When to Dump Your College: Transfer Mid-Year or Stick It Out?

A reader sent us an email, posing some very good questions about the college transfer journey. We got the thumbs up from her to share her situation with you just in case you’ve been wondering the same thing.

I am currently enrolled at Mercyhurst College, in Erie, PA. I am planning on transferring. Mercyhurst is on a trimester system. The first trimester would finish up at Thanksgiving time. I know I don’t like it here. I have been here since August 12th, and not once have I said to myself, “Wow, I am so glad I chose this school.” I am doing well scholastically speaking so far, but there is nothing, literally NOTHING to do socially speaking. I am from Buffalo, NY, and Erie is drastically different. I find myself very bored here, and I am not finding anything that sparks my interest.

Most (if not almost all) of the transfer students we’ve interviewed started thinking about leaving during their first semester at their first college. It’s not unusual to have these thoughts already. It took a month or two for me to realize that my first university wasn’t the best fit for me.

It’s also not uncommon to want to leave your current school because of the social setting. We forget that college is a place where you live and do your work. You’re signing away four years (that’s FOUR YEARS of your youth!) to your undergraduate career. You should be happy. That’s not to say you should transfer so that you can go to, say, the #1 party school and just hang out. Your reasoning has to be deeper than that.

It sounds like you’re doing well academically, but is there anything lacking in terms of academics at your current college?

When I was applying to schools I knew (or thought I knew) that I wanted to play soccer. Well, I am on the soccer team here and I know now that college sports are not for me. I dread going to soccer every day and I am not enjoying it at all. Also, I underestimated myself and thought I would need a smaller school to do well. And I am not from a city, so I figured that I would not be able to handle a school in a city setting. There is nothing to do in Erie, and there is hardly anything to do on campus either. This is a small Catholic school, so I realize now (a little too late!) that the social scene isn’t going to be as fun as say, Florida State (where my two best friends are). I am a very outgoing social girl and this is very strange for me being here in this setting. I feel like I need a school that’s a little bigger with more going on, on and off campus, and maybe even a school in a city setting!!

Many high school students have ideas about what they want to do in college. Then, they get to college and realize that’s not what they want at all. This shouldn’t come as a surprise! How are you supposed to know at age 17 or 18 what you want? How are you supposed to know what kind of college experience you want when you’ve never been to college? As a high school student, you don’t have a lot to go on when making your decisions about college. I hope you don’t feel alone in making this kind of “mistake.”

I know its still early, but if nothing has gotten better here yet, when will it? The problem arises here: If I know I want to transfer, should I stick out the whole year here? The trimester system makes it tough. My thoughts right now are that I should leave here after the first trimester is finished. I should stay home, work, get introductory courses out of the way at my community college, and really concentrate on making the right transfer choice. Is this not a good idea? Should I finish the year out here? I just don’t see the point in spending all the tuition money to go here if I know I’m not staying! Shouldn’t I be home, focusing on making the right choice for the college I’m transferring to? Will it look bad or will it be harder to transfer if I have transcripts from two schools (Mercyhurst and a community college)? I really need your help. I am the oldest child in my family and my parents and I are unsure of what the steps we should be taking to transfer are. I know its still early, but if the college doesn’t seem right… its not right! I have to go with my gut feeling on this. Also, shouldn’t I start the application process to these schools relatively soon? These are all hard questions and I am hoping you can give me some sense of direction.

You seem to be looking at two options:

  1. Stay at your current college for a year and then transfer
  2. Leave after your first term, go to a community college and work, and then transfer

Regardless of which option you choose, if you want to go to another school as a sophomore transfer, you need to start the application process NOW. By application process, I don’t mean that you have to fill out the forms right now, but you need to do the preliminary research, gather info, and such (stuff we’ll go into detail in our book). Many transfer applications are due March 1, which doesn’t leave you a lot of time. To help you make the decision, you should try to take a more objective look at your options by listing the pros and cons for each. As you think about the pros and cons, ask yourself:

  • Will doing this help me reach my goals in life?
  • Is this feasible?
  • Will I be happy?

Now, let’s look at the two options in detail.

Option 1: Stick it out for the year

This option is the “traditional” one for transfer students. The vast majority of transfer students we’ve interviewed took this route. (Some transfers stayed two years at their first school.) We’re very familiar with this path, since it’s what we did. This is also the “safe” route. You stay where you are, continue to work hard in school, and in the meantime, look into transferring and do what it takes to put together strong applications. There’s no sudden, drastic change of routine. If you’re determined enough and you work hard, you should be able to focus on making the right choice in your next college while continuing with your college routine.

Staying a year would give you time to establish yourself at your college and time to learn about what you want. I often ask transfer students, “Did the time you spend at your first college help to give you a better understanding of what you wanted in your next college?” The answer is almost always YES. Staying might also give you more time to get to know your instructors, from whom you will need recommendation letters. (At the same time, many students stop communicating with their professors on a regular basis once the term is over, so staying beyond one term won’t necessarily help you with building relationships with professors.)

You can stay and spend the rest of the year at your college thinking to yourself, “I can’t wait to leave. Why am I making myself miserable?” or you can say to yourself, “I’m learning so much about myself, and yes, there is light at the end of this tunnel.”

A similar argument could be made about staying at your first college for 2 full years (transferring in the fall as a junior) versus 1.5 years (transferring in the spring semester of your sophomore year).

Option 2: Leave ASAP, go to a community college and work, and then transfer

I know of three people who have transferred twice. One person went to a large university, decided to essentially drop out and go to a community college, and then transferred to William & Mary. So, it’s not completely unheard of to go to two schools before settling down (possibly at a top college, nonetheless). Finishing off the year at a community college and living at home would definitely save you a lot of money. If you choose this option, make sure you have a clear plan for the next steps and stick to that plan. Otherwise, it might be hard for you to get back on that bachelors degree track. A lot of the general requirements are similar for many schools, so some might say that it doesn’t matter where you spend your first year or two of college. From what I’ve heard and from my own experience taking summer classes at a community college, the classes are less rigorous than at four-year schools. So, you’d better do an excellent job at the community college. It would look really bad if you went to a community college and did worse than your first trimester at your first college.

Will it look bad or will it be harder to transfer if you have transcripts from two schools? I can’t give you a definitive answer to that, but I don’t see why having two transcripts will necessarily hurt your transfer application. I would say that your essay will be crucial in this case, because you’ll have to explain your decision VERY carefully and show that you did indeed make the right choice and learned from your first year. It doesn’t hurt to call up a school and ask the admissions office for their opinion. Also, if you’re going to spend a substantial amount of time working at a job while attending community college, it might even be impressive in the eyes of admissions officers, especially if you gain a lot from your job.

This option sounds like your way of “taking time off,” something that some transfers do to give themselves perspective and time to really think about what they want. One transfer student I spoke with left his university to do community service work. Meanwhile, he got his transfer applications together, and he’s now at the University of Pennsylvania. Others took time off to work for a political campaign or teach in India while applying to transfer.  Here’s a great book called Taking Time Off by Colin Hall and Ron Lieber. The book isn’t specifically about transfers, but it’s a worthwhile read for anyone interested in taking a break.

Just to conclude…

I’ve mentioned some of the advantages and disadvantages of each option, but obviously, you know your situation better than anyone else. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide.

The transfer process is not as straightforward as the freshman application process. Transfer students have taken varying paths to get to where they are. Knowing how other transfers have navigated through their journeys can help you make the road less bumpy (that’s why such a big part of our book will be based on stories directly from transfer students!). But there’s one thing all the people we’ve interviewed have in common: they don’t regret their decision to transfer. We certainly don’t.

Please leave a comment with your input/advice!

Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash