Guide To Low GPA Transfer Strategies For College

I have had many students ask me about how to transfer to a different college when their cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) has fallen, maybe to even below a 2.0. Once this happens, they find themselves in what I’ve referred to as the “Transfer Trap.” But, depending on their situation, there can be some different options or ways to think about transferring to another college. Above all, it is up to the student to be open to different colleges or alternate pathways, and to be willing to sacrifice to get what they really want. For example, they may be initially declined by a college they really want to attend, but were told what they must do to be accepted. Other colleges may accept the student for different reasons, but may only offer a “try out” admission where they must do well for their first semester. Being able to transfer to another college with a low GPA is possible, but it depends on so many factors, like the college or the student’s expectations of a new school. Below are some ways to approach the issue of transferring colleges, and some things I’ve learned that I hope are helpful.

Apply To More Than One School

While this seems like an obvious move, I’m always surprised by students who contact me and say they are seeking advice on how to transfer to only one specific college. When it comes to transferring, especially with a low GPA, there is no magic. A college will admit a student, or they will not, but if a student is lucky the college will at least tell the student what they would like to see before they will let them in. By applying to more than one college the student gets valuable feedback on their situation plus the opinions of different colleges. What is often surprising is that some colleges will not even have a conversation with a low GPA student, but others may give the student a chance. There may be conditions to this admission, as I describe below, but it’s still an acceptance. Another aspect to applying to more than one school is to include at least one community college in the list of schools being applied to, but many students don’t like to hear this. While some students have negative views of these kinds of schools, which in some cases I would completely agree with, what they don’t know is that there are some great community colleges out there. I’ve worked with some that were wonderful, my students loved them, and I was very impressed with their quality. The advantage to including a community college on a list of possible low GPA acceptance schools is that they have open enrollment, which means that they accept all who apply. These schools have their own educational system in the U.S. and are different from “junior colleges” which is a different type of institution. The goal for whatever school a student applies to must be to work on their GPA and be successful no matter what, so the setting must be right for them since a repeat of problems can cause the four-year college system to not want them until much later in life.

  • Keep in mind that any student who wishes to attend another college will now be a transfer student, not a freshman applicant. Colleges typically have separate polices for transfer admission, and while similar to the freshman process, they can be very different.
  • The transfer process for students with a low GPA can turn out to be similar to the application process they went through during high school. They will have to search for and make a list of colleges to consider, complete the applications, supplements if applicable, send their college and high school transcripts or even more. It can be a very time consuming process so it should be started as early as possible. I’ve noticed that requesting SAT or ACT scores can be slowed because they may have been archived after a certain time period which simply adds to the amount of time the transfer process can take.
  • A particular hang up with schools that accept the Common Application and students who wish to transfer with a low GPA is getting a professor recommendations. Very often such schools will want one or even two recommendations from professors, but if a student has done poorly in classes, they may have a hard time getting any kind of recommendation. In more than one case a student I was helping had to track down one of the few professors they might get a recommendation from, remind them of who they were, and then wait for the professor to write the recommendation which all added to the time it took to finish the application process.
  • There is sometimes a temptation for transfer students to apply as a freshman in order to “not mention” the bad grades at a first college. This is risky, and I don’t recommend this option, since colleges take honesty about anything related to their academic seriously. Every admissions counselor I’ve spoken with advised against this as well and indicated that it could result in a student being immediately expelled if discovered.

Look For Colleges That Want Students

Not all colleges in the U.S. get tons of applicants each year, so some are more willing to give students with a low GPA a chance to succeed. Colleges with large numbers of applicants tend to be main campuses of big state schools, Ivy League schools, or strong reputation colleges. Schools that use the common application are frequently among these schools, and a review of the big name colleges that use it quickly makes this point. However this group tends to represent only a small portion of all the colleges in the U.S. There are many wonderful colleges that don’t get as many applicants as they’d like (or deserve) which can represent an opportunity for students who want to transfer with a low GPA. Applying to lesser know, small, private or public colleges can be a great move for low GPA transfer students since the data shows that students succeed at higher rates in smaller learning environments. In recent years, these kinds of colleges who want applicants seem to have simplified their application process or have even have shortened their applications to encourage students to seek admission. At the worst, attending one of these smaller colleges can be part of a “side-step” strategy to earn the successful 12-24 recent credits that many colleges want to see before admitting transfer students. In other words, the student can attend, earn credits, then re-apply to a school they really want. Common application colleges tend to have higher transfer requirements, with some requiring a 2.5 to 3.0 GPA to transfer, with some program-specific requirements being even higher. By finding a college that has easier transfer admission requirements, a student can work on their GPA and then transfer those credits later to a school they’d like.

  • In my work, small, community-based private colleges seemed to be the most understanding when it comes to giving students a second chance if they’ve had problems with grades. The downsides are both the higher cost due to private school tuition and that they may have a high adult student level which may take away some of the “traditional” student body feel for the student. Some of these small private college may have a mission “to educate the community,” and so are open to many kinds of students. In other cases, they may simply need the tuition dollars and are likely to accept many applicants.
  • Bear in mind that acceptance thresholds for all four-year colleges, even small ones, can actually vary by school year. If they have had many good applicants, such as those with high GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, admission will become competitive because they have many strong students to choose from. Similarly, there may be a year where they get only average applicants, so admission may be easier. Colleges may often be more lenient for students applying for non-degree or provisional status, and this can be a consideration for students whether they will be allowed to attend classes.
  • A second option, rather than community-based private colleges, is to apply to a community college. These schools typically have “open enrollment,” which means they accept all applicants. This does not mean that a student cannot be academically suspended or dismissed from them. Even with open enrollment, a student must maintain a satisfactory GPA to continue attending.

Revisit Colleges That Accepted The Student Directly From High School

One of the little known facts about college applications is that a school may keep an acceptance offer open for a certain period of time even if the student has initially declined. Some schools may keep it open for a semester, but others may keep the admission offer valid for up to a year. Revisiting schools at which the student had previously been accepted can bring some surprising and fast results since they are already listed as “accepted.” However, this may not be as easy as it seems, since they college will want to know what the student has been doing in the mean time. Most colleges say that if a student has taken college courses elsewhere after high school they are no longer a freshman applicant but a transfer student, which has a different set of admission criteria. One of the most risky things students can do is to conceal the fact that they attended college elsewhere. The higher education system has progressively less tolerant about dishonesty of any kind, and if a student conceals their attendance of another school they risk being expelled even if they are doing well at the new college. In fact, one transfer application I saw literally had a huge black box above the student signature line and essentially said “not disclosing prior college attendance will result in immediate dismissal,” so they clearly took the issue seriously. Many admissions counselors have told me that it’s better for the student reveal that they did take classes at a college, even with poor grades, then submit a letter of explanation about what happened. I’ve found some small colleges to be surprisingly understanding about students doing poorly, for instance, at large universities before they reconsidered their decision and now felt that a smaller college should have been their route they in the first place. Aside from an explanation, the school may want to hear how the student plans to succeed at their school, which is a small price to pay for an acceptance.

  • Even if a student was previously accepted at a college the school will mostly likely want them to update their records. This could be as simple as revisiting the electronic application that they previously completed, and the most common problem I see for this is that students have forgotten their login information (which is easily corrected by contacting the school’s technology support department). What can delay this information update is that the school will want a copy of the student’s transcript from the college they will be transferring from, so there may be a waiting period if electronic delivery of the transcript isn’t possible.
  • The new college may want an explanation from the student about why they did not do well at their first school. Some admission departments may say that it can be explained in the “personal statement” or essay section of the application, while others might say that a separate letter of explanation should be submitted. Other schools may even want a written “plan of action” from the student spelling out how they will do better, and I’ve noticed that students usually need help to put this plan in to concrete terms that a college will accept. Along with a plan, some schools require a “petition for admission,” which can include certain plan elements but must be approved before the student is accepted.
  • Even if the student was previously accepted as a freshman at a particular four-year college, they may have trouble being accepted after having problems because their transfer policies might state that all transfer students “must be in good standing” at their prior school. This will pose a problem for especially students who are trying to transfer with below a 2.0 GPA, are currently on academic probation, or who have been academically suspended from their school.
  • In some cases a college may want a confirmation from the previous school that the student was not dismissed for conduct reasons, and I’ve encountered additional forms that students must have the college fill out directly in order to attend. In essence these colleges are concerned about things like criminality or severe behaviors that might pose a risk to their student body, and in light of the surprising number of campus shootings and violence in the last decade their concerns can bar certain students from admission.

Transfer Within One Year Of High School

Another hidden gem within the college transfer process that might help students with a low GPA is that a surprising amount of colleges, including some well known ones, will admit a student based on their high school grades rather than ones they earned in college. Some schools have a demarcation line, such as 24 or so credits, where they say they will consider a student’s high school grades more strongly for admission if they’ve earned less than specified number of college credits. Above that number, they will give more credence to college grades, which makes it important for a student to act early in college if they want to transfer. I’ve personally had low GPA students be admitted to a college on their high school grades even with far less than impressive college work so I’ve seen it can work. The same cautions apply that I mentioned for revisiting schools where a student was previously accepted: They will want to know the prior college grades, for better or worse, and may want a letter of explanation or set conditions for admission. But aside from that, students are typically offered full acceptance just like any other student. Even if a policy of considering high school grades for transferring is not stated at their website, a conversation with a transfer admission counselor may find that they do observe such a policy. Taking the time to speak with a transfer counselor about how they look at high school grades may help the student to uncover whether they might have a good chance of acceptance if they did very well in high school but not in college.

  • This tendency to look at high school grades more strongly if under a certain number of credits is not typically stated at school’s website, even if it is a widely held view by the school’s admission department. Contacting the admission department for a particular college is the best way to find out their views on this topic if it is not explicitly stated at their website.
  • Sometimes the credit demarcation for looking at high school grades more strongly can be up to 36 credits, which might represent three semesters (1.5 years). Talking with a specific admissions department will be important to see how they view this topic since the specific range may not be at their website.
  • Even if a student is accepted based on their high school grades, they may be put on probationary status for the first semester to ensure that they will succeed before being permanently admitted to the school. As part of this “conditional admission,” a school may want a plan of action from the student then monitor them for follow-through on this plan (in addition to having good academic progress above). During this conditional or provisional time period the school may require them to meet with an advisor, take a study skills class, or do other things so the student can show their commitment to positive change. It’s important to know the details of a “conditional admission” since the student may have things to do to satisfy the conditions.
  • For common application schools, they may still want one or more professor recommendations even if they are willing to admit the student on their high school grades. Low GPA students can have difficulty finding professors who will write them recommendations since their grades were typically poor in most classes, so this can slow down or even halt the transfer process.

Ask About Non-Degree Status

While a college may turn down a low GPA student for the regular admission process, there might be some circumstances where they will allow a student to actually take classes. Most colleges will offer some kind of non-degree or “visiting” student status that allows them to take courses, earn credits, and show that they can handle the course work. This kind of status earns the same kind of credits that other students do, only the student is not formally admitted to the mainstream degree-seeking status that most other students have. Non-degree status can give a low GPA transfer student the opportunity to show they can handle the course work, and provided that they do well, can normally apply for regular degree-seeking status later. I’ve had students with a low GPA take advantage of this route and it can work beautifully, provided that their grades are strong. Some colleges may set stipulations like having to earn 12-24 credits of good grades before they can apply apply for regular degree-seeking status, but this should be expected. There may also be a maximum number of courses that a student might be able to take under non-degree status, like 30 credits, but this represents more than a full-time year. Non-degree status can give a student a chance to get their foot in the door at a college where they might otherwise be turned down for regular admission, and non-degree status at a four-year college may look better to some schools than regular status at something like a community college if the goal is to show the ability to handle college level work.

  • Be cautioned: If the student wants to attend a school under non-degree seeking or provisional status then return to their home school after an academic suspension, they should check to see if the college will allow the credits to transfer to them. Some colleges have no problem at all with students taking courses elsewhere then transferring credits back to them, while others outright forbid it. There is no uniformity of rules for transferring credits while on academic suspension so students and parents must check the terms of the suspension before concluding that they can simply transfer the credits back to the home school.
  • Non-degree status is often temporary, and usually requires a student to apply for degree-seeking status later, so their performance must be good while at a particular school if they want to be a permanent student there. A school may allow a student to attend under non-degree status for two or three semesters maximum and then require them to have satisfactory progress to be fully admitted. A college may also want a “success plan,” petition for admission, or set other requirements to convert from non-degree to degree seeking if a student has a history of bad grades either at their school or another. It’s important for parents and students to know the limitations of how long a student may be under non-degree status and the requirements to become a permanent student eventually.
  • Because colleges can set a limit on how many credits or semesters a student can attend under non-degree or provisional status students should have an agenda for what will happen when they have hit the maximum allowance for non-degree attendance. Do they want to seek permanent admission to that school? Use it as a stepping stone to another college? Meeting with the admissions department, advisor, or academic department at the college will be important if they want to stay so they know exactly what they need to do for permanent admission. Also, if they are using that school as a stepping stone, researching other colleges and undergoing the transfer application process must happen while they are attending classes as a non-degree seeking student.

Walk In Through The Side Door For Larger Schools

For students who want to attend large college systems but have a low GPA, a unique opportunity might be found at a smaller branch campus of that school rather than at the main campus. Typically the main campus of large colleges will have many applicants so they are likely to be more selective, but branch campuses of that same college system may have different admission requirements that are more relaxed. A student can attend a branch campus of the larger college, work on improving their GPA, and then request a transfer to the main campus after they’ve made enough progress. The credits at this branch are perfectly transferrable to the main campus or even to other colleges, and these branches may even offer their own four-year degrees. Customarily, transferring from a branch campus to the main campus is similar to the “2+2” concept of taking the first two years classes at a community college then transferring to a four-year college for the other two, so starting at a branch campus then transferring is a well accepted process. But there are exceptions, as I’ve discovered, to this strategy. Some large college state systems can be extremely strict in their admission requirements, even for their smaller branch campuses of public schools. An alternative is to apply to smaller public colleges that are not part of a larger state system, which can be nice places to take classes, but these seem to be more common in the east and central U.S. and less in the south and western part of the country. Either way, smaller public colleges or branches of larger universities are worth checking for students who wish to improve their GPA.

  • The ease of being admitted to a smaller campus of a state school after earning a low GPA can actually vary by geographic location. Some state systems in the U.S. can be highly structured and rigid about their GPA requirements, most likely due to the immense number of applicants they sometimes receive. Some state system colleges can get tremendous amounts of applicants, while in other areas they do not.
  • In these high public-applicant geographic areas, there may be moderate but rigid admission requirements for all branches of four-year schools, which could make it more difficult to transfer in to that system for low GPA students. While it sounds paradoxical, in these areas it might be easier for low GPA students to be accepted at some small private colleges rather than a smaller campus of a public university. If a student chooses a community college instead, the requirements to transfer to a four-year public school are typically spelled out in a written transfer agreement (an “articulation agreement”) that can help students to find out the criteria to move from that community college to the four-year college. Usually the same requirements described for the community college students are the standard transfer-in requirements for all students, whether they come from a community college or not.
  • In general, smaller branches of public colleges have the option of admitting students on their high school grades or under non-degree seeking status, but can vary in their willingness to do so. The same additional requirements might apply, such as wanting a letter of explanation, a written plan of action, regular meetings with advisors, having to take a study skills class, or other requirements if they do accept the student.

Keep In Mind For Transferring With A Low GPA:

Regardless of which approach a student takes when trying to transfer to another college with a low GPA, there are some things to keep in mind:

  • When trying to decide on what colleges to apply to, visit their website and read their transfer admission requirements. This will save time since schools who state high GPA requirements for transfer students are less likely to consider students with low GPAs. The exception to this is if a student might be admitted on their high school grades, but the college will most likely want an explanation for the low college grades.
  • As I’ve mentioned, think twice about concealing bad grades. Colleges take dishonesty of any kind very seriously and will expel a student even if they are currently earning a 4.0 GPA at the new school. Admissions counselors say it’s far better to submit a letter of explanation or accept provisional acceptance than to risk problems by hiding bad grades when trying to transfer. The point of transferring is to find a new place for a student to succeed and ultimately reach graduation, so to me it’s just not worth the risk.
  • Having a plan of action can help bolster a student’s position to transfer with a low GPA, but colleges aren’t trusting with this.  They’ll want to see that the student identified exactly what the problems were that they were having and came up with a written plan to solve them for when they next attend.  Some academic probation or suspension programs actually require this kind of plan, but they will only “buy in” to it if it is based on a solid identification of the problems.  Never submit a plan that essentially says the student “was immature” or will “try harder,” it has to be based on a solid assessment of the problems for it to carry any weight with colleges.
  • If a student plans on attending another college to raise their GPA then return to their home school, rather than a permanent transfer, checking course reciprocity and the home school’s policies will be very important. Some colleges will even require course syllabi for the class the student wants to take to be submitted to them for their approval, and certain classes may not be eligible for being taken elsewhere. Also, if a student is taking classes elsewhere while on academic suspension, some schools may actually say that no classes or credits may be transferred back to them during that time.
  • If applying with a low GPA to a four-year college, drafting a letter of explanation about bad grades ahead of time will help the student to gather his or her thoughts, rather than doing it on the fly while talking with an admission counselor or while they fill out an electronic application. Some colleges may want a separate letter, or may want a verbal explanation given to a transfer counselor. Others may want an explanation incorporated in to a personal statement or essay in the application itself. Gathering their thoughts ahead of time will help the student to articulate clearly what happened and give them a chance to review it before communicating it to the college.