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Navigating the College Search Process as a Transfer Student

Picture of Joel Ontiveros
By Joel Ontiveros on May, 1 2024 | 6 minute read

How can you successfully navigate the college search process as a transfer student? From affordability to your choice of major, find out some of the considerations to take into account.

The argument that the only “successful” path is one that includes the traditional four-year college experience is outdated. If you work with high school aged students, you’re probably seeing the same trends my Collegewise colleagues and I are seeing: more and more young adults are asking themselves what’s best for them and how higher education and going to college fits into the greater scheme of their plans, goals, and dreams. I’ve got a few particularly curious students who ask questions like, “What if I graduate high school early?” or, “What if I decide to attend community college and then transfer?” Our students nowadays seem more likely to reflect on their own needs, and question whether typical societal norms fit with their future plans and dreams.

And for other students, sometimes they’ve already applied, been admitted, and enrolled in a college or university. And you know what - sometimes these students just don’t end up loving the college they decided to attend. Then what happens? Do they stick it out for four years potentially going into debt for a college experience they don’t feel encouraged and fulfilled in? What if they decide they’d like to change colleges and transfer to another school?

With more questions like these being asked by the students and families I work with, the transfer admission process is becoming a more frequent topic of conversation within the college counseling field. Although I can’t provide every detail in a single post to help counsel you through a transfer admission process, I want to share a few dynamics that can make the transfer process much more appealing for students:

  1. Some high school students need more time to grow (you know who you are).
  2. With rising costs for tuition and housing, it makes more fiscal sense for many students to attend              community college and then transfer to a four-year institution.
  3. Many high school students need more time to figure out an academic discipline they feel invested in, and often the transfer process allows them more time in identifying a specific major and/or career path.

Maturity and Becoming an Adult

I don’t know if you’ve ever met a transfer applicant, but one thing that comes across strikingly is that this student is DEFINITELY not a 17- or 18-year-old anymore. Transfer students begin taking on more responsibility after high school, whether it’s with part-time jobs, supporting family, or other responsibilities. When thrown into the “real world” after high school, these students have to become more independent and self-sufficient.

And it may be hard to believe, but after a student moves away from home, starts living more independently, or starts taking more difficult classes - they often change. And when a student’s personality, values, or community changes, do we really expect them to always agree with the choice they made at the end of an (often tumultuous) senior year of high school? No; a whole lot of change happens for students when they start college, and we should encourage these students to consider alternate pathways versus just sticking it out at their college or university if they are unhappy (only to regret the experience later).


I’ve got a bias in this one, but some colleges are TOO dang expensive (say it with me)! After going into debt during my undergraduate years, I solely focused my grad school search on Masters programs where I could work for a university, get paid, and get a tuition discount (shout out to HESA at the University of Vermont). For many students and families, they apply and are admitted to some of their top college choices, only then to realize what the financial burden or toll might be (that’s why it’s always important to really consider finances during your college search). 

Transfer pathways from community colleges help mitigate, although not entirely resolve, the cost issue of higher education. I understand that for many students and families, they want the “traditional” four-year experience. But let’s face it, that’s a pretty outdated societal norm - and more and more students are starting to realize and challenge that status quo. No one ever asks you, “Hey, where did you attend college for your first two years?” They typically ask, “Where did you graduate from and what year?” 

Although I think the best cost-saving option is to transfer from a community college to a four-year university, there are students who find themselves at their four-year institution after high school only then to realize the depth of the debt they are accruing (whether through student loans or realizing that their part-time job isn’t actually paying for all of tuition). Students and families who recognize how costly their college degree is adding up should pause and pivot rather than just take out more student loans. Read up here on the negative life impacts of student loan debt - it’s terrifying!

Major/Degree Choice

We know that it’s not what you study, but what you do during college that matters. Yet, the societal pressure on young people to figure out their academic interests beforehand is impacting how they engage with the four-year college process. When determining a student’s likelihood of admission to a specific college for a particularly competitive major, I sometimes have to ask a student, “Well, would you rather be admitted to this university/college or do you want to prioritize the major you’re interested in?” This conversation feels especially unfair to the students who may not have had access to specific curriculum around some of higher education’s most competitive degree programs (i.e. engineering, business, nursing, etc). 

A positive aspect of the transfer process is giving students time. They can take 1-2 years to pursue coursework they’ve never had access to, and it will allow them to refine their academic interests. Once they’ve focused on those interests, they can be even more intentional with their college search to ensure the university or college they hope to transfer to will meet their academic needs and career (or post-secondary education) goals.

End of rant

Although my above thoughts and musings might sound like a new way to look at things, there are plenty of students already navigating their own transfer process. As of Fall 2022, there were over 1.2 million undergraduate students who had transferred to their college or university (kudos to LaSean Price for highlighting this statistic on the Georgia Tech admissions blog). This isn’t a new topic of conversation, and colleges and universities have been developing transfer student resources slowly over time. I still find myself being caught off guard when I have students and/or families asking about the transfer admission process. Mostly because I welcome the conversation (and often encourage it), but I know I can do a better job of normalizing these discussions about the transfer process since so many of our students are already pursuing it or considering it. Don’t let the norms of higher education hold you back from asking, “Is the transfer process best for me and my journey towards higher education?”


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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