5 Kinds of Transfer Students

I am obsessed with learning the reasons why people transfer to a new college. Any transfer will tell you that everybody’s reasons are different, everyone’s educational journey is different. But I’ve been trying to find some patterns.

I transferred from a small liberal arts college to a small, more selective, liberal arts college. I went from going to school in the city next to where I grew up to a school in an odd suburb 90 minutes away. In the two years I spent at Wesleyan, my second school,  I met tons of other transfers and heard about why they transferred (or at least the prepared five second half-lie that they tell to people). From all the people I met, I noticed five distinct kinds of transfer students. Some of these types are specific to small liberal arts colleges, some are specific to Wesleyan, but I’m sure you’ve met these transfers are your school, too.

1. Big City, Big Problems

Did you go to BU, NYU, or GW and hate it? This is you! At Wesleyan there was a large group of students from these schools in particular. They thought they wanted to go to a great school in a big city and experience all that an urban campus has to offer, only to feel isolated and overwhelmed in a big school with a less than cohesive campus community. Many people I know went to these schools with specialized majors like journalism or engineering and then found they didn’t like it as much as they had hoped. Wesleyan’s combination of suburban campus and ultra-liberal-arts was the exact opposite, which drew them in.

2. Movin’ On Up

This is the category that I probably fall into. These transfers started off going to a less-selective college for a variety of reasons (money, health problems, less-than-stellar high school experiences) and then after one or two years there, they transferred to Wesleyan. Many went to their local state universities or a regional college near their hometown. Wesleyan also has a program where they recruit high-achieving community college students to transfer; this is the category that those students fall into as well. If this is you, get ready for the occasional snide comments about your old college (I once told another transfer where I used to go to school and his immediate response was “ugh!”). These kinds of transfer students are much more common at larger schools, but at Wesleyan it was more rare.

3. Too Far Away

The classic: from New York, went to school in California, needed to be closer to home. Going to school closer to home has a lot of perks; I’ve heard enough horror stories of being stuck at O’Hare or BWI to know that going to school within driving distance of my home town makes a lot of sense. Logistics are infinitely simplified; moving out at the end of the semester can be done in an afternoon without coordinating weeks in advance with a storage company. And if there’s some kind of emergency, being geographically close to family is invaluable. Some of these transfers originally went to a far-away school with a large commuter culture, which can be really isolating. Often times this is combined with transferring to a more selective school.

4. Intra-NESCAC

This kind of transfer is the most bewildering to me. The NESCAC is the athletic conference that Wesleyan is in, but also somewhat describes a certain level and type of Northeast liberal arts college. I met a lot of people who were transfers from Connecticut College and those schools up in Maine, Colby and Bates, in particular. The Maine transfers somewhat fit in to the “Too Far Away” category, especially since those schools are so far away from major airports. But the big issue for these transfers is campus culture. Wesleyan is portrayed as selective but with a more fun, liberal, ‘diverse’, student body, while other NESCACs seem more conservative and old-money. I personally think that the differences between these schools are smaller than they seem, but hey, you do you.

5. I Need a Fresh Start

People who fall into this category are probably the most likely to fib about why they transferred. Maybe they didn’t click with a good group of friends at their old college and just knew that it wasn’t going to work out. Maybe they experienced some kind of trauma and needed to leave the physical space of their old school. Maybe they got stuck in a major they changed their mind about and wouldn’t be able to switch. Transferring feels like a fresh start in many regards and that’s what many people are seeking when they go through the trouble of filling out the entire CommonApp again.


At other colleges, particularly state universities, money plays a much larger factor in the decisions of incoming transfers. Meanwhile, Wesleyan, along with many other liberal arts schools, has never been need-blind for transfer students and there is often limited aid available for that very expensive tuition, especially if you transfer in the spring. That creates a very different group of transfer students on campus.

Every transfer’s story feels intensely personal and specific, especially during that first semester at the new school when everyone they meet uses “Why did you transfer?” as casual small-talk (before asking if you knew every random person from their high school who went to your old school). But there are overarching reasons that cause people to leave one college for another, and finding your place in that narrative can create some sense of community in a time of wild transition. Whether you transferred up or just needed a fresh fresh start, I hope your transfer story has a happy ending.


One comment

  1. Jay Colby · April 12, 2016

    This was an amazing post!


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