These 14 Colleges Have Some of the Lowest Transfer Acceptance Rates
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- Over one-third of undergraduates in the U.S. transfer colleges at least once.
- Public universities tend to have higher transfer acceptance rates than private institutions.
- Transfer students have less than a 1% chance of getting into certain prestigious schools.
More than one-third of undergraduates transfer colleges at least once, according to a 2018 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Students transfer for many reasons: to make a fresh start, try a new location, or support changing academic goals. For many students, transferring is always part of the plan.
States and individual schools offer supportive pathways to help students transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges. When universities allocate a percentage of openings for transfer students, transfers from local community colleges often claim many of the slots.
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Students also frequently transfer between four-year colleges. Since diplomas only show where you graduated from — not every school you attended — transferring can essentially be a way to "upgrade" your alma mater.
While transferring for prestige may seem superficial, there are many benefits to attending the best college you can get into. Graduates of highly ranked colleges typically earn more and may perform better in their careers.
Is Transferring Easier Than Getting In as a First-Year Student?
At some schools, transfer students have a better statistical shot at getting accepted than first-year applicants, with chances of acceptance sometimes doubled or even tripled. This holds true at many highly selective colleges, especially public schools.
Among big-name schools, the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of the most transfer-friendly. The UCLA transfer acceptance rate was 19% in 2021, compared to the university's first-year acceptance rate of just 11% during the same period.
Similarly, the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, both accept around 10 percentage points more transfer students than first-year applicants.
Higher transfer acceptance rates may reflect conscious institutional goals. In a 2018 National Association for College Admission Counseling poll of admissions officers, 72% reported that their schools planned to "make greater efforts" to recruit transfer students, up from 64% the previous year.
Such policies could be due at least in part to the fact that transfer students earn degrees at a higher rate than their first-time peers.
That said, private universities typically admit very few transfers. Ivy league transfer acceptance rates are even lower than their already-low first-year acceptance rates, which hover around 4-9%.
The 14 Hardest Schools to Transfer to in 2022
Here are 14 highly ranked private schools with some of the lowest transfer acceptance rates in the U.S.
1. Harvard University — Cambridge, MA
Harvard's renown as the oldest U.S. college — with the biggest endowment, the largest library, and the most presidents and billionaires among its alumni — needs no introduction. True to its prestige, the school's extremely low acceptance rate has plummeted in recent years, hitting a record low.
And the Harvard transfer acceptance rate? The number is so small that the school speaks of it in integers rather than percentages. Harvard welcomes an average of 12 transfer students a year, which amounts to less than 1% of transfer applicants.
2. Stanford University — Stanford, CA
- Transfer Acceptance Rate (2015): <1%
- First-Year Acceptance Rate (2021): 4%
One of the West Coast's most revered colleges, Stanford may not be as old as the Ivy League schools, but it has equal brand power. In recent history, the school has garnered fame as a breeding ground for technological innovation thanks to its proximity and ties to Silicon Valley.
Stanford's first-year acceptance rate is on par with its East Coast equivalents but has dropped even more sharply thanks to swelling application numbers. The latest data from 2015 reveals a Stanford transfer acceptance rate of less than 1%.
While the school offers a community-building course for transfer students called Transfer 101, just 12 students enrolled in it during the 2019-2020 academic year.
3. Princeton University — Princeton, NJ
Princeton is among the oldest and wealthiest universities in the country, boasting the highest endowment per student of the Ivy League.
But becoming a student at the school is an uphill battle. In 2021, just 16 out of 1,349 transfer applicants gained admission to Princeton.
Still, this is better than it used to be. After years of maintaining a policy against accepting transfer students, the university launched a transfer program in 2018 with the aim of welcoming more first-generation students, low-income students, community college students, and U.S. military veterans.
Beginning this fall, Princeton promises to more than double the number of transfer students accepted.
4. Yale University — New Haven, CT
Like New England's other prestigious universities, the iconic Yale began as a theological institution, expanding over the centuries to include liberal arts and the sciences. It also awarded the first Ph.D. in the U.S. the same year the Civil War began.
Gaining acceptance to Yale is no easy feat — in fact, it's getting harder. Like its fellow Ivy League members, Yale has experienced record-low admission rates and the largest-ever applicant pools in recent years.
The odds are even worse for transfer students. While Yale says it seeks to expand its share of students from community colleges, first-generation families, and the military by admitting transfer students, fewer than 30 transfer applicants get accepted each year.
5. California Institute of Technology — Pasadena, CA
A renowned STEM institution located near Los Angeles, Caltech holds deep ties to fields like robotics, quantum physics, and space exploration.
With brainiac credentials — like affiliation with over 75 Nobel laureates, including Linus Pauling, the only person to have won two unshared Nobel prizes — Caltech is an academic powerhouse. The university even enrolls more graduate students than it does undergraduates.
Despite Caltech's reputation, the school doesn't like to publicize its acceptance rates widely. As admission pools grow bigger, those acceptance rates shrink. Just under 4% of both transfer students and first-year students gained acceptance to Caltech in 2021.
6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Cambridge, MA
Modeled on European polytechnic institutes, the math- and science-focused MIT considers transfer applications from students who've completed 2-5 terms of college coursework. These eligibility requirements are just the beginning, though.
While highly qualified transfer students are urged to apply, the school admits that "the transfer admissions process is highly competitive, even more so than first-year admissions."
Without sharing exact percentages, MIT reports admitting 15-20 transfer students out of 400-500 applications.
7. University of Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, PA
Founded by Benjamin Franklin, Penn is one of the oldest colleges in the country and home to the first medical and business schools in the U.S.
Penn and its professional schools are hard to get into, but just how hard is something the university aims to keep under wraps. The school recently opted not to share its acceptance rate for the class of 2026.
Last year, Penn's first-year acceptance rate dipped below 6% for the first time. The Penn transfer acceptance rate also fell, dropping to a historic low of less than 5%.
Looking to Transfer Colleges? What to Know
Making a mid-college shift may be the right move — just make sure you keep the following in mind before you make any decisions:
- Some schools only allow you to transfer during a particular year or semester of college. For example, you may not be able to transfer during your first year.
- Keep up your grades. GPAs at previous colleges may be weighted more heavily than test scores by admissions officers reviewing transfer applications.
- Transferring credits often entails losing credits — a semester's worth, on average.
- Transferring into certain departments within a university can present unique challenges. Health and STEM fields, for instance, may have lower acceptance rates and higher standards for prerequisites.
8. University of Chicago — Chicago, IL
UChicago is one of the top colleges in the world, with a global reach to match. The Midwest's premier private university is home to the country's largest university press and top-ranking law and business schools.
Although the university doesn't publicize its transfer acceptance rate, many sources, including The Chicago Maroon, peg it at around 5% — just slightly below the acceptance rate for first-year applicants.
Those dead set on transferring to UChicago can opt for the Transfer Early Decision application, which represents a binding agreement to attend the university if you're accepted. If you'd rather continue weighing your options, you can choose the Rolling Notification Plan.
9. Duke University — Durham, NC
Duke is known for its academic prestige, stunning grounds, and active campus community. Students are required to live on campus during not just their first year, but also their sophomore and junior years. What's more, around one-third of students participate in Greek life.
While socializing and sports may play bigger roles at Duke than at other renowned institutions, this North Carolina university is still rigorous. Less than 5% of first-year applicants were invited to join Duke's class of 2026.
Exact figures for transfer students are unavailable. But the figure hovered around 3-7% in recent years. According to Duke, the school admits around 50 transfer students each fall.
10. Brown University — Providence, RI
Touting all the same academic merits as its Ivy peers, Brown stands apart in its academic flexibility. In the late 1960s, shortly before merging with Pembroke College, the university adopted a grading system that lets students take classes for a letter grade or no grade at all. This means there are no GPAs at Brown.
Nevertheless, most applicants to Brown boast high GPAs. In the school's latest cohort, more than 9 in 10 students were in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. Many also had top SAT and ACT scores.
Transfer students, who are admitted at nearly the same rate as first-year students at Brown, have similar stats.
11. Columbia University — New York, NY
Columbia alumni include presidents, peace prize winners, Oscar-holders, and science innovators. The renowned institution in Manhattan's Upper West Side brings together some of the brightest minds.
While the Ivy keeps its exact transfer acceptance numbers under wraps, it claims to have admitted 5-10% of transfer applicants per year in the past decade. More concretely, the university has set a goal of admitting 100 transfer students each year.
If its 5-10% acceptance rate holds, transfer students have a slightly higher shot at getting into Columbia than first-year applicants.
12. Johns Hopkins University — Baltimore, MD
The country's first research university, Johns Hopkins continues to lead U.S. institutions of higher education in research expenditures. With prestigious colleges that span health, science, politics, music, and art, this Baltimore university's outlook may be vast — but its enrollment numbers are tiny.
According to the latest figures, Johns Hopkins admitted fewer than 2,500 applicants out of a total applicant pool of some 37,000. The school shies away from announcing acceptance rates, but this ratio comes out to a highly selective 6.5% admission rate.
Transfer numbers are even harder to track down. Johns Hopkins claims to have accepted around 10% of transfer applications in recent years. This would mean transfer students have a slight advantage over first-year applicants.
13. Northwestern University — Evanston, IL
A popular Midwest school, Northwestern enrolls a greater number of students than most other prestigious universities and comprises several highly ranked colleges, most notably in business fields.
Northwestern makes no bones about its academic pedigree, stating on its website, "Only students with strong academic credentials are encouraged to apply." The selective admissions process sends good news to less than 10% of first-year applicants.
Transfer students fare only slightly better. Less than 15% of transfer applicants gain admittance to the Chicago institution annually.
14. Dartmouth College — Hanover, NH
The smallest Ivy League school, Dartmouth still manages to maintain the high research activity that sets prestigious institutions apart. Eager to join Big Green? There's bad news and good news.
The 6.24% overall acceptance rate for Dartmouth's latest admission cycle is up — but only from last year's record low of 6.17%.
Transfer students make up a modest share of incoming students. In recent years, however, Dartmouth has surpassed its goal of admitting 25 transfer students annually. In 2020, the school took in 43 transfer students out of 273, making the transfer acceptance rate nearly 16%.