So You Didn’t Get Into Your Dream School. Now What?

Note: a version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.

It’s that time of year again! Freshman students all around the country are packing their bags, purchasing mini-fridges for their dorm rooms, and picking courses for their very first semester at college. For many, it’s a time of excitement and exploration. Yet for others, especially those who didn’t get accepted into their dream schools, things don’t look quite so rosy.

If you’re one of the many, many students entering college this fall who aren’t satisfied with their educational path to date, don’t lose hope. For one, there’s a strong possibility you’ll thrive at your current school. But if you’re convinced your path to success lies at another institution that can better meet your needs, there’s a way to get there: intentional transfer.

Transferring between colleges is more common than you might think. While many freshmen go into college thinking they’re locked in for the next four years, the fact is that 37% of college students transfer at least once.

And colleges across the United States are actively looking for transfer students, with more than two-thirds of four-year admissions officers saying that transfer students have become “significantly important” in meeting enrollment goals.

It’s important to remember that transfer is not a sign of failure. Students transfer from one school to another for a variety of reasons: some because it’s cheaper to start earning credits at community college, others because they’ve realized their current college isn’t a great fit, and still others because they need to build a stronger academic profile to get into their dream schools. Some students don’t even realize their true potential until they’re a few years into college. None of these reasons have anything to do with failure.

Keep in mind that Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, Steven Spielberg, and Eileen Collins — the first female commander of the Space Shuttle — were all transfer students. What these remarkable people recognized is that a pre-transfer college could be a launching pad for their educational paths, just like it can be for yours.

So, what is a student (or parent or advisor working with them) to do when their dream schools reply to their applications with thin envelopes instead of thick ones?

Here’s some advice on how to map out a well-planned, intentional path to transferring to your dream school:

  • Think long and hard about short- and long-term goals: Are you aiming for a bachelor’s degree, a master’s or a doctorate? What degrees and certifications will you need to achieve your career and leadership goals? And what academic and extracurricular experiences are going to lead to your full development?
  • Establish a list of safety, target and reach transfer schools: Base your decisions on your goals and your own analysis of what each school can offer you. Do online research, reach out to admissions staff, and visit prospective transfer schools in person (if possible) to build an informed list.
  • Fully engage with your current college: In addition to taking advantage of extracurriculars and leadership opportunities, you’ll want to start talking to your professors and advisors about transfer. Through these conversations, you might find out your current college has everything you need to succeed. If transfer is the best option for you, you’ll need good relationships to get outstanding letters of recommendation. Don’t treat your current college as a place you’re just passing through.
  • Be deliberate about which courses you take and get excellent grades in them:There’s no better way to show a transfer college that you’re a good candidate for admissions than getting great grades. For your own benefit, make sure the courses you take are transferable. Usually, college-level math, English and liberal arts courses transfer well, while career-focused or major-specific courses do not.
  • Aim as high as you can: While many community colleges and schools in large public college systems have articulation agreements, or even guaranteed admissions, don’t get distracted from applying to reach schools. Even highly selective schools will accept many or all of your credits, keeping you on track to graduate as fast as possible.
  • Be smart about financial aid: This is extremely important if, like many college students, you or your family are finding paying for college to be a challenge. Many low- or mid-income, first-generation or nontraditional students have additional challenges, like family responsibilities to deal with or difficulty accessing information about financial aid. Here’s one of the most important things to keep in mind as you plan to transfer: if you qualify for Federal Pell Grants, you have a limited number of semesters (12 maximum, or about 6 years of school) to receive them.
  • Take steps to alleviate “transfer shock” when you get to your new school: To understand what faculty and staff will expect of you at your transfer school, reach out to them ahead of time. You’ll also want to find out if there is a transfer admissions person on campus and communicate directly with them, as not every admissions staff member is an expert on transfer admissions.
  • If possible, plan to transfer at the start of a new academic year (fall) rather than mid-year (spring): Incoming freshmen should plan to be at their pre-transfer school for a year (24-30 credits) in order to give transfer schools a good look at their college-level performance. In addition, there are usually more transfer spots orientations and programs available in fall semesters compared to spring semesters.

Woven through all of this advice, you can see the common thread of following a well-researched, intentionally executed plan. Your plan will mean the difference between a failed or costly transfer and a successful, efficient one.

There’s no getting around the fact that for many students, beginning college at a school that wasn’t their top choice can be disheartening. Yet with the right outlook and a plan for intentional transfer, you can turn your disappointment into an opportunity. Reassess your strengths and areas of development, thrive at your current school, and map out a transfer path to the school of your dreams.

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