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Transfer Admissions: How Transfer Applications are Evaluated

Admissions committee at a highly selective university discusses transfer applications.

Making the decision to transfer colleges is not easy. For undergraduates considering a transfer to another university, the thought of going through the admissions process again is daunting, especially with an entirely different procedure to navigate. The transfer admissions process is highly competitive, especially if a student is looking to transfer to a college that is already extremely selective, and how applications are evaluated is very different.

If a student wants to transfer colleges, now is the time to begin preparing. It’s not enough to apply, students also need to be sure they’re making the most of their time at their current institution. While transfer application deadlines are typically later in the spring – around March 1 – just like with the first-year admissions process, the earlier students get started, the better. This gives students time to prepare not just for the actual application, but also to understand what colleges are looking for in transfer applicants, how applications are evaluated, and how the process differs from when students applied as freshmen.

What Colleges are Looking for in Transfer Applicants

For the most part, colleges are looking to fill spots vacated by students who either also transferred to another institution, are taking a break, or otherwise won’t be enrolled the following year. Transfer admission rates are typically lower than the first-year admission rates, especially at highly selective institutions, so applying as a transfer applicant isn’t something to take lightly. In order to gain admission, your application needs to be thorough, compelling, and thoughtful.

Just like with first-year admissions, colleges want students who will be a good-fit for the school, contribute to campus community, and graduate on time. Similar to when building a freshman class, institutional needs are also taken into consideration. If there’s a need for more engineering majors, those transfer applicants might be a priority. It all depends on the school’s needs, the available space, and how the applicant fits into the campus culture. This is why it’s important for transfer applicants to know what they want to study at the colleges they’re applying to. It’s easier for a college to place a transfer student who already knows what he or she intends to major in.

How Transfer Application Essays are Read

One of the biggest differences between the first-year and transfer admissions process is the application itself – especially the essay. Rather than providing information on high school courses and grades, colleges will want to know what classes applicants are taking at their current institution, how they are performing, and will want recommendations from current professors.

The transfer essay is usually significantly different than the essay an applicant would use on their freshman application.

For example, these are the essay prompts for first-year applicants to Dartmouth:

1. Please respond in 100 words or fewer:

Dartmouth celebrates the ways in which its profound sense of place informs its profound sense of purpose. As you seek admission to Dartmouth’s Class of 2028, what aspects of the College’s academic program, community, and/or campus environment attract your interest? In short, why Dartmouth?

2. Please respond to one of the following prompts in 250 words or fewer:

A. There is a Quaker saying: Let your life speak. Describe the environment in which you were raised and the impact it has had on the person you are today.

B. “Be yourself,” Oscar Wilde advised. “Everyone else is taken.” Introduce yourself.

3. Please respond to one of the following prompts in 250 words or fewer:

A. What excites you?

B. Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta recommended a life of purpose. “We must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things,” she said. “That is what we are put on the earth for.” In what ways do you hope to make—or are you already making—an impact? Why? How?

C. Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel of Dartmouth’s Class of 1925, wrote, “Think and wonder. Wonder and think.” As you wonder and think, what’s on your mind?

D. Celebrate your nerdy side.

E. “It’s not easy being green…” was the frequent refrain of Kermit the Frog. How has difference been a part of your life, and how have you embraced it as part of your identity and outlook?

F. As noted in the College’s mission statement, “Dartmouth educates the most promising students and prepares them for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership…” Promise and potential are important aspects of the assessment of any college application, but they can be elusive qualities to capture. Highlight your potential and promise for us; what would you like us to know about you?

Here are the essay prompts for transfer applicants applying to Dartmouth:

1. Please respond in up to 500 words:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to Dartmouth, what prompted your decision to transfer institutions and what aspects of the College’s program, community, or campus environment attract your interest?

2. Please respond in up to 200-250 words:

“Be yourself,” Oscar Wilde advised. “Everyone else is taken.” Introduce yourself in 200-250 words.

3. Please choose one of the following options and respond in up to 200-250 words:

A. Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta recommended a life of purpose. “We must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things,” she said. “That is what we are put on the earth for.” In what ways do you hope to make—or are you making—an impact?

B. What excites you?

C. In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba ’14 reflects on constructing a windmill from recycled materials to power electrical appliances in his family’s Malawian house: “If you want to make it, all you have to do is try.” What drives you to create and what do you hope to make or have you made?

D. Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel of Dartmouth’s Class of 1925, wrote, “Think and wonder. Wonder and think.” What do you wonder and think about?

E. “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote James Baldwin. How does this quote apply to your life experiences?

As you can see, the essay prompts in the transfer application are much more specific and ask applicants to give more context as to why they want to transfer and why Dartmouth is a good fit for them. The essays are also longer, giving applicants more space to explain their reasons for transferring and their goals. Instead of writing an essay that ‘reveals something new’ or is a reflection of a significant life event, transfer applicants should use that space to address exactly why that student is transferring and why he or she thinks this institution is a better fit. While colleges do want to get to know transfer applicants, it’s also important for them to know why a student wants to leave their current school. This can go a long way to helping determine whether or not this student is a good fit for the institution and whether there’s room for him or her on campus.

What Else Colleges Consider


Colleges will also carefully examine applicants’ course loads and grades for more insight into the applicant and whether he or she can seamlessly integrate into the campus community and school’s curriculum. When planning spring semester courses, check to see what courses first-year students take at the college you want to attend and choose classes with credits that can transfer over to the new school. It’s hard to gain admission and catch up with peers as a transfer student, if you’re starting behind everyone else in that class, so try to stay on par with that university’s standards.


Students planning to transfer should also make an effort to stay engaged in current campus and extracurricular activities. It’s easy to become disengaged from the current campus community once a student decides to transfer, but this can seriously hurt his or her application. Colleges want to admit motivated students who are making an impact, and a student putting in the minimum effort until he or she can transfer elsewhere isn’t a compelling applicant.

High School Transcript

It’s important to remember that, while most emphasis is placed on what transfer applicants are doing at their current college or university, some admissions offices might ask for high school transcripts, test scores, or other materials that are typically reserved for freshman applicants. While these are not weighed as heavily as the other elements, it’s still important to consider how these factors will impact your application when choosing where to apply as a transfer student.

Previous Rejections

It’s also necessary to keep in mind that gaining admission as a transfer student to an institution you applied to previously and were rejected from is extremely difficult. For the most part, admissions officers want to give other applicants a chance at the college over someone who has applied before. Unless there is a significant difference between your first-year application and your transfer application that makes you a more compelling applicant, it’s better to apply as a transfer student to a school you haven’t yet applied to.

After deciding to transfer colleges, students should get started on the process immediately. Do research on the institutions you wish to transfer into, stay engaged in your current classes and activities, and seek help from on-campus counselors to get everything in order. If you need additional help, IvyWise’s team of expert counselors can help streamline the transfer admissions process by providing insight into which colleges you should consider, reviewing your application, and helping you make decisions about how to make the most of your time at your current college. Contact us today for more information on our transfer admission services!

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