Common App Transfer Guide – 2024

December 8, 2023

common app transfer

A college diploma features the name of just one institution. Yet, for many, this hardly tells the true story of their unique college journey, which is often an amalgam of experiences across two or more postsecondary settings. In fact, at some point, approximately one-third of all U.S. college students temporarily transform into “transfer applicants,” a role that they are often thrust into with little preparation or support. This time, the transfer Common App looms before you, and too often, little guidance is available.

Transfer students come in different shapes and sizes and the particular contours of a given applicant can dictate what type of process awaits. There are those who, for financial or academic reasons, began at a community college, performed well, and are now jumping up the big leagues of a four-year university. On the other end of the spectrum, there are transfer applicants already attending a reputable four-year establishment who have their hearts set on swapping out their present location for the highly selective college of their dreams.

One common denominator is that no matter what type of transfer applicant you happen to be, you will likely be tasked with filling out the Common App for Transfer, a variation of the traditional Common App that you may have used when you originally applied to college. To assist you, the following article will address:

  • Do I qualify as a transfer applicant?
  • When are the transfer deadlines for colleges?
  • How do I complete each section of the Common App Transfer application?
  • Do I need SAT/ACT scores to transfer colleges?
  • How do I approach the Common App Transfer application essay?
  • What are the chances of getting accepted as a transfer applicant?

Let’s begin by exploring who qualifies as a transfer applicant.

Am I a transfer or freshman applicant?

School policies vary here. At many schools, just taking one two or four-year college course post-high school is enough to make you a transfer applicant. At other schools, you’ll need 24-30 credits under your belt before transferring is even an option. You’ll want to investigate this thoroughly before beginning the Common App transfer application. Fortunately, our Dataverse has an institution-by-institution breakdown. Check out our sortable chart for more information.

When are transfer deadlines?

Each college sets its own transfer deadline or deadlines; some schools only have one application deadline each year while others have two. The most common time to apply as a fall transfer (for the following year) is around March. In fact, all eight Ivy League schools have annual deadlines between March 1st and March 15th:

College Deadline (Fall 2024 Entry)
Brown March 1, 2024
Columbia March 1, 2024
Cornell March 15, 2024
Dartmouth March 1, 2024
Harvard March 1, 2024
Princeton March 1, 2024
University of Pennsylvania March 15, 2024
Yale March 1, 2024

Many universities also offer a deadline for those wishing to start at a new school in the spring semester; these applications are typically due between October 1st and December 1st (although there are outliers). For a complete and up-to-date list of transfer deadlines for the current transfer admissions cycle visit our chart of transfer admission deadlines.

How to complete the Common App Transfer Application – A section-by-section breakdown

There are four sections to the Common App transfer application: 1) Personal Information, 2) Academic History, 3) Supporting Information, and 4) Program Materials.

Before you begin, select the schools that you plan to apply to. You can do this by navigating to “Add Program.” The schools you select will then populate in the “Program Materials” section.

Need a visual? Here’s a step-by-step tutorial:

Personal Information

This includes your basic demographic info including ethnicity, physical address, gender identity, and information about your parents/guardians. Nothing here should be too challenging.

Academic History

Here, you will enter information about your high school and college(s) as well as courses you completed in college, if required. If applicable, you’ll also self-report any standardized tests you previously took, including SAT/ACT and AP/IB exams.

There is also a space for you to input continuing education courses. These can include Coursera, edX, or LinkedIn Learning courses as well as any other type of in-person or online course/workshop.

Common App Transfer Guide (Continued)

Supporting Information

The first subcategory within this section is labeled as “Experiences.” Applicants should feel free to include any experience that helps paint a picture of how they presently spend their time, including extracurricular clubs, internships, volunteer or paid work experiences, summer programs, hobbies, or family responsibilities. The greatest emphasis should be placed on experiences that have occurred since exiting high school, so we’d suggest placing those at the top of your list.

Relevant high school activities can be included, but only when they directly connect to present pursuits (i.e. a current business major was President of his Future Business Leaders of America chapter in high school). Ideally, any high school activities that you include will have occurred during your junior and/or senior years of high school.

When you’re ready to add an experience, you’ll first choose an “Experience Type,” which includes Employment, Research, Extracurricular Activities, Volunteer, and Internship.

After selecting the appropriate category, you’ll have the ability to add more information about the organization you are (or were) a part of, your supervisor’s information, and the dates of the experience. You’ll also be able to note whether the experience was part-time, full-time, or temporary. Finally, the “Experience Details” area will require the following:

  • Title of the Experience (60 characters). This should be the role you held within the organization, ex. “President” or “Software Intern.”
  • Type of Recognition. You can choose from Compensated, Received Academic Credit, or Volunteer.
  • Description/Key Responsibilities (600 characters). Similar to the Activities section of the freshman Common App, focus on offering specific details about your level of involvement and leadership along with relevant accomplishments and measurable impact.

Common App Transfer Guide (Continued)

The second subcategory within this section is labeled as “Achievements.” You can add athletic awards, academic awards/honors such as Dean’s List or membership in an honor society, publications, and professional achievements/recognition, among others. Collegiate achievements are preferred, but significant high school achievements (i.e., those at the national or international level, such as AP Scholar with Distinction or National Merit Semifinalist) can be added.

To add an achievement, you’ll first select an “Achievement Type.” These include Publications, Honors, or Awards. You’ll then complete the following sections:

  • Achievement Details (60 characters). This should be the name of the award you won or recognition received, such as “Dean’s List.”
  • Name of Presenting Organization (60 characters). In this section, you’ll insert the name of the organization or school through which you received recognition.
  • Issued Date. For recognition you’ve received more than once, such as being named to your college’s Dean’s List, you’ll want to choose the earliest date that you received recognition.
  • Brief description (600 characters). Here, you can provide several sentences of context and/or note the award criteria, such as the minimum GPA required to earn Dean’s List recognition.

Finally, in the third subcategory, “Documents,” you’ll have the opportunity to upload supporting documentation such as a resume, visa documentation, or military transcript.

Program Materials

This area is akin to the supplemental applications that you filled out during the freshman application cycle. In this section, you must address school-specific essays and questions that require a short response. It’s important to always check the “Questions” tab within the Program Materials section as some schools only list their essay(s) here. Other schools will list the main essay in the “Documents” section, which can be a source of confusion. Some schools list essays in both places. Within the “Documents” tab, you will also find a list of documentation required by each prospective transfer institution, which may include items such as college transcripts, a mid-term report, or a resume. You can very easily upload directly into the form.

On the Common App transfer application, the “Recommendations” tab is where you’ll add recommenders.

Need a quick breakdown of how that works? Watch here:

Do I have to submit standardized test scores?

Ever since the arrival of COVID in 2020, the majority of American colleges have introduced test-optional policies. These policies often extend to transfer students as well. Some schools, like the UC and CSU systems, have even gone test-blind. This means that they will not consider SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process. To see which type of policy your prospective institution(s) have adopted, view our complete list of test-blind and test-optional colleges.

Overall, 99% of colleges in 2024 will not require transfer students to submit test scores. However, at highly selective schools, submitting strong test scores may greatly improve your chances. For example, elite SAT scores will help you if transferring to Ivy League or Ivy-equivalent institutions.

The Common App Transfer Essay

Not every college requires an essay as part of their transfer application; however, plenty of selective institutions do. Many present applicants with a prompt that asks them, in essence, to explain why they want to transfer. For example:

 “The personal statement helps colleges get to know you better as a person and a student. Please provide a statement discussing your educational path. How does continuing your education at a new institution help you achieve your future goals?” 

In the words of Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Briefly tell them where you have been and then move the conversation toward the future. As you discuss your educational journey so far and reasons for transferring, it’s important to avoid bashing your current school. Instead, focus on the opportunities your current school has provided you with and how you’ve taken advantage of them. Then, share why you’ll be better served at a different institution.

The best reasons for transferring are grounded in academics; any social or environmental factors are secondary considerations.  After taking several data science courses, perhaps you’ve decided you’d like to pursue a major in data science…but that option isn’t available at your current college. Alternatively, perhaps you’ve discovered that you’d like to attend a university with a more robust and supportive undergraduate research environment. Finally, after you explain how your past experience has brought you to this moment, make sure that you are crystal clear about your vision for the great things that lie ahead.

Common App Transfer Guide (Continued)

It’s important to note that Common App transfer essay requirements vary significantly depending on the school. Some schools will only require a version of the above essay prompt; others will ask students to also write a traditional personal statement and/or answer supplemental essay questions on topics that range from “Why Us?” to community-focused or extracurricular activity essays. Therefore, it’s essential to look at the various prompts you’ll need to write before getting started in order to figure out the balance of information across the application. Moreover, if you’re reapplying to a school that you applied to as a freshman, it should go without saying that you’ll need to write new essays.

What are my chances of getting accepted?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on whether you are applying to Columbia University (11% transfer acceptance rate) or the University of Missouri-Columbia (68% transfer acceptance rate). Last year, schools such as Bowdoin, Bates, Pomona, and Amherst all accepted fewer than 10% of applicants. Meanwhile, other stellar schools like George Mason, the University of Georgia, Indiana University, Elon, Clemson, and the University at Buffalo accepted the majority of those who applied.

Note: All of the previously mentioned schools are featured in College Transitions’ book—Colleges Worth Your Money: What America’s Top Schools Can Do for You (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

It is also important to understand that transfer rates can be extremely volatile from year to year. Figures can be swayed by institutional needs and the number of open slots. For example, Dartmouth’s transfer acceptance rate has hovered between 0.5% and 10% in recent years.

Common App Transfer Guide – Final Thoughts

As a transfer applicant, you’ll be required to do things that you were not asked to do as a freshman applicant. For example, you may be required to complete a mid-term report or college report, and provide transcripts from both your high school and current college. You also need to approach your essays differently and may need to line up recommendation letters. Although navigating the transfer application process takes a solid amount of time and energy, you’ll be successful as long you stay highly organized, motivated, and focused on your future goals.