Applying to college as a transfer student (particularly one from a service academy) is, to put it frankly, straight up not a good time. It's time consuming, nerve-wracking, and expensive. The acceptance rates are typically even lower than the freshmen acceptance rates, yay! Since the experience is fresh in my brain, I figured I'd put together a collection of things I wish I'd known when I started this process. Cadets leave at many different points in the experience; in terms of transfer applications, the biggest potential difference is just whether you apply to other schools while still enrolled or if you outprocess first. Differences can also arise depending on your class year, separation status, and academic standing. I tried to keep the advice relatively general, but it is strongly based on my own experience. I voluntarily outprocessed after 2 full years while in good standing before beginning the transfer process. (If interested about my decision process check out my post Leaving West Point.) If possible, I would recommend applying to transfer before outprocessing because then you will have all your options before making your final decision.
Table of Contents
If you are still in the process of outprocessing or are about to leave the academy there are a few things you should do outside the checklist they make you complete:
- Get the contact info for the instructors you would like to write your letters of recommendation. Make sure you get their .mil e-mail address or some other permanent form of communication just in case they PCS during the year (I lost one of my writers because of this RIP). Also, it is nice to mention to them that you are leaving and that you are planning on asking for their recommendation. Speaking with them in person will also allow you to gauge whether they understand your decision and give you the opportunity to tell them your reasoning/plans. Most private colleges will require 2 to 3 letters of recommendation and some have further requirements about which subjects they want the letters from.
- Download/Screenshot information from CIS before you get your laptop wiped at Goldcoats.
- Back up your e-mail and all your important files to a harddrive before you get your laptop wiped.
- Track down syllabi for ALL courses on your transcript. Preferably from the semester you took the course. Some of these are very difficult to find and it is much much harder once you leave the academy. Each department usually has someone that can help you out; if you don't know who to contact ask the registrar and they will point you in the right direction. Syllabi are typically necessary to have your courses evaluated for transfer credit/grad requirement fulfillment.
- Keep original samples of your writing with grades/annotations from your instructor. Some programs will ask for graded writing samples.
- Write a document about why you are leaving and what your thoughts are about it. I called mine the "Comprehensive Why" and I referenced it heavily throughout the application process as I wrote my essays. If you ever doubt yourself after leaving, it is also a powerful reminder of why you made the decision you did.
I severely underestimated the difficulty I would have in selecting the colleges I would eventually apply to. I ultimately applied to 15 (yes, 15) schools because I couldn't narrow down my list and I was so terrified of not getting accepted/not being able to afford a good program. (To be fair, 7 out of the 15 were the UCs and only took one application).
Main factors I considered when deciding which colleges to apply to:
- Selectivity in desired major
- Reputation/ranking of school in desired major
- Eligibility criteria
- Location of school
- Price of school/financial stuff
As a transfer student, especially at the junior level, you will most likely be applying to a specific major/program within a college. This means that the typical acceptance rates probably do not apply, which makes it difficult to gauge whether a school is a "safety," "target," or "reach." Some schools report statistics about transfer acceptance rates, but, again, they rarely break those statistics down by major. Additionally, many public universities give a preference to in-state community college students which may account for the majority of transfer applicants. For example, I applied to UW Seattle as a computer science major and was ultimately denied. In general, UW Seattle is not a very selective school (about 50% acceptance rate), but its computer science program accepts <5% of direct admission transfer applicants and gives a preference to Washington State residents (which I am not).
In terms of screening by reputation/ranking of school I used websites like niche.com to find specialized lists like "Best Computer Science Programs." I don't think these lists are perfect and reputation/ranking are not the most important factors, but they are a pretty good proxy for how selective that major will be. I did my best to select a few from the super selective end (Stanford, MIT, CMU, UC Berkeley) to the middle (Brown, UIUC, Georgia Tech, UW Seattle, UCLA, USC) to the ones slightly less known for CS (other UCs). There are so many great schools, but using a list like this can help make sure your applications are spread over a range of selectivity based on your specific major of choice.
Eligibility criteria. Ugh. This is the worst and most confusing factor. Most private schools don't have these because they get applicants from around the country. Public schools, on the other hand, are primarily catering to in-state community college students and they are much more bureacratic and rigid. Each school has eligibility criteria for what it takes to be an eligible transfer student and what courses your major requires you to take before you apply. The requirements normally correlate to courses offered at community colleges in your state. You can use West Point classes to fulfill these requirements, but it is usually impossible to get a certain answer on whether your classes will be accepted for those requirements until after you are accepted.
Rant alert, skip to next paragraph if you aren't interested in my anger at the University of California system. This is the main reason I applied to most of the UCs: they all had different prerequisite recommendations for computer science and no one would evaluate my transcript, so I gave up on trying to figure it out and applied to most of them. I also took an English class at a local community college to fulfill another UC eligibility requirement. The UC system made me want to pull my hair out. They are also the only schools with application deadlines in November even though they still don't notify you until April. I also didn't apply to any CSU schools because I was missing an "Oral Communications" course and I was not willing to take a freaking speech class to just apply to one or two schools. Anyways, rant over.
The other eligibility criteria that could potentially be an issue is the number of credit hours you have taken. Some schools have minimum and maximum numbers of credit hours for eligibility as a transfer applicant. I only had this issue with a few schools and it wasn't a major problem. For instance, I couldn't apply to UC Merced or UC Davis because I had too many credits.
My last two criteria were location and price. I gave a preference to schools in CA when possible, but didn't rule out amazing programs because of their location. It also helped as a tie-breaker for similar programs. For instance, UT Austin and UW Seattle are both out-of-state, public universities with similar CS programs, but I chose to apply only to UW Seattle because I liked the location better. Price was a little more complicated factor and it will depend on your family's financial situation. I basically applied to a variety of different schools because, at the time, I was uncertain how financial aid would apply to me. I applied to private and public schools both in and out-of-state. More on this in the Financial Stuff section.
- Start researching schools/programs.
- Take any standardized tests that you are missing/want to improve on. (SAT/SAT Subject Tests/ACT)
- Make sure you are on track to meet all pre-requisites.
- The University of California applications are due in November. Make sure you submit on time.
- Submit your FAFSA.
- Finalize list of schools.
- Contact letter of recommendation writers and give them a timeline for when to complete their letters and instructions on how to do so.
- Give yourself a timeline for when to finish and submit your applications.
- Check financial aid requirements and deadlines. Start submitting as necessary.
- Send required test scores/transcripts if official scores are required.
- Follow up with letter writers.
- Finish financial aid applications.
- Write/polish your essays.
- Submit applications.
Before getting into financial aid information, I just briefly wanted to mention how expensive the application process is. Expect to pay $50-$80 per school in application fees. The CSS profile (financial aid form) also costs $25 for the first school and $16 for every additional school. Sending official transcripts costs about $5. Sending SAT scores costs about $12 per school. Sending ACT scores costs $12 per test per school plus an archive fee of $25 per test if you took the test more than 2 years ago (yay!). If you have to rush the delivery it is even more expensive, so do not wait!
Applying to financial aid is sort of confusing because upon leaving West Point you are officially a veteran in the U.S. government's eyes. I honestly didn't completely understand how the process would work until I went through it. You will be given a form called a DD214 that confirms your veteran status. (If you are applying while still a cadet, then you will not be considered a veteran.) Because of this status, former cadets are considered independent students and do not report their parents' financial information on the FAFSA. Depending on your parents' financial situtation, this most likely means you will get more federal student aid. Federal aid, however, does not usually come close to covering the full cost of attendance. Schools make up the difference with their own institutional funds or scholarships.
Public schools typically only require you to submit the FAFSA and will then give you an award package based on your estimated need as an independent student. (This was at least my experience with most of the public schools I applied to.) Some public universities also require supplemental financial aid applications. The University of California system also requires that you apply for a Cal Grant, for instance. (I do not have all the details on that process because I decided on Stanford before completing it.) Just be very deliberate about checking all of the requirements and submitting the forms as accurately as you can.
Private schools, however, also require you to submit the CSS Profile which is operated through the CollegeBoard. It typically still requires you to enter your parents' financial information and it is ultimately up to the college to determine whether you should be considered independent or dependent for the purpose of institutionally funded financial aid.
Last note, former service academy attendees do not qualify for VA Education benefits like the G.I. Bill as far as I can tell (I never found the official regulations, but only other people's experiences). This makes sense to me since attending a service academy is basically free college, but the terminology gets really confusing and service academy "veterans" are in a grey area so I thought I would add what I know here. I have heard stories of dropouts getting benefits, but it sounded to me a bit like gaming the system so I did not attempt to pursue the issue further.
Some resources to get you started:
- FAFSA Independency Status Details
- Niche College Rankings
- UC Transfer Acceptance Rates by Major
- College Transfer Acceptance Rates
If you made it this far, hats off to you. This article turned into a monster. The transfer application process is difficult, but manageable. Be diligent, be positive, and it will work out. If you have other questions feel free to reach out.
My e-mail is laurabauman12 [at] gmail [dot] com.
Or shoot me a message on LinkedIn.