Nearly two years ago, I packed up my bags and ended up in the middle of rural Ohio, ready to start my college experience. Little did I know that by the end of my sophomore year, I would have ended up applying to over eighteen different schools, attending three different elite colleges and universities before finally coming into my own.
At the end of my senior year of high school at a suburban, private school, I was ready to be finished with college admissions. Grueling prep courses and monotonous applications made the entire process seem like a rat race of who could get into a top school or somehow cheat the system. In my search, I found Kenyon College, a sixteen-hundred person liberal arts school filled with Birkenstock-clad hipsters and towering oak trees.
Just like how a couple gets to marriage, I had asked around about its reputation, gone through the necessary courting period of demonstrated interest, and finally decided to tie the knot and go early-decision. Kenyon was “the one,” I eagerly explained to everyone. I ignored my lingering doubts and awaited my yes.
Starting my freshman year, I did not hate it, but I remember calling my parents during the first week of orientation and telling them I made the wrong choice. They advised me to “stick it out and give it the old college try.” After a year, I could not do it anymore. Despite making great friends and succeeding in classes, the cornfields surrounding campus felt claustrophobic and the school did not have the major I wanted. I felt like I was living my life on pause, waiting for the next four years to be over. I knew no matter what, I needed change.
It came down to two schools: Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. I was set on being in the nation’s capital, but with an acceptance rate of about twelve percent for transfers, the odds were slim. I found myself refreshing my email daily, hoping to get an acceptance, only to find the words “wait listed” glaring at me, reasoning that, “Hey, at least I wasn’t denied.” Then, after months of pleading emails drenched in over-eager desperation, I was shifted to the extended wait list. It was like a backhanded compliment meets the greatest tease of all: we want you, but not as much as we want other people; you are not even our third-string, but hey, you are still in it. Troweling online sites like College Confidential, I found myself dwindling into a pack of statistics, feeling more like a number every day.
Four days before starting at Vanderbilt University, I was still unsure of where I would be sending my boxes. Finally, I received the email that I was rejected from Georgetown.
My life became a rapid shift of gears, preparing for a new culture completely different from what I expected in Washington. One statistic was hammered down by my father, a proud alumnus of Vanderbilt, and in another life, overzealous treasurer of his fraternity: nearly 54% of women participated in Greek life at Vanderbilt. There was an explicit claim by him that joining a sorority would “give me the best three years of my life.”
But after joining, terms like “Vandy-rexia,” or Vanderbilt-induced anorexia, became demystified as I found myself having dress-checks and following an app-based rating system for potential sorority recruits. Campus culture promoted a superficial, ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality of extremes, but I was in it for the long-haul. I was going to get my degree from Vanderbilt University and make myself see the positives.
But in the middle of my fall semester, I started talking with a fellow transfer at Vanderbilt. To my surprise, we had both been on the extended waitlist at Georgetown. Finally, a face for another pack of statistics. A couple of weeks later, she received an unexpected email extending offer of admission from Georgetown.
I waited on a letter, a phone call, or carrier pigeon to deliver my offer too, to no avail. Feeling unresolved, I called the admissions office and was quickly routed to the head of admissions, Bruce Chamberlin. According to Mr. Chamberlin, they had tried sending me an email telling me I was one of twelve accepted for the spring, but my Kenyon email that I had registered with was no longer functioning.
I hung up the call, shaking. I was in.
Up to that point, I had made a new life at Vanderbilt and it was a safe bet: I could graduate on time and have a dual degree. But I wasn’t going to repeat the same mistake of settling. Unlike my friend, I decided to jump ship and begin my spring semester at my third school.
I will not say everything is perfect or that transition is not difficult. I am taking summer classes to graduate on time and I had to drop my second major. But I do not regret it. Every environment changes you and I think that I carry a bit of “Kenyon Kara” and “Vanderbilt Kara” with me. Those experiences shaped me into the person I am today and transferring is not as out-of-the-norm as it may seem. A 2008 study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center demonstrated that over one third of college students transferred within the course of one year. There is no “one fits all” transfer experience. But here are a few things worth taking from it:
1.) Manage your expectations.
“I think at times, some people can have a feeling of perfectionism to them. But I think that the first thing someone should do when transferring is manage their expectations about what things are going to look like,” explains Nancy Moss, a licensed clinical psychotherapist with two years of experience counseling at George Washington University. Make sure that you are not anticipating things to be perfect from the start. There will be a learning curve. The first few months could be hard, but do not beat yourself up about not hitting your stride immediately. Take steps every day to make things better.
2.) Realize the positives to your decisions.
According to Jon Gould, professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and author of “How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying),” transferring is “an opportunity to reset the stage while there is still time to get a good chunk of the college experience out of a new institution.” At every school I transferred to, I questioned my decision until I realized it was an opportunity to begin again and make the most of my time. Transferring changed me for the better and made me a more tenacious, outgoing person. Look for the bright side.
3.) Bloom where you are planted.
The biggest challenge to moving to a new city or starting all over is finding a way to adjust. Gould recommends getting involved from the get-go. “You have to be the master of your own experience as quickly as you can when you get to the new institution,” he says. Get involved with clubs, go to office hours, and try your best to be extroverted, because “you’ll need to work harder to find like-minded people on campus…and the life of an upperclassman does not lend itself to meeting as many people as the life of a freshman does.”
4.) Realize pain creates empathy.
Moss says that as a transfer, “you really have to self-reflect. I think that people that are considering transferring are thoughtful.” Reasoning through a tough adjustment creates empathy. From here on out, you will be able to relate to people going through a tough transition, whether it is moving to a new city or starting a new job. Do not be afraid to confide to people that you are going through a tough time. There is something relatable to being genuine and saying everything is not perfect. It opens an opportunity for real connection, if approached correctly.
5.) Stand up for yourself.
When I decided to leave Vanderbilt, I have never faced such strong disappointment from my father. Around me, people would question “Why are you leaving?” And when they found out it was for a second time, words like, “flighty” or “inconsistent” were thrown around. But as Moss says, push yourself. “Know that in an age, where we make so many decisions based on what our friends are doing, it is okay to say, ‘I am going to stand out and be independent.’” Hone your self-esteem. “Being able to stand up to critics and say, ‘Hey, I know you carry your opinion, and I respect that, but I need to do this for myself. We can still be friends.’ That is a powerful thing,” she explains.
6.) Go beyond self doubt.
To stick up for yourself, you first need to be confident. “We all need to learn to better trust ourselves and listen to ourselves--and to believe that our own voice is the best guide for taking us where we need to go in our lives,” explains Nancy Hensler, a licensed psychologist with twenty-five years of experience. To do so, Moss recommends you “slow things down, look around, and really think about why you are doing this.” Feel what is salient to you and ask yourself ‘What is really motivating me?’ Take a break from friends, parents, and social media to really think about these important questions. Then, use those thoughts to assure you.
7.) Realize your story is not the same as anyone else.
“Every person is unique and has her/his own individual circumstances,” says Hensler. “The needs from someone going from a two-year community college to a larger four-year institution will be different than someone who, for example, may have been sexually assaulted and no longer feels safe in her/his academic setting.” Take these factors into consideration and do not think you have to fit a perfect mold of what a transfer should be or needs to accomplish.
8.) This can be a small chapter in your life if you decide to make it one.
Transferring is a big choice, but it does not have to be your only story. As my father likes to explain, “people are just going to care about the final name on the diploma at the end of the day. A couple years out from graduation, you will not have to even mentioned you transferred.” Learn from your experiences, and take those personal lessons with you. But also know if you are facing negative pressure, a hundred years from now this will not matter.
9.) You made this choice.
Dan Lee, founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, says “transfer students tend to be happier about their decision because it was a conscious choice that they made.” He compared it to getting a new car, saying, “It’s like the same thing as saving up to buy your first car: Why do you love that car so much? It is not because it is a nicer car. You like it so much because you spend so much time thinking about it. Once you get it, it is that much more rewarding.” Take this new experience out for a spin.
10.) Transferring is relatable to more than just transfers.
Transferring is more relatable than you think. As Moss explains, “I think one of the healthiest things we can do is to make a big change for ourselves. There is nobody who hasn’t decided that they changed their mind about something: a job, someone they are dating, a marriage—all of these things. So to make a decision for yourself, feel proud of it, and really feel it is safe for you is actually a really bold, brave, and intelligent thing to do.” At the end of the day, everyone has to go through changes within their lives, and understanding that can help you connect with others.