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Can you transfer into top colleges from a lower ranked school?

Things to know about this college transfer admissions strategies…

As a long-term university employee and the parent of a college student, I have often seen parents adopt an application strategy of starting students off at a less competitive college on the assumption that they can transfer to a better one. The goals are often to save money and/or improve their academic performance and admissions chances. Does this admissions strategy really work?

First: Transfer policies vary from college to college, and some have more selective admissions.

While saving money at a time of economic uncertainty is understandable, families should be aware that admissions prospects for transfers still depend on the selectivity of a school’s admissions. In short, a state university or private college with moderate admissions standards may be accessible from a school with lower standards, but the most competitive ones probably won’t be. For instance, Williams ranked number one among national liberal arts colleges in 2010 by US News and World Report admitted 20% of applicants overall, but only 13% of its transfer applications. Yale which was number three among national universities accepted 9% of applicants overall, but only 4% of transfer applicants. Attrition rates are low at the most selective institutions freeing up few slots for aspiring transfer students. In contrast, Lewis and Clark, a liberal arts school accepted 65% of applicants overall and 44% of transfers in 2010 and the University of Iowa had an overall admissions rate of 83% and 69% for transfer students.

Second: A transfer strategy can still be justified if finances leave no options and grades/test scores need to be improved.

Two circumstances can justify a “get in first” and “transfer later” strategy. If finances are short, and student aid and loans can’t be found to bridge that college transition, one may have little choice but to initially apply to a less expensive and less competitive school. Keep in mind, however, that the most competitive schools in admissions are often the wealthiest with the best financial aid programs. Moreover, a grade point average or test scores which need to be improved may require an initial prioritization of less rigorous schools. Test preparation services, while taking courses or during a vacation break may be in order, prior to new applications.

Third: There is no substitute for early college financial planning and attention to grades/test scores earlier, than later.

Seed money for a college fund should be established as early in a child’s life as possible. Academic discipline and a consciousness of the joys of achievement should be imbued at the beginning of schooling so that they are second nature by the time high school rolls around. Find a reputable private college counseling and test preparation service as early as middle school to map out a plan to maximize your child’s academic potential.


Late academic bloomers should be commended for their renewed focus and efforts. In some circumstances, a college transfer strategy may be the best application option available. The reality, however, is that the more selective the school, the less accessible and receptive it is to this group. The best approach is to get on the academic fast track and stay there, despite the challenges, thereby making a transfer strategy unnecessary.

David Dickson is a college admissions counselor with Top Test Prep. Top Test Prep offers private tutoring and admissions experts who can help you gain admission to your top schools.
Call (800) 501-Prep to learn more.

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