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, 37% of all U.S. college students temporarily transform into “transfer applicants,” a role that they are often trust into with little preparation or support. This time, there is no high school guidance counselor waiting to hold their hand through the process.

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. The following article will provide guidance on completing this application as well as other considerations involved in applying for transfer including:

  • Do I qualify as a transfer applicant?
  • When are the deadlines to transfer colleges?
  • How to complete each section of the Common App for Transfer
  • Do I need SAT/ACT scores to transfer colleges?
  • How to approach the Common App for Transfer Essay
  • What are my 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. Fortunately, our Dataverse has an institution-by-intuition breakdown. Check out our sortable chart at this link.

When is the transfer deadline?

Each college sets their 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.

Many universities also offer a deadline in 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 Dataverse.

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

There are four sections to the transfer-oriented version of the Common Application: 1) Personal Information, 2) Academic History, 3) Supporting Information, and 4) Program Materials.

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 put information about your high school, courses you completed in college, and standardized tests you previously took (if applicable). This can include SAT/ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP/IB exams.

Supporting Information: The first subcategory within this section is labeled as “Experiences” which is quite different from the “Activities List” which is required as part of the regular Common App. Applicants should feel free to include any experience that helps paint a picture of how they presently spend their time. This could include things like hobbies, family responsibilities, or paid work. Greater emphasis should be placed on experiences that have occurred after exiting high school; relevant high school activities should 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).

Program Materials: This area is akin to the supplemental applications that students fill out in the regular application cycle. In this area, potential transfers 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. Within the “Documents” tab, you will also find a list of  documentation required by each prospective transfer institution and can very easily upload directly into the form. This can include items such as college transcripts, a mid-term report, or professor recommendations.

Do I have to submit standardized test scores?

It depends on two factors: 1) the number of credits you have completed and 2) the individual school’s policy. At UT Austin and schools in the University of California system, transfer applicants to not have to submit SAT or ACT scores. At Colorado University-Boulder you do not have to submit scores if you have accumulated 24 college credits; at the University of Washington, the target number is 40 transferable credits.

For a complete list of college’s SAT/ACT transfer policies, visit our Dataverse page.

The Common App Transfer essay

Not every college requires an essay as part of their transfer application; however, plenty of selective institutions do. There are schools that will offer multiple prompt choices, but many present applicants with only one prompt asking them, in essence, to explain why they want to transfer to a given institution. 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?” 

Students should treat this essay similarly to the “Why Us?” essay encountered in many universities’ Common App supplemental sections for general admission. Some applicants mistakenly dedicate this section to bashing their former school or chronicling their own personal tragedies. While you do want to explain how your past experience has brought you to this moment, make sure that are crystal clear about your vision for the great things that lie ahead. 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.

What are my chances of getting accepted?

Of course, the answer to this questions depends on whether you are applying to Columbia University (6% transfer acceptance rate) or the University of Missouri-Columbia (65% transfer acceptance rate). In 2020-21, 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 all 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, 2021).

It is also important to understand that transfer rates can be extremely volatile from year to year as they can be swayed by variable, and hard-to-predict factors related to institutional needs. For example, Dartmouth’s transfer acceptance rate has hovered between 0.5% and 8% in recent years. More on how to assess your chances based on previous years’ data can be found in our blog entitled How to Transfer into an Elite College. This piece also contains additional information about the importance of your college grades as well as professor recommendations