Should I Transfer Schools?: An Insider’s Perspective was originally published on Firsthand.
As we enter into the new year, it’s only natural that we start taking stock of where we find ourselves. We ask ourselves if the past year was a good one for us, if this coming one will be better, and if we’re happy with where we are in life—deep questions in the deep winter.
It was around this time in 2013 that I looked at myself and realized that I wasn’t happy. At all, hardly ever. I was a sophomore in college, studying what I loved in a great city, and I went home to Illinois in December like it was for a funeral instead of Christmas. I’d tanked my semester, been hit with a flu so bad it ended up giving me asthma (forever—there’s still an inhaler in my purse), I didn’t talk much to my friends, and pretty much everything but watching Netflix was exhausting. It will probably not surprise you that, upon seeing a psychiatrist, I was told that I was dealing with one of the myriad forms of depression.
Things are a lot better now, six years later. I’m a better-adjusted, happier person. I can attribute this to a multitude of things, but perhaps the one thing that really helped me was transferring schools. I finished out the year at my school, then transferred to a small liberal arts school in my hometown. One of my best friends from high school was there, it’s close to my family (but not too close—about a 20-minute drive), and it has a great English department. At that point, transferring someplace I felt supported was the best thing I could do to sort out my mental health.
If you really are unhappy at your school, I get it. And let me be the first to assure you: it’s okay. I promise. Going to your dream school and living it up for four awesome years with no hiccups is an ideal—it’s what parents and guidance counselors tell you your college experience should be like, because they want the best for you. But it’s not the real-life experience of a lot of people. So if you dread heading back for spring semester, let me give you a few things to consider.
Is it really the school?
I didn’t hate my first college. I had so many incredible experiences there that I couldn’t have had anywhere else, and I’ve never once regretted going. My problem was that I didn’t have a support system, which wasn’t necessarily because of the school—but it did mean that I had to leave the school in order to address the problem. If you’re unhappy in your current situation, take a good, long look at yourself and ask, “Is it really the school that’s got me down?” Because if it’s something deeper than that, moving schools probably isn’t going to help much—your problems will just follow you to your new campus. When considering a transfer, your first step is honest introspection, to see from where your problems stem.
What is it about the school?
My first undergrad school was enormous—just shy of 34,000 students. In theory I liked the idea of a hefty English department and countless social opportunities. But in practice, I felt myself slipping through the cracks. It was just too big for me. The school I transferred to is just over 2,000 students. The smaller class size gave me the opportunity to really get to know my classmates and professors, rather than competing for attention and engagement. So spend some time trying to pinpoint what it is about the school that’s making you want to transfer—is your major/department not satisfying your study goals? Is the balance of social interaction to learning not what you need? If you can nail down the one or two things that really turn you off from your current school, it will help you make a better decision when it comes to picking where to transfer to. For example, if your department is small and underfunded at your current school, picking a school with more substantial funding for that program could be a potential choice.
What are the next steps?
I had an ideal transition between my two schools—because I took the time to research where I was going. I knew there were certain cultural aspects that I wanted. But I also took a deep dive into various universities’ credit transfer policies—my transfer school actually counted their credits in the same way that my first school did, making my transition all the easier (and letting me finish in four years, which doesn’t always happen for transfers).
I would advise you to pick a few places you think you like, and get in contact with an advisor at each school—ideally in the department you’d like to study with. Make an appointment to chat about how your credits might transfer, what the program requirements are, and any other transfer policies the school might have. Pro tip: gen eds will likely transfer more easily than major requirements. You may end up having to repeat classes/subjects (I’ve taken more British Lit classes than most English majors because of transfer credit idiosyncrasies), so it might take more than four years to finish your degree. This is normal for transfers—it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong, but it’s something to keep in mind as you make decisions about the process, particularly as it concerns your financials.
Do I have any special circumstances?
I mentioned this at the start, but my grades at my first undergrad were in a steady decline for the two years I was there. In fact, after my last semester, they notified me that I had been put on academic probation. Not a great way to go shopping for a transfer school. So after submitting my (lackluster) transfer application, I wrote a letter to the dean of admissions—on paper, in an envelope, in what I hoped he would interpret as a classy move. I explained my situation, the steps that I was taking to improve it, and expressed my resolve to get a fresh start and apply myself. My acceptance letter came with a handwritten note from the dean, saying that he hoped that my now-alma-mater could provide the fresh start I was looking for. I knew then that I’d made the right choice in changing schools.
I can’t say that this strategy will work for everyone—but if you’re looking to transfer and perhaps aren’t the ideal candidate on paper, reaching out personally to someone in the admissions department might be a step to take. Being a real person to someone rather than an application on their desk can work wonders
Transferring schools is hard—I’m not here to tell you it’s a seamless process. There were a lot of challenges in the day-to-day of the process, be it paperwork snafus or my new roommates telling me that I pronounced the name of the school wrong (I still do—no shame). But for me, it was absolutely worth it. At the time I felt like I was running away from my problems. But in retrospect, it was one of the smartest things I’ve done. If you’re miserable at school and think that it might be best to try your luck elsewhere, trust your instincts and give transferring some consideration this coming semester.