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Application Tips From a Transfer

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Isabella Rocco

PHS '19, UPenn '23

My entire senior spring, I was looking forward to May 1st. May 1st, or National College Decision Day, is the acceptance deadline of almost every university across the country. At Parsippany High School, seniors celebrate this momentous occasion and the end of the exhausting college process by wearing their college gear to school. I was among these proud and relieved seniors last spring as I sported my light-blue Johns Hopkins University crew neck through the halls. On that day, there is this conclusive feeling to things that does not reflect the reality many college hopefuls ultimately face. More than a quarter of college students elect to transfer and I, despite my confidence on decision day, ended up being one of them and transferring to the University of Pennsylvania.

When I first decided to transfer, I had no clue how different the process would be from senior year nor how to strategically navigate it. I want to share what I learned along the way to make anyone exploring this route feel informed and comfortable. First, I want to be candid about what it feels like working on a transfer application while you’re in college. It can be lonely, daunting, and confusing in ways that your traditional process was not. Senior year, I was working on college applications at the same time as nearly all of my peers. We shared our ambitions, awaited decisions together, and all knew we were leaving for college—we just did not know where yet. Applying transfer from JHU, I was a part of a minuscule minority. JHU happens to have a stellar retention rate of around 98%, but even at schools with lower rates, there are more students planning on and excited to stay than actively arranging to leave. It can be lonely to confront the fact that most people around you found a fit in a place where you did not. You very well might be one of the only ones attending information sessions, retaking your standardized tests, signing up for Common App and scanning College Confidential forums so prepare yourself for how that might feel. It is critical to keep perspective and remind yourself that everyone has their own interests, needs, and objectives. Yours might not align with that school which is entirely okay.

Another thing to be aware of is how completing your application might begin to affect the lens through which you view your current school. Senior year, you start your applications with ambitious and optimistic motives. As a transfer, you have these same motivations, but to a certain extent, they are also laced with disappointment or discontent. One of the main steps of applying transfer is writing the infamous Common App “Why Transfer” essay. When I decided to open an application, I thought I wanted to leave, but I also thought I might opt to stay. The very act of organizing and articulating your thoughts to write this essay will be powerful for many of you. Writing mine was unexpectedly easy and coherent. The process of translating my feelings into an application brought me from considering transferring to being confident it was the right call. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of progression, but be vigilant about how you let the process affect your remaining time on campus. You do not want your decision to apply elsewhere to inhibit you from taking advantage of your current institution’s resources, applying to clubs, and meeting friends. You also do not have to dislike everything about your school just because you choose to leave which can be hard to remember during a process that tends to pull its worst features to light. My best advice is to make decisions as if you are not leaving even if you might and to deliberately remind yourself of the parts of your experience you enjoy.

Another feature that distinguishes the transfer application experience is the lack of easily accessible information. At Parsippany High School, I had some of the most helpful counselors guiding me from as early as sophomore year. My mom had been tirelessly researching schools for me, taking me on visits, and supporting my endeavors before college was even on my mind. When I decided to transfer from Hopkins, this was not the case at all. Not only did I feel like I had few people to turn to, but I also felt like there was limited information online. I want to share some things I learned about what admissions values most in applicants and point you towards helpful resources. When applying transfer to competitive schools, you obviously want to submit a GPA and test scores within the school’s general range. What you should also know, though, is that college grades, recommendation letters, and involvement are weighted much more heavily than your high school record so long as your high school record does not raise any huge red flags. Depending on the schools to which you are applying and your high school SAT/ACT scores, you may or not find it prudent to retake your tests; that will be a personal decision.

Having established you are qualified, however, the process is much more about fit and filling in a niche than about the difference between a 3.8 and a 3.9 GPA or a 33 and a 34 ACT. The idea of a holistic review is not merely a slogan and this is especially the case for transfers. Your application is, to a large extent, an argument and your essays are some of the most powerful outlets you have to make it a compelling one. The Common App “Why Transfer” essay as well as most institutions’ supplementary prompts are nothing like the narrative and flowery essays from your senior year. These essays generally have nothing to do with that service trip that changed your life nor the biggest obstacle you’ve faced—at least that was the case for Penn. You are making the two-pronged argument that your current school does not fulfill your needs and goals and that your future one will. Help the admissions officer visualize you at that school and what you will contribute to it. What is unique about what you bring to table and why are you the student they missed out on senior year? Remember your application is argumentative at its core as you transition from the traditional process to the transfer one.

The internet is reliable for tracking admissions deadlines, researching your major at different schools, signing up for transfer specific information sessions, and even exploring some past forums, but you will find it is limited for transfer specific guidance. When I was applying, my most valuable sources of information were friends at Penn and a friend who had transferred schools. I cannot emphasize enough how important and helpful human connections and conversations are. If you know anyone who goes to a school of interest, has transferred at all, or optimally, who transferred to the school you’re applying to, connect with them. From one on one conversations, you get the honest truth, insider information about the school, and details you might not have considered. This knowledge is great in its own right as you’re considering moving your life or not, but it also improves the quality of your essays. If you do not have any of the aforementioned connections, you still have options. Check out the directory here on Parsippany College Connect and see if you can find someone at your schools of interest (preferably in your program). Additionally, search for a transfer organization at each of those same schools. Many universities that accept transfers have transfer organizations or integration programs. It is likely you will find contact information for these organizations and or their leading students through websites and social media pages. Many of them would be thrilled to hear about your interest and eagerly connect you to a transfer in your prospective major. Upon acceptance, these contacts can also be helpful to gain insight into what your transition would entail.

With this deeper understanding of the institution to which you are applying and what your experience might look like upon accepting an offer, it is significantly easier to make compelling arguments, the importance of which I’ve already warranted. In my essays, I cited which programs, community characteristics, resources, and other changes would make my transfer worthwhile. Insights, anecdotes, visits, and research helped me craft essays explaining more than simply what I liked about Penn. Because of my research and connections, my application aligned my values and vision with Penn’s, portraying a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and benefits.

I’ll never know what exactly put my application into the accepted pile, but I do still think my advice will help you make your way through a process that is seldom talked about. Sometimes, you change your mind and that is okay. Deciding to uproot your life all over again, whether it is to make yourself happier or to pursue new opportunities, takes a lot of courage. You might find yourself feeling out of touch, doubtful, frustrated, or impatient throughout the application process. I felt that way too and I hope you learn to take these challenges that might arise in stride. My road to Penn was winding and nontraditional, but looking back on the friends I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned over this past year, I could not imagine things any other way.

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