When the Grass Looks Greener: The Ins and Outs of Being a Transfer Student

transfer student

When the Grass Looks Greener: The Ins and Outs of Being a Transfer Student

Published December 27, 2019 | Last Updated December 15th, 2023 at 09:51 am

transfer student

The process of applying to college as a transfer student is both similar to and very different from applying as a first-year student. 

As with freshman admission, grades and the rigor of your curriculum at your original college are the most important piece of your record, and you often need teacher recommendations and a written personal statement. 

There is even a Common Application specifically for transfer applications. 

But there are even more differences. 

Transfer applicants often need to be very focused about their academic goals and may have to apply to transfer into a specific major. Many colleges require a minimum number of college credits for a student even to be eligible to transfer.

The selectivity of a college may be very different for transfers than it was for freshman admission: Colleges that are extremely competitive for first-year admission may be more open to transfers, while a college to which a student was admitted as a freshman may not accept any transfer students.

Why Do Students Transfer to Another School?

Transferring From a Community College

Zoe is an honor student at her local community college; family obligations and financial considerations made it a good choice for her. She has excellent grades and started a club that mentors local elementary school girls who are interested in STEM. Zoe thought an associate’s degree would be enough, but she’s now decided she wants to get a bachelor’s degree.

Transferring From One College to Another

Ethan’s small liberal arts college has a strong English department, a student body that turns out in force for ice hockey games, and a campus full of trees that turn orange and red in the fall. It was a perfect fit for Ethan—until it wasn’t. He ultimately discovered his academic passion is engineering and the college doesn’t have an engineering department. The intimacy of the small liberal arts college now feels constricting, and the financial aid package his family thought would work, didn’t.

Ethan and Zoe want to transfer, joining more than 37% of college students who do.1

[5 things to Compare When Choosing a College (Besides Price)]

Community Colleges and Articulation Agreements

Approximately 31% of students who attend community colleges later transfer to 4-year institutions. Since many of those students expect to transfer, they often plan their first two years of college with that in mind.  But they’re not the only students who transfer. 

Students who start at 4-year colleges usually expect to graduate from the same school four years later. 

But sometimes that expectation is challenged, for reasons ranging from academic to personal to financial to emotional. 

What Is an Articulation Agreement?

Many community colleges have transfer agreements with 4-year colleges called “articulation agreements,” which greatly facilitate or even guarantee the ability to transfer so long as the student meets certain requirements, such as a having taken specific classes and having earned a stated minimum GPA. 

In these agreements, the 4-year college or university has pre-determined that it will accept specific courses at the community college for credit transfer from students in certain majors, so a student knows those classes will count toward satisfying graduation course requirements. 

Many articulation agreements are between community colleges and programs at 4-year public universities in the same state. 

But some community colleges have also forged relationships with public universities in other states and with private colleges.

Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland has articulation agreements not only with Maryland state universities, but also with Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Dickinson College for successful students to transfer from certain Montgomery College majors. Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, New York has 356 transfer agreements available to its students.

CollegeTransfer.Net (www.collegetransfer.net) hosts a database of community college articulation agreements. 

Students considering community college can research articulation agreement transfer pathways even before they choose a community college. 

Choosing classes and majors with course transfer in mind can ease the transfer process and maximize the possibility that the student will earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.

Sometimes finances are an issue that might be discouraging community college students from moving on to a 4-year college.

If that is so, says Money Magazine, “there are many national and local organizations that can help make that financially possible, including Phi Theta Kappa and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.”

Transferring From One 4-Year College to Another

For a student already enrolled at a 4-year college or university, the decision to transfer can be much more difficult. While transferring may seem like the golden ticket to a better college experience, that ticket may come at a price–literally.

How Many Credits Will Transfer?

Before applying to transfer, all students need to do their transfer homework.

First, identify and contact staff at potential transfer schools who specialize in transfer students. Many colleges have someone in Admissions who is dedicated to transfer students. Some colleges have a pre-transfer advising office or a transfer support center.

 They are there to answer your questions and help with the process.

Find out how many of your courses and credits will transfer to the new college or university. 

Even though a class may have been required for freshmen by your current university, it may not be accepted for credit at the college to which you hope to transfer, and it may take additional time (read: additional tuition and financial aid) to graduate. 

Transfer students lose an average of 4 of every 10 credits earned at their original institution. 

Find a transfer guide for potential transfer schools and determine where you would stand academically.

Investigate what kind of transfer orientation services the potential transfer colleges offer. 

Transfer students may be entering a social and living environment forged by the fires of freshman year that’s difficult to penetrate. 

Ask Lots of Questions

How many transfer students does the college accept each year? 

How many of them go on to graduate? Does the college help integrate new students into the college’s life?

 Does it nurture connections among transfer students, such as offering social events, academic transition support, and transfer housing options? 

Or would you be expected to navigate these issues yourself? 

[How Students and Parents Can Adjust to Freshman Year]

Because of these challenges and hurdles, students considering transferring should also consider whether they can make changes to improve their situation at their current college instead. 

Take Ethan, for example. 

His college may not offer an engineering major, but maybe he can choose a college major that fulfills a similar interest (or even a secondary passion!) and plan to get an engineering master’s degree.

Maybe he can spend his junior year, or even part of his senior year, abroad at a large university in order to have that “big school” experience. If finances are an issue, maybe Ethan can talk with the financial aid office about options for additional support.

If the issues are emotional, maybe a leave of absence for a semester or year—a mid-college “gap year”—might offer Ethan a mental re-boot.

Benefits of Transferring Colleges

Despite the challenges of the transfer admission process, there are many transfer success stories, too.

Katrina attended a math-science magnet high school in Maryland. Her guidance counselor recommended a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. 

But the math department wasn’t nearly as rigorous as Katrina had expected; her freshman math professor was using her as a teaching assistant for other students.

And the student body was primarily local and Katrina did not feel welcome. 

“I desperately wanted to transfer to a new school that was more rigorous and where I would feel more at home,” said Katrina. “After several acceptances, I decided to go to Smith.

I absolutely love Smith! I’m even going to be president of my house this coming year.”

Transferring from one school to another may not necessarily be a simple endeavor, but if a student is doing it for all the right reasons, and understands all the necessary steps that must be taken, the transition can be quite smooth.

As with first-year students, research and knowing what your ultimate goal is can make all the difference.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Transferring from One College to Another: What You Need to Know

A Parent’s Guide to the Pros and Cons of Community College

Community College Changed My Life




1 https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport9/, 2015 study by the National Student Clearing House Research Center (NSCHRC).

2 https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport13/,  2017 study by the National Student Clearing house Research Center (NSCHRC).

In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?

Dear Roadie, My son will be attending a school that costs $80,000 per year. Am I crazy for wanting him...

How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer


How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer

After sending four kids to college with a fifth on the way there soon, I’ve learned a thing or two...

Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?

Dear Roadie, We are considering moving to New Mexico for my daughter’s final high school years as I’ve read in-state...

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore R2C Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.