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Most students who want to transfer colleges don't. Here's how to start

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 (Annelise Capossela for NPR)

Unique. Complicated. Overwhelming. Those are just a few of the ways people have described the college transfer process.

Bridget Jones, the senior associate director of transfer admissions at Oregon State University, has a different way of describing it, though: "Complex ... but not in a scary way." Jones helps guide students through the transfer process because even if it's not scary, it can definitely be confusing.

Research shows that 80% of community college students intend to transfer but fewer than a third actually do.

Despite these hurdles, transferring is a popular route to a four-year college and can be a great way to save money or move from a school that isn't a good fit. It can also offer you a different or new location and open up doors to career opportunities.

"The great news is that transfers thrive when they transfer," explains Heather Adams, a senior program manager at the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program.


So how do you make the transfer process go as smoothly as possible? Here's what experts recommend.

It's never too early to start

First off, who can help you start this process? If you're at a community college, reach out to your school's transfer center. It'll often be staffed with transfer advisers who can help you figure out what you need to do. You can also directly contact the transfer center at the university you'd like to transfer to. Honestly, it might be a good idea to do both.

"You need to start planning from Day 1," says Marisa Serrano, a transfer resources coordinator for the Austin Community College (ACC) District. Her job is to help students through the transfer process, and she says students often come into her office on a tight timeline the semester before they're trying to transfer. "A lot of things could have happened that we could have helped them with along the process if we knew they were going to transfer."

She says your first semester at community college is not too early to start thinking about transferring. Your transfer journey can even start in high school.

Joseph Hauck took classes at ACC when he was still in high school. That's when he started to map out his plan for graduation. "I always knew I was pretty much going to transfer from ACC," says Hauck, who did his freshman year at ACC before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin. "I knew that there wouldn't be a four-year degree for me at ACC." The year he took classes at the community college, he worked with a transfer counselor to plot out his courses so the jump to university would be seamless.

Do beware of deadlines! Jones says the first question students should ask is, what's the deadline to transfer? If you missed it, don't worry too much — many schools admit students at several points throughout the year. Oregon State University offers admissions four times a year.

Figure out what you want to study, and make sure your credits apply

A lot of people don't know exactly what they want to study when they begin college, but deciding on a major is essential to the transfer process. First off, you want to make sure you're looking at schools that offer the majors you're interested in.

Once you figure out what you might want to study, look into what credits the degree requires. For example, if you're thinking of studying engineering at a four-year institution, you're going to need a lot of math credits. But if you're hoping to major in psychology, you might need fewer math classes.

"Nobody wants to take calculus if they don't have to," says Serrano. It's best, she says, not to just take classes for the sake of taking classes. You want to know that the classes you're taking at community college are going toward your degree.

There's a distinction between credits that just transfer and credits that apply to your major. To help figure this out, lots of schools offer transfer guides — documents that show which credits apply to your program of study, which leads us to our next takeaway.

Find a school that fits

Mia Mendoza knows a thing or two about transferring. She has transferred twice — once from City College of San Francisco to San Francisco State University and again from San Francisco State to California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She says she initially transferred to San Francisco State because it was close by and familiar. "I knew friends who went there, so they could help me out with anything if I needed it." In retrospect, she wishes she'd done more research about student life, resources for transfer students and campus feel.

When thinking about institutions to transfer to, Mendoza, who is also a transfer peer mentor at CSUSB, says to look for schools that have support in place for transfer students. "One thing I would strongly recommend is to see if they have a transfer center. If they have it, I would say that's already a good sign."

The second time Mendoza transferred, she conducted a lot more research and made sure the campus, academics and student opportunities were all a good fit for her.

When thinking about how many schools to apply to, Jones recommends "the tried-and-true three. You should not be stressing yourself out trying to apply to 20 different schools." Jones says students should look for three to five schools that "have programs that are suited to their end goal" and that work with their lifestyle and will help them thrive in the classroom.

When you're trying to figure out if a school would be a good fit for you, you can ask yourself: Do you want big or small classroom sizes? Do you prefer urban or rural environments or something in between? What career opportunities do they have for you? And of course, do they offer the major you're interested in?

Simeone Miller, a transfer peer mentor at CSUSB who transferred from Chaffey College, a community college in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., recommends reaching out directly to the department chairs of the schools you're applying to. "Look at the program you're applying for. See if it fits what your interests might be." Miller, who was interested in studying political science, says CSUSB's program "stood out to me the most."

Stay organized

Credits, official transcripts, essays — the transfer process has a lot of moving parts to keep track of. For Mendoza, staying organized was key to her success during the transfer process. "By the time I transferred, I had Google Sheet documents listing all the classes I had and all the grades I got."

Serrano suggests saving your class syllabuses. "Take a picture, store it in the drive or keep a hard copy," she says. Your syllabuses can help with transferring out of state or to private universities. If you're trying to make a class apply to a course at a four-year institution, she says it can help to have the syllabus as a record of what you did for that class.

You'll also need to request official transcripts from all the schools you've taken classes at, usually through an office called the registrar — which is the official record keeper of a college. Miller recommends clarifying how the transcripts are being sent because schools do it differently: "Am I sending it? Or are you doing it on my behalf?"

If you're planning to move out of state to transfer, you'll also need to establish residency to qualify for in-state tuition. Hannah Beck, who transferred from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to Oregon State University, says to make sure you keep track of important documents such as bank statements and mail that show your new address. You might also need government-issued documents such as a voter registration card dated at least 12 months prior to your first day of class. Make sure to check your state's guidelines for establishing residency.

Ask for help

For people who work in transfer admissions at four-year schools, like Jones, or transfer counselors at community colleges, like Serrano, their whole job is designed to help you through this process, so take advantage of that.

Clarissa Perez, a transfer peer mentor at CSUSB, says to reach out to the university you want to attend and ask questions. "Find those email addresses and literally ask all the questions that you have as transfer students." Most college websites have a directory to look up contact information for members of the transfer staff.

Perez says that just because you're familiar with the ropes of post-secondary education doesn't mean you don't need support transferring to another institution. "The expectation is that we already know how to college — we've already done the community college, we know what it takes and we know the whole process. But that's not true because the university system is a completely different monster."

If you don't have questions, she still recommends reaching out. "Just find an email address and say, 'Hey, I'm a transfer student thinking about coming in. Is there anything you can share with me?' Because if you never reach out, you're not going to get anything."

This story was adapted for digital by Clare Marie Schneider, who also produced the audio portion of this story, with engineering support from Neal Rauch.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.


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