Transferring High Schools – Impact on College Admissions

April 19, 2021

Disrupting your child’s high school education is not a move that any parent takes lightly, particularly if they are happy—both academically and socially—at their current school. A disjointed educational experience is far from ideal, but there are plenty of situations where a) it is absolutely necessary for the parent or b) it will be beneficial to your son or daughter. In some instances, a parent may be moving due to a job opportunity, a change in economic circumstances, or post-divorce. Alternatively, the catalyst for the move may be to find a superior academic environment for your child. No matter the impetus for your decision to transfer high schools, the following college admissions-related considerations should be taken into account:

1) Class Rank

This is mostly applicable to high-achieving students who are competing for the title of valedictorian, salutatorian, or a place inside the top 10% of their high school class (often an important marker in elite college admissions). There can be other important markers as well. For example, the University of Texas at Austin automatically admits in-state students who finish in the top 6% of their class. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 38% of colleges consider class rank to be important in their evaluation process—most elite schools are in this category; another 34% consider it to be of “limited importance”.

If your child’s new high school ranks (only about 50% of American high schools do), you will quickly find that there is no standardized policy for incorporating transfer students into the mix. Many high schools will allow new students to rank once they complete four semesters at their institution. This means that students transferring in the middle of junior year (or later) would be ineligible to receive a ranking. Other high schools’ polices delineate that to be included in the rankings, you need to complete your entire junior and senior year in their building. You will also find schools that only require three semesters attendance to gain a ranking. Suffice to say, policies on class rank greatly vary and, if your student is a high-achiever with a stellar academic record, investigate the written policies on this matter offered by any prospective high school.

2) Extracurricular Activities

When applying to competitive colleges, extracurricular activities are undoubtedly a critical factor, but not always in the way that most students/parents believe. The number of activities in which your student is involved and the breadth of those activities is, in reality, actually of very little importance. This is because highly-selective colleges are not looking for Renaissance Men and Women with a broad spectrum of talents, but rather those who direct their time, talents, and passions to one, two, or three core activities. Displays of leadership, talent, and commitment rule the day.

Given this reality, transferring schools can prove a challenge, particularly if your child is a junior or senior. Like in any organization, high school clubs and activities often require that you “pay your dues,” climbing the ladder of leadership over time. Even a student is a deeply involved with a number of activities at their old school—Model U.N., school newspaper, debate club, robotics team, student government, etc., there are no guarantees that they will be able to hop on a similar leadership trajectory in a brand new environment, competing against peers with more established roots. In areas like orchestra or athletics, the switch can potentially be a bit easier. Even if coaches or band leaders are loyal to players/musicians to whom they have years-long relationships, talent will usually quickly rise to the top. The same goes with areas such as chess or math and science competitions, where talent can be quantifiably measured and is difficult to suppress.

3) Transfer of Credits/Prerequisites

Unlike with transferring from one college to another, very rarely will a high school student encounter any difficulty getting his or her previous coursework “accepted” onto their transcript. The only trouble can come from meeting specific prerequisites to take advanced courses, or the order in which the classes are offered. For example, the order in which students take chemistry, physics, and biology can vary from school to school. Typically, the solution is easy enough—a student just takes a given math or science course with a different grade level at their new school (e.g. a junior takes a sophomore biology class).

Moving to a new state can pose issues in terms of meeting the local graduation requirements. States like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Massachusetts leave high school graduation requirements up to the districts which can make even intrastate transfers challenging—PA alone has 500 public school districts. Differences between state mandates can be consequential. For example, California and Washington only require three years of 9-12 English while the other 48 states require four. Students in Illinois and Connecticut must complete two high school social studies courses, but teens in New York and Texas must complete four. This is only something to note, not something to fear; the worst case scenario is that your child may have to take two courses in one subject area to make up the credit shortfall at some point prior to graduation.

4) Involve Your Guidance Counselor

Coordinating a move requires some basic circuitry. First you want to connect with your child’s old guidance counselor, their future counselor, and then you want to make sure that those two connect with each other. The better the “wiring” between all parties, the better the communication will be, and the likelier it is that a smooth transition will occur. Make sure your son or daughter sits down with their current counselor to review their future schools’:

  • Course descriptions of future classes
  • Class rank and grade weighting policies
  • Prerequisites for taking AP/IB/honors courses
  • Graduation requirements (by subject)

Counselors are phenomenal resources, but they are also ridiculously busy and their departments are often seriously understaffed. The onus will likely be on you (or your student) to schedule meetings with them and seek assistance. Taking the initiative on the front end, pre-move, can save many headaches down the road.

5) Try to Avoid Mid-Year Transfer

Of course, in the case of unavoidable life circumstances that can necessitate a move on short notice, a mid-year transfer can be done successfully. However, we do recommend avoiding this situation if at all feasible. Even if your teen’s new teachers are flexible and welcoming, it can still be quite challenging to pick up high school content, particularly in an advanced or honors course, midstream. If you move, for example, in mid-December, your child could be required to take midterm exams without adequate preparation. If their new physics teacher moves at a far quicker pace than their instructor at their previous school, this could put your teen at a significant disadvantage.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

There are plenty of situations where a high school transfer can work out beautifully and a student may immediately find the new pastures greener. In other cases, the acclimation process can include a good deal of struggle as you work to overcome a series of challenges. While transferring to a new high school is challenging for everyone (see every teen movie and YA novel ever), there are an additional set of challenges present for high-achieving students who are aiming for the most competitive colleges and universities. Timing, careful planning, and doing one’s homework can all mitigate most of these obstacles, ensuring a transition that, if not seamless, is at least minimally disruptive.