Trying to calculate your chances of gaining acceptance through the transfer admissions process is about as easy as handicapping a cat race. Unlike the regular admissions process, there is enough fluctuation in admission-related variables from year-to-year to make even the best prognosticator about as accurate as Miss Cleo.

If you find yourself pining to gain acceptance as a transfer into an elite college or university, be prepared to enter an impossible-to-predict game. Dartmouth’s recent history demonstrates this truth quite well. In the last four years, the transfer admissions rate has bounced from 2.8% to as high as 8.3%. On average, a transfer applicant to a prestigious school will face poorer odds than a typical applicant for undergraduate admission. For example, Stanford accepts just 1% of transfers versus 5% of freshmen. The University of Chicago takes in 4% of transfer applicants compared to 9% of regular applicants. Washington and Lee, which admits 20% of freshman applicants, welcomes a mere 3% of would-be transfer students.

That being said, if you’re dead-set on exiting your current institution for greener pastures, there are three strategies you can employ to improve your likelihood of success:

Tip #1: Do your research

While it is impossible to predict the transfer process on any given admissions cycle, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that there are a fair number of selective schools known to be “transfer-friendly.” Wesleyan University typically enrolls approximately 60 transfers each fall and 15 each spring. Boston University sports a higher admission rate for transfers (39%) than regular applicants (35%). Many top-notch state universities including all schools in the University of California system, UNC—Chapel Hill, and UVA offer similarly generous rates to transfer applicants.

Tip #2: Craft a positive narrative

Make sure that the reasons that you communicate for wanting to transfer do not end up sounding like a nasty Yelp review of your present school. While you may want to leave College X because the professors are all centenarian windbags and your roommate is breeding rabid skunks to sell on Craigslist (is there really a market for that?), remember that the school to which you are applying wants to feel wanted. Think about it; would you rather listen to your girlfriend/boyfriend rant about their ex or hear them tell you what makes you awesome. Admissions officers considering a transfer student feel the same way.

Share with your prospective new academic home what makes them attractive and unique. Smaller class size, a particular academic program, a more diverse environment, or even proximity to home are just a sampling of the legitimate selling points you can offer.

Tip #3: Grades are king

Simply put, if you are looking to transfer to a competitive school, your college transcript, embryonic as it may be, needs to sparkle. If you are looking to transfer as a college freshman, your high school grades, especially those from senior year will take center stage. Candidates that had strong SATs but poor high school grades can no longer sell their “potential.” A 1490 SAT score and a 1.9 GPA your freshman year of college does not paint an appetizing student profile. Even if you are unhappy at your current school, put every ounce of effort into achieving stellar grades. It will be your best ticket onto the campus of your dreams.

For more info:

Here are a few colleges that typically admit a higher percentage of transfer applicants than they do freshman applicants:

Boston University
College of William and Mary
Cornell University
Emory University
Georgia Institute of Technology
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Sewanee: The University of the South
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
University of Virginia
Vanderbilt University
Washington University in St. Louis

For a more complete listing of “transfer-friendly” colleges and to view transfer admission rates at the nation’s most selective schools, please visit our Dataverse page.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).