomores. For, during those two years, there is ample time to make a change for the better. When we talk with students who are concerned that they are on Mars when they would rather be on Venus, we start by asking them to review their goals for college and thereafter, and what their priorities are for college success. We then like to raise a number of options in addition to the possibility of transferring to another institution: study abroad, internships, an official leave of absence to pursue a personal interest, exchanges with other colleges. It may be best for a student who is successful in a college to remain there and use the institution as a home base. Now, for a student who is doing very poorly in a college, or who has been asked to leave the school, there are other concerns and strategies for transferring, such as returning to the academic world through the community college system, but that is not our focus here. The successful student, who is earning mostly B grades and above, is more in what we call a "position of strength". He or she may choose to leave or stay. He or she may transfer within a university to another of the university's colleges (from arts and sciences to business, or to communications, or education, for example), or to another college or university that seems a better fit. Most colleges admit transfer applicants who are in their freshman or sophomore years, but draw the line at the junior year. That is, they don't admit students with enough credits to be into their junior year. Bigger universities tend to see more students coming and going, and thus admit more transfers. The longer a student is in college, up to that junior year, the better his or her chances may be for transfer admission, since doing well shows real ability to succeed in college-level work. This also helps the student who may not have had a great high school transcript or high standardized test scores. Potential transfer applicants should see the admission process as a mature and direct one, during which they should write and speak compellingly and positively about their particular academic interests and reasons for wanting to switch from one environment to another. They should call the admission offices at various colleges directly, and ask to talk with, and possibly interview with, the admission counselor responsible for transfer admission. Finally, students should be wary of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. They should carefully evaluate any new school by talking with students and faculty there, spending a night on campus, and going to some classes, in order to make sure they are making a good change.