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How to Make a Grad School Transfer Seamless

Transferring during grad school can be complicated. Our guide will walk you through the trickier portions of the process and offer insights to make the switch less painful.

Author: Shannon Lee

Editor: Staff Editor

Two women, one young and one older, engaging in conversation while walking on a busy campus pathway, surrounded by diverse students.

When it comes to earning a graduate degree, getting accepted into grad school is the hardest part, right? Not necessarily. A study by the Council of Graduate Schools shows that about 50% of PhD students never finish their degrees, and 10% to 23% of master’s degree students drop out of their programs. While students drop out for many reasons, it’s fair to assume that at least some of these students might have completed their degree if they had just transferred to another graduate program.

Changing graduate schools isn’t a simple process, but it’s possible. Finding a new graduate school program might be the best option if you’ve had a major shift in your personal life or professional goals. Try our transfer quiz below to see if transferring is the right move for you. If it turns out transferring is in your future, read the rest of our guide to make your transfer process as seamless as possible.

Quiz: Does a Graduate School Transfer Make Sense For You?

Getting into the grad school of your choice is an achievement. But what if you want to transfer in the middle of your master’s program? You’ve invested a significant amount of your time and resources already, but you’ll need to ask yourself a few key questions to see if transferring is the right choice. This quiz will help determine if restarting at a new institution would benefit you.

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Why do you want to transfer?

  • It was not a good fit for my career goals.
  • Because of relocation or a new job.
  • I’m homesick, have a financial hardship, have personal issues with the program, or just because.

Will the academic program you’re transferring to help you improve your chances of earning your master’s or doctoral degree?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Does your new program accept new transfer students?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Do you meet its minimum GPA?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Do you need to take any additional entrance exams for the new program?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Do you meet the new program’s admission requirements?

  • Yes.
  • No.
  • They’re being waived.

Will transferring to a new program affect your finances?

  • Yes.
  • Somewhat, but I can handle it.
  • No.

Will you be eligible for financial aid as a transfer student?

  • Yes.
  • No.
  • Some of my expenses will be covered.

Will you lose any credits if you transfer?

  • 0-12 credits.
  • 13-24 credits.
  • More than 24 credits.

Will transferring affect your thesis or research?

  • Yes.
  • No.

If you transfer, how long will it take to get your degree?

  • Same timeframe.
  • An extra semester or year.
  • I’ll have to start completely or almost completely over.

Will it conflict with your employment or family?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Are you a military transfer student?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Are you an international student?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Are you returning to get your graduate degree from a break?

  • Yes.
  • No.

Your Results

Yes

It looks like you’re a good candidate for transfer. You’ve done your research, and this move will help you get your master’s degree. Read on for more tips on transferring to your new graduate program.

Consider an Online Master’s Degree Program

Deciding to switch master’s degree programs is a hard decision. One of the biggest concerns is whether the new program will be better for you and make the transfer worthwhile. One way to lessen this risk is to transfer into an online master’s degree program.

Online master’s degrees provide more flexibility in class formats. Because classes are offered online, you can attend classes from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. Many programs offer classes asynchronously, meaning you can attend class at any time. This flexibility makes learning more accessible and lets you slow down or speed up your learning, allowing you to graduate sooner. It can also allow you to continue working while in school.

Online programs can save money, especially for nonresident students. Many online master’s degree programs offer in-state or special remote learning tuition rates that are lower than what a nonresident student pays. Plus, if online learning allows you to graduate sooner, you’ll lower your learning costs overall.

When you broaden your search to include online master’s programs, you’ll be able to consider programs anywhere and programs with different emphases than your original pick, increasing the odds of a good fit. Plus, you won’t have the stress of moving across the country, finding a new apartment, finding a new job, and making new friends. Your new master’s program will be your main focus.

How to Transfer Grad Schools: Step by Step

The exact transfer process for master’s students depends primarily on the policies of the program the student will transfer into. Most universities allow each program and department to establish its transfer policies. The following is a rough walkthrough of what most master’s degree transfer students can expect.

Step 1: Research Potential Transfer Schools

How the new master’s program treats transfer students could add or subtract years—and tens of thousands of dollars—to your degree. When choosing a transfer school, the most critical factor is how many credits they’ll accept. The decision will depend on several variables, such as the minimum grade required for transfer, how many credits can transfer, and what types of classes are eligible. The more the new program takes, the better off you’ll be.

Another critical factor to consider is whether student support services are offered for transfer students. For instance, does the new school have advisers to walk the incoming student through the transfer process? Or are students on their own to figure things out? Solid support will drastically increase the odds that your transfer will be a success.

Step 2: Look into Your School’s Graduate Transfer Process

Each school will have its own transfer process. It might appear similar to that at other schools, but pay close attention: There could be several small details that are different, such as how much you can transfer into your new school.

For instance, University of Kentucky accepts up to 25% of the regular course requirements in transfer credits. Other schools, such as Liberty University, allow you to transfer 50% or more of your course requirements. Make certain of the process for your particular school.

Step 3: Meet with Your Advisers

After you figure out which schools you’re considering for a transfer, meet with your advisers to discuss the process and see if they have any insights. They might even have connections for you to ask questions and get help once you arrive at your new school.

Talking to your school’s financial aid counselor is also a good idea. For example, you’ll need to know what happens to certain financial aid, such as scholarship money you haven’t used and if you need to complete paperwork concerning your student loans.

Last but certainly not least, find out if your current or potential new school has a transfer counselor. They can answer any questions and raise potential issues you might never have considered.

Step 4: Check for Any Articulation Agreements

An articulation agreement is an agreement between schools promising that a class completed at one school will be accepted at another school. These agreements may be between just two schools or involve many schools that are part of a state’s public community college and university system. Articulation agreements often guide how many completed credits can transfer.

The agreement may outline which program requirements the transfer credit will apply. For example, will a completed course count as a core course or an elective? The agreement may also spell out how many credits you will receive at the new school, especially if one school operates on quarters and another on semesters.

The articulation agreement may also cover how grades transfer, if at all. Usually, transfer credits granted by the new institution provide credit toward graduation but aren’t factored into your GPA in the new master’s program.

Step 5: Prepare Your Application

In most situations, the application process for a transfer student is very similar to that of a first-time applicant. Depending on the school, prospective transfer students may use the same application form, check a different box to indicate they’re a transfer student, and complete a few other sections.

The primary difference is that as a transfer student, you will likely need to provide an official copy of your graduate school transcript. You also may be asked to explain why you want to transfer. This information could be covered in a short answer question on the application, a personal statement, or an interview with an admissions official.

Graduate School Transfer FAQ

How will transferring programs affect my existing financial aid?

Even though you may be eligible for government loans, grants, and scholarships as a transfer student, what you’ve already been awarded won’t usually transfer with you. This is especially true with federal student aid.

The status of your private grants, scholarships, and fellowships will depend on the entity funding them. If the scholarship came from your old program, that funding would cease after your transfer. But if you have a scholarship from an organization that isn’t part of your prior school, contact the organization to learn how transferring schools affect your scholarship.

How can I secure financial aid for my new program?

When you begin the transfer process, you’ll want to update your FAFSA and work closely with your new school on what else you need to do to make sure funding issues don’t derail your plans. Complete exit counseling with your old school and ensure all academic costs and debts have been paid. If you don’t, they may withhold your transcripts. If you were receiving a direct subsidized or unsubsidized federal loan, you might need to start making payments on that unless you can get an in-school deferment. Our guide to FAFSA mistakes can help you make sure nothing is missed during this process.

Should I consider an online master’s degree program?

When you broaden your search to include online master’s programs, you’ll find many advantages that make your life easier. You’ll be able to consider programs anywhere and programs with different emphases than your original pick, increasing the odds of a good fit. Plus, you won’t have the stress of moving across the country, finding a new apartment, finding a new job, and making new friends. Your new master’s program will be your main focus.

Online master’s degrees also provide more flexibility in class formats. Because classes are offered online, you can attend classes from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. Many programs offer classes asynchronously, meaning you can attend class at any time. This flexibility makes learning more accessible and lets you slow down or speed up your learning, allowing you to graduate sooner. It can also allow you to continue working while in school. This work-life balance might be one of the biggest advantages of a flexible online master’s program.

Are online graduate programs more affordable?

Online programs can save money, especially for nonresident students. Many online master’s degree programs offer in-state or special remote learning tuition rates that are lower than what a nonresident student pays. Plus, if online learning allows you to graduate sooner, you’ll lower your learning costs overall. Finding the best options for affordable online master’s degrees is a good start to figuring out which programs are within your budget.

Can I transfer from an on-campus to an online graduate program (and vice versa)?

Credits will typically transfer both ways: You can transfer credits from an online program into an on-campus program, or transfers from an on-campus program to an online one. Those credits must come from an accredited school to be accepted. Keep in mind that each school will have its own policies regarding this, so be sure to check with them before you make the leap.

How the Credit Transfer Process Works

One of the biggest reasons a student will choose not to transfer schools is that they can’t get enough prior credits to be accepted by the new school. Variations in rules and policies between programs and schools mean every transfer process will be slightly different.

Some schools have special agreements regarding how credits transfer between schools and programs. The best and easiest way to learn about these is to ask both your current and prospective transfer school. You also can do an online search for transfer or articulation agreements between schools. Some schools have a database or online tool showing which courses they’ve accepted and from what school.

In a straightforward transfer where there’s an agreement or the transfer is between public schools that are part of the same state system, you’ll need to complete a transfer credit request form. This is where you list the new classes you want credit for using the results from your old classes. You’ll usually need to describe the old class, including its requirements and how it satisfies the requirements of the new class. Providing a course description and class syllabus is helpful.

Below is a discussion of other variables that determine whether a class credit transfers and how that process occurs.

Course Equivalency

Course equivalency refers to how much credit you’ll receive and which specific course requirements you will have fulfilled. Many schools post course equivalency guides on their websites to show what prior students were able to transfer. In most instances, these guides aren’t binding, and the transfer school can alter the course equivalency if they feel it’s necessary.

Course Level

In general, the higher the course level, the less likely a school will accept it as transfer credit. That’s because lower-level courses are more foundational, meaning there’s less variation in how they’re taught and the material covered. This doesn’t mean a 500-level graduate school course from School A won’t transfer to School B. But it means School B is less likely to grant a transfer student credit for a 500-level class toward the transfer student’s major. Instead, the course may be accepted as an elective or on a pass/fail basis.

Core Waivers and Substitution

A core waiver is a request that a school waives a core class requirement because of prior coursework. A core substitution requests that a core class requirement be met by completing a different class. Transfer students often use core substitutions and waivers when their new school doesn’t have an articulation agreement or course equivalency reference in place.

Quarter vs. Semester System

With a quarter system, classes are shorter per term, but students have more terms in a school year. For example, a typical semester system course lasts about 15 weeks, while a quarter system class lasts about 10 weeks. This means that one credit in one school won’t equal one credit at another school. For instance, if a student earned 15 credits under a quarter system, it’ll be roughly equal to 10 credits in a semester system.

From the Source: Interview with a Transfer Professional

Cindy Chanin

Cindy Chanin is the creator of Rainbow EDU Consulting and Tutoring. Over the past 15 years, Chanin has tutored students in virtually every subject. She has also helped many students gain admission to top universities, including Stanford, Yale, Brown, Northwestern, University of Southern California (USC), Oxford, Julliard, and New York University. Her previous work in the admissions departments at Yale and USC provides insider knowledge that she uses to serve her students in their education goals.

Q. What are some of the most common reasons a grad student might choose to transfer?

Some of the most common reasons a graduate student might choose to transfer include the desire to pursue a more rigorous, challenging, or niche-based graduate program; dissatisfaction with factors concerning location, living situation, city, and social dynamics; the desire to live in closer proximity to friends and family; a wish to shift the subject or emphasis of study; financial reasons; and the general inclination to seek out a new opportunity.

Q. Do you find many students transferring from a brick-and-mortar institution to an online one? If this does happen, is the transfer process the same as moving from one physical institution to another?

It’s very common for students to transfer from brick-and-mortar institutions to an online program. Online schools offer more flexibility and the opportunity to improve work/life balance. The transfer process varies by university. Therefore, it’s important to check with the school’s admissions office to ensure that the credits earned are transferable.

Q. What common misconceptions can prevent a person from transferring schools?

A common misconception that can prevent a student from initiating a transfer is the belief that the process will be too complicated and, therefore, will hinder a student’s life rather than make their education situation easier. Furthermore, students can fall prey to a scarcity thinking mentality, convincing themselves that they will not gain admission to a program because of the low acceptance rate, the pedigree of the program, or the competition amongst other applicants. Thus, students focus on the perceived barriers to their education instead of thinking resourcefully about strategic and impactful opportunities. They overlook how they might, in fact, position themselves as an outlier who could very well prove an asset to a given program.

Q. Is transferring to a school with an articulation agreement always a better idea?

Transferring to a school with an articulation agreement can certainly make the transition to a new graduate school smoother. The agreement acts as a guide to ensure which credits will be transferable so that students will not feel lost and overwhelmed about the transfer process. It essentially acts as a recipe guide and insurance plan, with detailed step-by-step instructions that help students know what to expect and how best to architect their educational trajectory.

Q. What is the current grad school transfer acceptance rate? Do you feel that is high or low—and why might it be that way?

The current graduate school transfer acceptance rate is actually lower than the freshman application rate, therefore making it more competitive to gain acceptance to an alternative school. Graduate programs are more niche-specific and don’t have as many spots available to offer prospective candidates. That being said, graduate school applicants can very strategically cater their application to a specific program, research opportunity, and/or professional mentor—better establishing an in-roads through demonstrated interest, relevant experience, and pinpointed relationship-building.

Q. What are some of the common mistakes students make when planning to transfer from one grad school to another?

A common graduate school transfer mistake an individual makes is not verifying if their credits transfer over. The credit transfer guidelines vary by institution, and it’s important to verify with the admissions office to ensure transfer credits will be accepted. Another common error an individual makes is not double-checking fees. Transferring graduate schools can be a costly endeavor, so be sure to plan for expenses!

Q. Do you find that those who transfer have a higher chance of graduating, or is it the same across the board?

Based on studies conducted, graduation rates for those who transfer versus those who stay the course do not differ dramatically based on this criterion alone. If a student finds themselves in an engaging, enriching, and supportive graduate program that fits their goals and aspirations, they are much more likely to feel and be successful in their efforts. This will translate to higher graduation rates.

Q. Anything else you'd like to share about the grad school transfer process?

The graduate school transfer process can no doubt be challenging, but planning ahead and formulating a strategy can help ease the burden of transferring. Be sure to ask for assistance if you have questions. There are plenty of resources available for students to utilize at their chosen university. My counselors and I here at Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring specialize in guiding students through the graduate school transfer admissions process, helping them tap into what makes them unique and compelling and how they might make integral contributions to a specific graduate program or community.