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Transfer 101

Ross Jennings explains all you need to know about Transfer and how it can benefit International students

What is "transfer"? In the US, many students change, or 'transfer', from one college or university to another. Students must meet the admission requirements of the target university to do so. Just as students transfer, so do classes. Students transferring after two years at a community college, for example, can transfer most or all of their classes to the university, if they plan carefully. Almost all American universities accept transfer students.

American community colleges embody the uniquely American concept that education, including higher education, should be available for everyone. Community colleges have two major components. One is technical and professional programs leading directly to getting a job, such as secretarial training, carpentry and culinary arts. The other component consists of university transfer programs, courses for students intending to transfer to a four-year university.

Community college transfer programs essentially offer the first two years of a four-year bachelor's degree. Transfer programs usually follow the curriculum of the state's leading public university. This ensures that students transferring to universities will be able to transfer all or most of their classes to the university. Because the basic programs at most US universities are similar, students have no problem transferring to universities anywhere in America.

Transfer from a community college gives students a chance to get into a better university than they could presently. If a student can get into a top university directly, he or she should generally do so. If a student wants to get into a top university but does not presently qualify, however, community college transfer is the best way to go. American students already know this; 44% of all undergraduate students in the US are studying at community colleges.

Most universities base their transfer admission qualifications for international students on community college grades at the time of application. Some universities require TOEFL as well, but others do not, giving international transfers an English placement test upon arrival instead. The SAT or ACT is almost never required for transfer. Direct transfer agreements (DTAs, as they are known), generally apply to state residents only. Accordingly, very few universities 'guarantee' transfer to international students. At the same time, the transfer process is so standard throughout the US that transfer for holders of a community college associate degree is virtually assured, although not necessarily to the university of your choice.

Ten Transfer Tips for International Students:

  1. Transfer is easy. Almost half of all US university graduates start at a community college. In the US, the transfer system is very well established. Community college graduates are welcome at American universities. There is a wide variety of universities in the US, ranging from those with open door policies to the most competitive Ivy League schools. Transfer to noncompetitive universities is easy, but admission to the more competitive schools depends on good planning and academic performance.
  2. Target five universities. During the first year at community college, feel free to explore many different universities. Don't limit your explorations to 'name' schools only, look at big and small schools, public and private, big cities and small towns. At the beginning of your second, application year, it is time to focus. Apply to a 'dream' school, three solid desirable universities, and a backup you would actually attend if it is your only admission. Five is not a magic number, but if you apply to too many, your applications may not be of highest quality; too few, and you may lose options.
  3. Admission standards are not explicit. Transfer admission standards to US universities are not exact. Most universities do not require the SAT or ACT for transfer students. They rely mainly on grades, followed by rigor of classes taken, a personal essay, recommendations, and the 'resume', or extracurricular activities. Specialty programs, such as engineering, business and architecture, frequently have separate, additional admissions requirements. To make things even more difficult to predict, admissions standards change from year to year, depending on number of openings available and the number and quality of applicants.
  4. Contact the target schools. Getting into competitive universities requires research. 'Inside' people can be a real help. Get in touch with admissions counselors, professors in your major, and members of your national affinity group at your target universities. They will give you valuable advice, and you never know, the professor you had a long chat with might be part of the admissions committee!
  5. Plan your classes carefully. Know what classes your target universities require, and take them. Find out which students from your community college transferred to your target universities, contact them, and ask them which classes transferred and which didn't. Careful class selection can save you a term. Be sure you work closely with an advisor familiar with international student admission. For example, at Green River Community College, we have advisors who specialize in international student transfer advising specific to universities all over the US.
  6. Grades, grades, grades. The main criterion of transfer admission is your grade point average at the time of application. The first year, and usually the first term of your second year, are the critical times for you to build a high grade point average. Do it! Avoid tricks like taking easy classes; admissions committee members see right through it. Take the hard classes, work hard, and earn good grades.
  7. English counts. Many universities require TOEFL for international transfer students. Even if you are transferring to one that does not, you need good English not only to be successful in school, but to have the most career options after you graduate. Use every opportunity in and out of class to improve your English. Don't just hang out with people of your own language group. Rule of thumb: If you live in the US but answer the phone in your native language, you're probably not living enough of your life in English.
  8. Specialized majors require department admission. Universities have two forms of admission. Standard admission is to 'Arts and Sciences', the default set of majors open to all students within the university. Most humanities, social sciences and many science majors fall within 'Arts and Sciences'. High demand specialty majors, however, such as engineering, computer science and architecture, generally have their own additional admissions procedures. It is your job to find out what they are and meet them.
  9. Write your essay like a short story. Most college essays are dull, and do nothing to help a student's admission chances. Admission committee members can barely keep awake through most of them. A tight, interesting essay can make the difference between admission and rejection, particularly at a top university, so do it right. Make sure your essay has a 'story line' that runs through it,  the obstacle you overcame to go to college, the event that inspired you to commit to your major, whatever. Start with a 'hook', a surprising fact, a funny incident, something to get the reader's attention and keep it. The essay is your story. Write it like one.
  10. Build your resume. Universities, and employers, are not just interested in what you have learned, but what you can do. A student who has worked or volunteered in significant undertakings has a better chance of getting admitted than a bookworm whose only activity is walking between classes and the library. One or two sustained activities, volunteering at the legal aid clinic, for example, are generally better than listing dozens of extracurricular activities that may give the appearance of 'padding' the resume. Getting out of the classroom and into real life is good for its own sake, as well, so plan out extracurricular activities just as you would classes.

Ross Jennings is Director of International Programs at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, U.S.A. Ross received his bachelor's degree in History at University of California Santa Barbara, and earned master's degrees at Stanford, University of Washington and University of Oklahoma. He lived in the Middle East for 13 years, and has been at Green River for the last ten years.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) website gives good information about community colleges: www.aacc.nche.edu