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Navigating the Transfer Process: Your Essential Guide to Changing Colleges

Navigating the Transfer Process: Your Essential Guide to Changing Colleges

If you are considering transferring colleges, you might not quite know where to start. Use this guide as a jumping-off point to make your transfer as seamless as possible.

Whether it’s the leaves falling seasonally or a student graduating high school, change is a normal part of life. If your current campus doesn’t provide your desired curriculum or resources, transferring colleges may be the change you need. 

More than 1.2 million students transfer colleges each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While many students successfully transfer, the process to get to that point can be daunting. Between classes, work, and extracurriculars, you already have enough to do. Throwing in transfer applications can increase your to-do list and stress.

Fortunately, there are some stress-free strategies to change colleges. This guide covers the most effective tips and tricks for a college transfer, as well as information on credit-transfer policies and admission requirements for transfer students. Read until the end for a list of social, academic, and financial resources to support this transition.

Types of College Transfers

Students transfer for many reasons — from needing a specialized academic program not offered at your current school to a desire to transition to an online college experience. No matter the reason, most transfers fall into one of three categories: community college to a 4-year institution, transfer between 4-year schools, or transfer from a 4-year institution to a community college. Let’s explore each in more detail.

Community College to a 4-Year Institution

Let’s say you started at a community college. Your 2-year institution was a great way to complete lower-level courses at a more affordable tuition rate and explore different career paths, but the institution doesn’t offer bachelor’s degrees. To get your bachelor’s, you’ll most likely have to transfer for the last two years.

If this scenario applies to you, consider searching for 4-year institutions that have a partnership with your specific community college. Maricopa Community College, for example, lists 4-year transfer partners on its website. Should a student change to a partner school after they earn their associate degree, a predetermined number of credits is guaranteed to transfer, and it’s more likely they will finish their degree in the next two years.

Transferring Between 4-Year Schools

Let’s say you’re at a 4-year school, but it isn’t the right fit for you. Maybe you are in an on-campus program, but you dream of taking classes online. Or maybe you found an institution with a more robust program for your academic interests. No matter the reason, it’s possible to transfer between 4-year schools.

If this type of transfer applies to you, consider applying to programs with generous credit-transfer policies. You’ll also want to get clear about what factors your current program lacks. That way, you can apply to institutions that better meet your goals.

Transferring from a 4-Year College to a Community College

While we typically think of transitioning from a community college to a 4-year institution, it is possible to transfer the other direction. Perhaps you’ve discovered a 4-year program doesn’t suit your learning style and feel called to attend a community college instead. Or maybe you’ve decided to pursue a highly specialized route where the training occurs at a community college, such as the route to become a dental hygienist or LPN. In both scenarios and many others, transferring to a community college might make sense.

What to Consider When Transferring Colleges

When transferring, you’ll have a lot to consider — from how many of your credits will transfer to the new school to how long will it take for the process to be complete. Plus, if you’re not proactive with a solid plan in place, juggling transfer applications on top of coursework can be stressful.

To stay on top of the transfer process, here are the main factors to consider when transferring to universities.

Reasons for Transferring

The first step in the process is to determine if it makes solid sense for you to transfer schools. Consider your reasons, which may include:

  • Finding a more aligned academic program. Research suggests that 50-75% of college students change majors at least once while earning a degree. Sometimes, that major change means your current institution is no longer a good fit. In that case, it makes sense to consider transferring to an institution that provides a stronger curriculum for your new major.
  • Discovering a community where you belong. Unfortunately, we don’t always feel a strong social connection to our chosen campus. If this is the case, the first step should be to branch out; try different extracurriculars, grab coffee with a classmate, or test out a new workout class. If you’ve explored your campus’ social options and still don’t feel like you belong, it may be time to transfer. 
  • Progressing your education. As we’ve discussed, students in 2-year programs often transfer to 4-year institutions when they decide a bachelor’s degree suits their career goals more than an associate degree. 
  • Transferring for finances. Let’s say tuition is affecting your bank account — and perhaps subsequently your emotional health — more than expected. Along with applying for financial aid, it might make sense to send out transfer applications to more affordable institutions. 
  • Going virtual. If you’re enrolled in an on-campus program, but online or hybrid classes work better for your learning style or create more work/life flexibility, it might make sense to switch to an online degree. If your current institution doesn’t offer online classes, you may need to transfer.

These are just five of the many reasons for transferring. Before starting the process, write down your overriding reason, and weigh it against the time it takes to transfer and the potential loss of credits. 

Research Your Options

Once you’ve decided to transfer, it’s time to research your options. Make a list of potential schools, and research the transfer application process at each. Pay close attention to admissions requirements, credit-transfer policies, and the resources allocated to help transfer students adjust to a new school. 

If you’re unsure where to start your search, explore our guide to high-quality online colleges near you.

Admissions Requirements

When looking at each college, make sure you meet the admissions requirements. Typically, a university will have a separate list of requirements for transfer applications. Penn State University requires an online application and official transcripts from all current or previous academic institutions, which is less than they require for first-year applicants.

Other universities, such as the University of Missouri, have a GPA requirement and different curriculum requirements depending on how many college credits a student has already completed.

Credit Transfer Policies

You’ve invested hours studying, attending class lectures, and (possibly) stressing out in exchange for hard-earned college credits. When transferring, you want to lose as few credits as possible. To do this, consider schools with generous credit-transfer policies.

Some schools, like Northwestern, have set guidelines on which credits transfer and how they transfer. Other schools, such as Johns Hopkins University, offer an official credit evaluation specific to each student, which determines how many credits they will accept and how they’re applied.

Application Process

Similar to when you initially applied for college, you most likely will have to apply to each new university. Most schools require some combination of an online application, transcripts from previous universities, and essay and short-answer questions. 

Some institutions, like those in the California State University system, have different requirements and applications for different types of transfer students (for example, those transferring from a two-year program, students transferring after their freshman year, and those transferring in their sophomore or junior year).

Other colleges, like the University of North Carolina, utilize the common application for transfer students. When that is the case, the application may look similar to the ones you filled out before attending your current university.

Student Support Services

One of the best ways to guarantee success is to switch to a school with support services tailored to transfer students. These include academic tutoring opportunities, resources to acclimate socially, and access to student fairs and other ways to learn about extracurricular clubs and programs. 

The number of resources available can differ, and you should look for a program with the right resources for you. A great example of a school with many support services is Arizona State University. There you’ll find provide academic, financial, and community resources specifically for transfer students.

Transfer Timeline

Students typically apply to transfer during two times of the year: in the fall or in the spring. If you want to start at a new university in the spring, you should apply for programs in the fall semester. For a fall transfer, most applications open up in the springtime and may have a similar deadline to traditional first-year applications.

For a more specific timeline, explore the transfer admissions page of each program you’re applying to and note any deadlines. 

FAQs for Transferring Colleges

You’ve got questions, we have answers. When compiling this guide, we researched the most commonly asked questions about the transfer process. Here are the answers to those burning questions.

  • When should I consider transferring colleges?

    Because you can usually transfer at the start of any semester, there isn’t a “right time” to consider transferring colleges. Instead, you should check internally and see when feels right to you. 

    Before deciding to transfer, explore academic and community resources that are available at your current college. Because a transfer can mean lost credits, before you make a decision, you’ll want to make sure it’s the right choice and that your current institution can’t meet your academic or social needs. 

  • Can I transfer mid-academic year?

    At many institutions, you can transfer mid-academic year. What you often can’t do is transfer mid-semester. That means you’ll need to complete the current semester at your institution and transfer for either the upcoming spring, fall, or summer semester.

    At some institutions, it’s only possible to transfer for fall entry. Princeton University and the University of Virginia are two schools that don’t offer mid-year transfer. Other institutions, like the University of Richmond, have a spring-entry transfer option but accept fewer students than in the fall.

  • Can I transfer to a college in a different state or country?

    Typically, the answer to the first part of the question is yes, though it depends on the exact institution. While there are exceptions, most students have no trouble transferring to a college in a different state. 

    Transferring to an institution in another country is a different story. Some international institutions, such as the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and the University of Toronto in Canada, make it easy to transfer, but that’s not always the case. It’s often more difficult, for example, to transfer to international institutions where the classes aren’t taught in English.

  • Do I need to inform my current college about my transfer plans?

    While you don’t need to alert your current college about your transfer plans before they happen, you most likely will have to fill out some paperwork once you’ve decided to transfer. Depending on your current institution, there may be some resources to support you in this process.

    You also will probably have to reach out to the registrar’s office for an official transcript during the application process, as almost all universities want to see this from transfer applicants. 

  • Can I receive financial aid as a transfer student?

    Whether your financial aid will transfer depends on the type of aid you receive. Federal financial aid does transfer, and the U.S. government outlines federal financial aid guidelines to consider when transferring. Private and state aid may transfer, though this depends on the exact stipulations of the aid. A scholarship to study in Ohio likely won’t transfer to an institution in Idaho. If your current university provided you with a scholarship or grant, this clearly will not transfer.

  • What resources are available to help me with the transfer process?

    You’ll find many resources available to help with the transfer process. Most likely, the schools you are applying to have admissions counselors who help transfer students, and your current school may have resources as well. Other places to turn for transfer support include friends and family with transfer experience, trusted professors, online guides like this one, and the 20 resources in the next section of this guide.

  • Can I keep my existing scholarships when I transfer?

    Whether or not you can keep a scholarship depends on where it came from. If it’s from the federal government, you most likely can keep it, so long as you transfer to an accredited university. State-funded scholarships should remain if you transfer in-state, and privately funded scholarships can often transfer, though this depends on the stipulations for each one. If the scholarship is from your current university, it likely won’t transfer with you.

  • Will transferring colleges affect my graduation timeline?

    It’s fairly common for transferring to delay a student’s graduation timeline, especially if you’re transferring into a specialized program or one that’s significantly different from your current one. It’s unlikely a marketing student transferring to a nursing program at a new institution will graduate within four years. 

    But it’s possible to stick to your current graduate timeline if you choose a school with a generous credit-transfer policy and/or if your new major aligns closely with your current program of study. 

Resources for Transfer Students

Transferring to a new university is daunting, but it’s not something you have to accomplish alone. Plenty of organizations offer free resources that can provide insight and strategies as you navigate the process. Below are 20 of our favorite resources for transfer students.

50 Resources for College Students

Looking for more support when it comes to applying and thriving at a new school, both socially and academically? Check out this giant list of 50 student-focused resources.

College Accreditation Guide

When looking at potential transfer institutions, accreditation is a key concern. This guide outlines the accreditations your next institution should have.

Common App Transfer Guide

If the college you’re transferring to uses the common app, you’ll want to check out this blog post that outlines common app transfer guidelines.

Finding Success as a Transfer

As you start at a new school, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to academic and social success. This blog from UC Berkeley is a good place to start for both.

Federal Student Aid and Your Transfer

Wondering how to maintain or get federal aid as you transfer to a new institution? This blog post from the Department of Education explains everything you need to know.

How To Start the Transfer Process

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of students who want to transfer, do. NPR outlines the steps you need to take to be a part of that small, but satisfied, group.

Make Friends as a Transfer Student

Starting at a new university can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out this guide to making friends as a transfer student.

Online College Guide

If you want to make the switch from on-campus to online, Northeastern University outlines what to look out for (and what to avoid) in online programs.

Pass It Back: From The Transfers Podcast

Check out this podcast for transfer students by transfer students at Texas A&M University. It’s hosted by Transfer Peer Mentors and sponsored by the Transfer Student Program.

Planning for College

Our guide to college planning details what you need to know about applying and attending a new school, whether you’re a first-time or transfer student.

Scholarships to Apply to Now

Transferring college can be expensive, especially if your next institution has a higher tuition rate. Check out these scholarships you can apply to now.

Step-by-Step Transfer Guide

Looking for a detailed, step-by-step outline of how to transfer colleges? Check out this guide from FastWeb.

Tips for Transitioning from On-Campus to Online

Transferring from an in-person institution to a virtual or hybrid program? Here’s everything you need to thrive in online college classes.

To Transfer or Not to Transfer

Should you transfer or stay at your current institution? The University of Bridgeport provides questions to consider when making this decision.

Transferring College Checklist

The Princeton Review outlines how to prepare for a college transfer and provides a checklist of steps you should take before and during the transfer process.

Transfer Mistakes to Avoid

As you navigate the transfer process, there are some pitfalls and errors to avoid. This YouTube video reviews the most common ones.

Transfer Nation Talks Podcast

Each episode of this podcast focuses on a different aspect of college transfer and includes student stories, advocacy ideas, and resources.

Transferring Out of State

While ease of transfer can vary from state to state, Santa Monica College outlines the general process of transferring to an institution in a different state.

Transferring from Community College

If you’re transferring from a 2-year institution to a 4-year university, check out this guide from the New York State government.

Transfer Tips from a Student

As you navigate this process, it can be useful to hear advice and experiences from other students. This YouTube video covers one student’s transfer experience.

Interview With Transfer Student

A woman with a warm smile, wearing a white polo shirt and hoop earrings, poses against a plain white background.

Nicole Jornacion

Ready to hear first-hand from a successful transfer student? Meet Nicole Jornacion, who started at Allan Hancock College to get her associate degree in psychology. She transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated with a BA in Communication in 2022. Currently, Nicole works as a program/outreach coordinator at LA Tutors 123, a private tutoring company specializing in K-12 education with in-person and online tutoring services.
  • Q: Why did you decide to transfer colleges?

    A: At the time, I was attending a community college and wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication instead of an associate degree. To do this, I had to transfer to a 4-year institution. 

  • Q: How did you choose your new college?

    A: During my free time in community college, I visited nearby campuses. I chose my new college because of the vibe on campus and its academic programs. Additionally, the college that I decided to transfer to was conveniently only an hour away from where my family lives. So I was able to commute back and forth every so often.

  • Q: What was the most significant challenge you faced during the transfer process?

    A: The most challenging thing I faced during the transfer process was the ability to stay on track with the classes I needed to take so I could transfer. If I ended up changing my plan midway through, then it would have added another couple of semesters where I was going to college at the time. Another challenge was keeping up with grade point averages to get into the major I wanted to transfer into.

  • Q: What advice would you give to someone considering transferring to a different college?

    A: Make sure you use the resources that your current college provides. Research and understand them and use them to your advantage. For me, college counselors were great resources to help me decide where to transfer and to keep me on track for transferring. 

  • Q: Do you have any regrets or things you wish you had done differently during the transfer process?

    A: I wish I narrowed down the colleges I wanted to go to. I went on an application spree and applied everywhere, even to the colleges I didn’t see myself going to just because I didn’t think I was going to get accepted anywhere. In the end, it ended up just wasting a lot of my money because I didn’t have my eyes set on a main goal.

  • Q: How do you feel about your decision to transfer now, looking back on it?

    A: I was very happy about my decision to transfer. I was able to finish up my bachelor’s degree in communication at UCSB. I created so many new memories and learned so much from UCSB. I would not change it for the world.

  • Q: What advice would you give another student who is considering transferring colleges?

    A: Do it! If you are ever having doubts or you know that there is something greater out there, it doesn’t hurt to try and apply and see where it takes you!