Unhappy with your college? Here’s how to find a better one

Syracuse University (Photo:syracuse.edu)

It was about this time in September – my first month in college many years ago – when I realized I had picked the wrong school. Some recently arrived undergraduates are having similar thoughts now, in part because of confusion linked to the pandemic.

There is an obvious solution: transfer somewhere else. That may sound scary and hard. But it worked for me and many others. It is an option experts say can bring benefits even in these changing times.

The well-regarded small private college I went to right after high school had a program for future diplomats. I liked that. I wanted to be the U.S. ambassador to China. With a wave from my laid-back parents, I got on a bus and arrived at the lovely hillside campus. I had great confidence in my future there.

Unfortunately, at an introductory tea given by the head of the diplomacy program, that prominent former State Department official revealed he had little idea how to motivate first-year college students. Instead of describing the intriguing courses he had for us, he spent several minutes scolding us for not replying formally, as a good diplomat should, to his invitation to that gathering.

The emphasis on etiquette seemed wrong. I no longer wanted to be in a program run by that guy, so I went looking for another college. That search gave me a much better grasp of what I was after. I am still astonished at how clueless I was when I was a senior in high school, but that’s not unusual even today.

Transferring is an adventure in self-discovery, and a way to make yourself more attractive to university admissions offices than you were when you first applied. Transfer applicants have “a better understanding of what they are seeking in a college, such as a particular major or social aspect that their current one does not match,” said Thomas J. Jaworski, an independent college counselor based in suburban Chicago.

Many students today want another try. “The transfer market is thriving,” said Jon Reider, a California-based admission adviser.

There is much free time in a college freshman’s day. If dissatisfied students research their best transfer targets, rather than drown their sorrows in local social activities, they can acquire vital information. They can also ponder, free from the parental and peer group pressures of high school, what field of study fits them best.

Experts say the most common reasons students give for wanting to transfer are picking the wrong school (as I did), changing their major, finding their current school doesn’t provide enough in their major or wanting to upgrade to a more prestigious campus.

Colleges understand the importance of attracting good transfers. They usually have at least one counselor specializing in helping people apply from other colleges. Candidates are more likely to be successful if they can show that school has something important that their current school does not have.

I made a point of telling the university I applied to that it offered Chinese language courses while the college I was attending did not. I still don’t understand why I didn’t notice that before. Like many 17-year-olds, I was eager and impatient and often didn’t think things through.

John Leddo, a Virginia-based college consultant who emphasizes careers, finds his young clients are deeply ignorant of what colleges offer. “One question I ask students who tell me their dream school is: ‘Can you name one professor who teaches in the XYZ department of that school?’ The answer is always no. I follow up with: ‘Can you name one project that people in the XYZ department are working on?’ Again, the answer is no.”

“Computer Science for instance is a major open for interpretation,” Jaworski said. “Some colleges have a thorough, in-depth study of CS, with different concentrations (cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, game design, etc.), while others will teach students the basic theories and fundamentals.” Careful examination of college strengths and weaknesses may even reveal that the college you are attending is by comparison better than you thought.

Reider, who has been a private high school head college counselor and an admissions officer at Stanford University, said the difficulty of transferring, like admissions in general, depends on the selectivity and size of the schools. “Easy to do at big state schools, harder at small liberal arts colleges, which have little space,” he said, and very hard at the Ivies.

Another facet of transfer admissions these days “is bringing diverse life experiences to the class,” Reider said. “At Stanford this means veterans, adults with work experience, community college students.”

A transfer candidate focusing on specific schools can create a favorable impression just by asking questions. “I always tell students to find the professors they want to work with and communicate with them beforehand to see if professors are willing to mentor students and let them in the labs,” Leddo said. An intelligent inquiry into a researcher’s specialty can improve admission chances. The professor may call the admission office about a brilliant applicant who could be a fine (and cheap) addition to his research team.

I didn’t do anything like that. I may have mentioned that I was developing an interest in journalism, and that my target school had a daily student newspaper while the college I was attending did not. I would have sought other colleges my sophomore year if the school I applied to freshman year hadn’t taken me.

We transfers are fairly common. We represent about a third of students who graduate from four-year schools. We include John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, transfer enrollments overall dropped 16 percent the last two years. Transfers from one four-year school to another dropped only slightly during that period, however.

The fluidity of the American higher education system is here to stay. I am not talking just about the transfer craze sweeping college football. There are many options even for us nonathletes. You may have been dumb, like me, in your first choice of school or maybe just unlucky.

Keep trying. Figuring out what you want, and doing your research, will likely get you where you need to go.



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