How to Transfer Into an Elite College

From recommendations to application essays
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Image courtesy of Dan Lewis/

Trying to calculate your student’s chances of gaining acceptance into an elite college or university through the transfer admissions process is about as easy as handicapping a cat race. Dartmouth College’s recent history demonstrates this truth quite well. In the last few years, the transfer admissions rate has bounced from 0.5% (in 2017) to as high as 8%, as they have accepted between a handful and two dozen students per year. 

On average, a transfer applicant to a prestigious school will face poorer odds than a typical applicant for undergraduate admission. For example, Stanford University accepts just 1.4% of transfer students versus 4.7% of freshmen. The University of Chicago takes in 5.5% of transfer applicants compared to 8.7% of regular applicants. Washington and Lee University, which admits 20% of freshman applicants, welcomed 11% of transfer wannabes in 2017, but that number has plummeted to as low as 3% in recent years. 

That being said, if your student is dead set on exiting her current institution for greener pastures, there are ways to improve her likelihood of success.

1. Get awesome freshman year grades. Simply put, if your student is looking to transfer to a competitive school, his college transcript — embryonic as it may be — needs to sparkle. If he wants to transfer as a college freshman, his high school grades — especially those from his senior year — will take center stage. Candidates who had strong SATs but poor high school grades can no longer sell their “potential.” A 1490 SAT score and college freshman year GPA of 1.9 does not paint an appetizing student profile. Even if your student is unhappy at his current school, he should put every ounce of effort into achieving stellar grades. It will be his best ticket to the campus of his dreams.

2. Procure sterling recommendations. If your student has aspirations to transfer into an elite university, chances are she stood out from the crowd in the eyes of at least one professor. In seeking letters of recommendation, your student should target faculty who took note of her eagerness to contribute to class discussions and her regular appearances at office hours for the purposes of engaging in further intellectual discussion — or her research paper that was one of the best the professor has encountered in recent memory.

3. Nail the transfer application essays. There are two main things that your student will want to highlight in a transfer admissions essay: 1) Why his prospective transfer school is a perfect fit for him; and 2) What unique attributes and talents he will bring to campus. Your student should share with his prospective new academic home what makes him attractive and unique. He should mention specific courses he is eager to take at the institution; certain distinguished professors he desires to study under; and unique clubs, activities or campus traditions that he is excited about. Advise your student to take advantage of this chance to impress admissions officers with his expansive knowledge of their institution, as well as offer a highly specific accounting of how he will spend his time there. This will separate him from the pack of similarly-qualified transfer applicants.

4. Lastly, your student should demonstrate her record of involvement on campus. It is far easier for your student to sell herself as someone who will be a contributing member of the campus community if she displayed these qualities at her previous college. Students with an eye on transferring are sometimes so focused on escaping their first institution that they fail to become involved in anything outside of the classroom, and thus miss out on valuable opportunities to demonstrate leadership and passion — the very traits needed to transfer to a prestigious school.


Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at


Categories: College Planning