Unhappy first semester?: 10 Tips For Prospective College Transfer Students

As written by us for The Huffington Post.

Do or did you have an unhappy college freshman home for the winter holidays? Going away to college is stressful for many kids (and, yes, parents, too). Creating a new life away from home can be daunting, and stress is normal. Learning new academic and living norms is difficult for many. And it’s completely natural for freshmen to come home and regress. They may sleep a lot and ask you to do things you haven’t done for years. That is fine. You may be doing loads of laundry and taking them to lots of doctors’ appointments.

And in that pool, some kids come home believing they made the wrong college choice. And that is entirely possible for 10 to 20% of them. The larger majority of others need some love and understanding.

In Chinese, the word for crisis also means opportunity. So as you talk with unhappy your college freshmen, please remind them that no matter what you will help them make a plan. This crisis can turn into a great opportunity to think about what makes your student truly happy. A psychiatrist friend of mine who is an expert with teenagers said that parents (and counselors) need to be as supportive as possible but also try to distinguish between real depression and situational challenges. Some kids do need professional help and a visit to your doctor or therapist may be a great first step.

I field several calls each winter holiday break from confused college freshmen. I listen to what is making them unhappy, and I often hear patterns. They didn’t like their original choices and are now attending what they consider to be a safety college. They did not like their fall classes and did not do as well as they could. They don’t like their roommates, or they are not very active on campus. Some truly dislike the type of college they selected, while others are bored.

So after I listen, I begin to talk to them about the need to have short and long term goals. I remind them that unfortunately transferring during and after freshmen year means that they must be doing the best they have ever done academically and be involved on and off campus. It is often a junior-senior year of high school redux — often with much less support.

That is often a challenge for an unhappy freshman. But tough words are critical. Also I remind them that as freshmen they traditionally can only transfer into schools that they would have gotten admitted to or did get admitted to as seniors. If they reject that option, I remind them that transferring may take two application cycles. Most colleges that accept larger numbers of transfers like USC and the University of Southern California take larger numbers of junior transfers.

As I speak to kids after I listen to their worries, I help them develop short terms strategies which help them two ways: they help build up their transfer profiles and more importantly help them become happier. When the world is falling, small steps really help. When speaking to a young man who is desperately unhappy at his college, I realized he had higher expectations than reality. I reminded him that a low fall GPA would limit his chances of transferring and told him that colleges will look at his senior year grades and his active involvement on his current campus. No transfer college wants excuses, so I explained that the excuses have to stop.

Listening to him, I felt his isolation. He had taken large lecture classes and got involved with a few clubs that rarely met. He wasn’t exercising and many of the friends he had met transferred out for spring. So I told him he needed to start over. He needed to take smaller classes, classes that counted as major prerequisites or GE requirements. He needed to get involved with some active clubs. I listened to what he liked to do and noticed he wasn’t exercising, so I recommended getting involved with intramural basketball or soccer. Many physically active kids in high school stop exercising in high school as they are no longer part of formal teams. Exercising often makes them feel so much better.

I also told him about special service learning classes at his college, where he could get involved with community service activities with small groups of students. I also told him to go to office hours and to get to know several professors as he would need a professor recommendation.

I also gave him several short term tasks to perform over the holidays. That gave him a focus and set him going. He needed to organize his transcripts — both high school and college so they could be sent out. He needed to contact his high school counselor to find out what he or she could do to help and how to get forms completed. I also had him collect all the transfer requirements of each college on his list — transcripts, letters of recommendation, high school forms, standardized grades, mid-term instructor updates, and required essays. I also told him to get an immediate internship over the winter break and to get think of how he was going to spend his summer. I kept him so busy that I felt his mood immediately improve.

The longer term goals come out over time. They need to think about what happens if they don’t get into their desired colleges the first time they apply as transfer students. Do they want to take a leave of absence from their current college and return home sophomore year to take classes? Do they need to take summer classes to build up their GPAS? What courses do they need to take to prepare for transferring in as a transfer? What ongoing activities can they participate in and what internships, community service, or jobs can they get? Colleges expect engaged, active transfer students who can immediately begin their majors and get involved immediately on campus. One caveat I give them is that joining a fraternity or sorority is great for many reasons, but once they join a Greek society, they must join that Greek society at their transfer college (Greek rules).

As I was speaking to one young lady last year, I explained that she needed to get high grades and take classes that prepared her to transfer. That got her involved in classes related to her major, and then she realized that she wanted to narrow her major focus. I also told her to meet her professors during office hours as she needed to get some letters of recommendations, and she began doing some research for a professor. I also told her to get involved in activities. She opted to join a sorority and write for the school newspaper. She two internships over the summer and winter breaks and built up a great resume. She spent the break doing an internship and her applications. She made a large group of friends and realized that she could be happy at the college, but she would outgrow the offerings for her major. Transferring, therefore, makes sense. And she is a much stronger candidate than when we first met.

In conclusion, preparing to transfer is a bear and requires lots of upfront planning. Also while working with these kids, they often decide to stay where they are. Some discover becoming a visiting student at a campus, which can serve as a nice introduction to a campus they want to transfer to.

The most important thing I do is provide a supportive realty check. I listen to what has made them unhappy, and I try to present a way for them to try one more semester. If they can’t, then I tell them we can try to help them transfer, and if necessary, take a leave of absence while returning home to go to community college. Then they need a really strong transfer plan as community college is a much tougher place to get required courses than ever. There is no reason for an unhappy kid to stay at a very expensive college, when he or she sees no reason to stay. But sometimes there are great reasons for a kid to stay and give a college a real chance.

Crises often do turn into great opportunities for students. They can see what they really want from a college. They can see how to get involved in a new community, and they can learn so much more about what they are capable of doing. Most importantly they need to stay active and the short and long term planning lead to many happy outcomes.

P.S. Boyfriend or girlfriend transfers are completely different. If a kid leaves a college for a partner, then something is truly wrong as partners should want the best for their significant others. So if your child wants to do a boyfriend transfer, I usually refuse to help, but I do tell parents to make sure their kids take a leave of absence because break-ups do occur.

Below are the tips I give to students and their families with unhappy college freshmen if they can’t imagine staying any longer than necessary at their current college.

1. Prior acceptances — Are you willing to consider a college you got into senior year? If that is the case, then contact the college and see if they will make you re-apply. Some won’t. Others will make you re-apply, but you have a good chance, especially if you follow these steps as well.

2. Senior year grades — Your senior year grades must be top notch to transfer into any college as a sophomore. I hope your second semester grades were really high.

3. Deadlines. Sophomore fall, Sophomore spring, Junior fall — These are the most common times to transfer. The closer to high school, the more high school and test scores count. Early applicants most likely will not get into any college you couldn’t have gotten in while in high school your first year. Transferring as a junior is much easier. Each college has different deadlines so keep track of them.

4. Post senior year and freshmen summers — You need to have done or do something — work, volunteer, service, etc.

5. Freshman and sophomore years of college — You need to do all of the following —

a. Academics- You need to excel in each and every class. That’s hard to do when you’re not happy, but you must.

b. Professors– You need to connect with one or two professors who can write letters of recommendation for you. You need to explain that you will outgrow major or need to be closer to home. Don’t blame your original college.

c. Engagement- You need to get involved in activities on and off campus. So use your winter break to do volunteer or work. Go back second semester and get busy.

d. Prerequisites– Each college has different transfer requirements. Some take sophomore fall applicants. Some only take juniors. Some have major prerequisites for GE and for majors. So check. Each has different requirements for

i. Testing

ii. Units completed

iii. High school transcripts and counselor forms

iv. College dean forms

v. Instructor forms

vi. Essays. You need to really write great essays about why you want to transfer. Be specific and contact us for essay tips.

6. Applications — Applications vary but are critically important.

i. Common Application– Many colleges use the Common Application which has one essay. But remember supplements-they have them too. The application is the only online portion. Everything is else is hard copy.

ii. Other universities have their own applications.

7. Visit colleges — You ideally need to visit the colleges to which you plan to transfer. Ideally visit during the spring or summer. But if you can’t, contact them via email. Talk with students there and really research the academic programs there — that’s the core reasoning for your transferring process.

8. Research visiting programs — Many colleges allow students to attend as a visiting student. Barnard is one college that has a great transfer program (women only). Sometimes that’s a back door into the college. Then you apply to transfer. Some don’t allow students who applied before to apply. Some do.

9. Give your original college a chance — If you can’t, you need to lead a double life and be as successful as you possibly can. If you can’t, then let us know about our transfer tips if you decide to come home and attend a community college. Never criticize your original college to officials at the original college. Tell them you need to move closer to home or have found a college that meets your major requirements.

10. Leaves of absence — When you transfer, always take a leave of absence from our original college. You may just decide to go back.