Here’s a breakdown of all the items any student (whether coming from a community college or a four-year school) may need to apply to transfer. The major exception to these guidelines are community college students interested in transferring to a public university in their own state. Those students should check out our state transfer guides, that outline specific, state-by-state requirements students can fulfill to improve their chance of (and in some cases, guarantee) admission.
We’ll describe each item briefly below, along with a description of how much time you should devote to each, and when. The first four items—the application, personal essay, college report/transcript, and the financial aid documents—should be required no matter what school you want to transfer to. The other items (letters of recommendation and test scores) may or may not be required depending on the school and your situation (for example, in many cases test scores may only be required if you’re applying to enter as a sophomore).
Application/Common Application (commonapp.org)
What is it: This is what most people think of when they think of an application. It asks for your basic information (name, address, etc.), information about your family, extracurricular activities, and so on. The majority of the US News Top 50 schools (31 out of the 50) use the Common Application, so we provide a complete walk-through of that form in The Transfer Book. The remainder that doesn’t use the application consists mainly of state schools that have their own forms.
When to work on it: Take a look at the application of the school(s) you’re thinking of applying to right now. Although many schools prefer that you fill out the form online, the easiest way to see everything is to look at a printable version of the form here: https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/DownloadForms.aspx. It’s good for you to get a sense of what is required as early as possible. You don’t need to fill it out now, but start thinking about how you’ll fill in the blanks.
Personal essay & supplement
What is it: The personal essay that every applicant dreads. This is actually part of the application, but we like to talk about it separately, because it’s significant enough and different enough from the rest of the application that it deserves independent treatment. We tell you how to write a beautiful essay as painlessly as possible in The Transfer Book. If a school uses the Common Application, they will likely have a supplement you’ll need to fill out too in order to apply. That supplement allows the school to ask you anything they want to know that the standard application doesn’t cover.
When to work on it: Start about three months before the final application deadline. We find this provides the right urgency level needed to get it done, while also providing comfortable time to go through the necessary process of (1) getting feedback, (2) revising, and (3) repeating steps (1) and (2) (again, more on the essay later).
College Report and Transcript (and, in many cases, High School Report and Transcript)
What is it: A transcript must be turned in for each college you’ve previously attended. Often, it will have to come with a form that has to be filled out by a college official (a dean or college counselor), that will attest to the fact that you were a student of the college and weren’t subject to disciplinary action. It will also ask for a recommendation letter, so give this form to the college counselor or dean that knows you best. In most cases your high school transcript and a similar high school report will have to be submitted as well.
When to work on it: Request the transcript and form to be filled out ideally two or three months in advance of the application deadline, and definitely no later than one month before everything is due.
Financial aid forms (FAFSA, CSS, each school’s scholarship form)
What is it: No school requires it, but every single student should fill out the FAFSA. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it is by far the largest source of both grants and the best loans for students. Many schools (30 out of the 50 on the US News list) will also require that you fill out a CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile form, which provides colleges with more details than the FAFSA. Finally, a few colleges have their own aid forms that you may need to fill out, and some states may have forms to fill out to get additional aid in that particular state (for example, in California, the Cal Grant).
When to work on it: Although schools will often specify priority deadlines, you should turn in your financial aid forms as soon as possible after they become available (for the FAFSA, the new form is up January 1). You don’t need to have your and your parent’s tax returns complete before you do fill out the forms (you can estimate based on last year’s information and correct the information when you do your actual taxes later). The longer you wait, the less money will be available.
Again, the previous four items should be required for any school you apply to. The next two will be required by many, but not all.
Letter(s) of recommendation
What is it: A letter from a professor (or, in some cases, a high school teacher or work supervisor will do). Many colleges don’t require any letter of recommendation, several require one letter, and, at the high end, MIT requires three.
When to work on it: Start asking professors at little more than one month in advance of when you need their letter. It gives them enough lead-time to fit it into their very busy schedules.
What is it: Your SAT or ACT score. The requirements here vary significantly. 19 of the US News Top 50 require an SAT or ACT score, 13 require a score only if you’re applying to transfer before a certain amount of time after high school (usually if you’re trying to enter as a sophomore), five require it only if you’ve already taken a test, and ten don’t require it at all. Bottom line: make sure to check with the schools you’re interested in. Only a few schools require the results of SAT II subject tests. Additionally, if you’re a non-native speaker of English applying from abroad, you’ll most likely have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Most schools also take the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), but every school takes the TOEFL.
When to work on it: If you need to take the SAT, you should take it at least one month before the application deadline for the results to reach the school on time, and if you need to take the ACT, you can take it the month before the deadline.
Now, given all of the above information, here’s your basic, ideal timeline:
||Look at the applications, do well in school, be a leader in your passions, get to know your professors
|ASAP after Jan 1
||Complete financial aid forms
|At least three months before the deadline
||Work on your essays
|Two months to one month before the deadline
||Take the SATs/ACTs (if necessary)
|At least one month before the deadline
||Request letters of recommendation
That’s it for our brief overview of all the application items. In the coming weeks, months, and even years, we’re going to continue to write content that helps you transfer as easily as possible. If you found this post useful, please share it (it’s how ideas spread). If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions (about this post or about anything else), please leave a comment, or say something in the discussion forum! Transferweb is a new project, so we really appreciate any and all feedback.
Best of luck with the process!
(Photo: Josiah Mackenzie)