A Student’s Guide to Transferring Colleges for Mental Health Reasons

Up to a third of college students transfer to a different school from the one where they began their studies, according a 2012 nationwide survey.

Sometimes, the reason to transfer is straightforward. For instance, there may be issues related to a student’s finances or preferred location. But at other times, the reasons are more complex — such as the increasingly common situation of students who seek a new college for reasons related to mental health.

A student who entered college with a pre-existing diagnosis of mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, may find that her current college is not sufficiently supportive of her needs. Or a student may experience mental health challenges for the first time while away at college, take a semester or two off to deal with them, and decide it would be better to transfer to a new school. The choice to transfer is not an easy one to make, nor is the process uncomplicated.

Here are a number of issues to consider and information to guide you if you are contemplating a transfer for mental health reasons:

Why Did You Choose College A in the First Place?

Whatever the reason for your original college choice, you want to first make sure you have given yourself sufficient time to thoroughly evaluate College A before considering College B. Think about what it is that College A offers or lacks that may be different at College B.

Perhaps you chose College A because of its rigorous and competitive atmosphere. Would a less intense academic atmosphere better suit you? Or are you at a big school and want to be part of a smaller student body — or vice versa? There are many different factors to consider as you think of transferring: the mix of students, the social atmosphere on and off campus, the support of faculty, and so on.

You also want to consider how you may have changed. A great deal of personal growth occurs in the late teen years. What you thought would be important about college at age 17 may not be what matters at age 19. Be realistic about what you want from a school as well as the role you play in shaping your own experience. You want to find a place where you will thrive both personally and academically.

Find advice and different perspectives about starting college and thriving in your first year on campus.

How Would College B Better Support Your Mental Health?

If you are facing a mental health challenge, you want to choose a college that supports your specific psychological needs while providing an optimal learning atmosphere.

Most, but not all, colleges and universities provide psychological counseling centers on campus, often called CCCs. By design, the majority of CCCs have limited hours and are set up to offer short-term therapy only. Some set a limit on the number of counseling visits a student can have per semester, or perhaps they charge a fee. Some CCCs do not have a psychiatrist and are staffed primarily by graduate students of psychology, social workers, or psychologists who cannot prescribe or manage medications.

If your particular mental health concern requires ongoing therapy appointments and regular management of your medications, and these are not offered on-campus, you will want to transfer to a college or university in a community that has these resources in a reasonably accessible location off-campus. Research these options carefully; it won’t be helpful to transfer to a new school if there are no accessible psychiatrists’ offices within a short distance of campus or if local providers do not accept your insurance.

In addition to making sure that your need for ongoing therapy or medication is met, you should prioritize finding a campus that provides psychological resources and an understanding environment. These are some indicators of a mental health–friendly campus:

  • A college office of disability services that is equipped to offer accommodations in support of psychiatric illnesses. Visit the office in person if you can and talk about your concerns.

  • Peer counseling organizations and/or active chapters of student-run groups that promote mental health wellness, awareness and advocacy, such as Active Minds and NAMI. The vitality of such organizations can be a sign of a college that places a priority on student mental health.

  • Faculty, staff, and residential advisors who are trained in mental health wellness and suicide prevention.

  • Programs that encourage healthy student living, such as stress prevention workshops, support groups, and help for students dealing with substance abuse.

  • A low professor-to-student ratio, small classes and seminars, and an understanding residential advising process that ensure you will get as much individualized attention as possible.

To learn more, check out Nancy Wolf's three-part series on what a mental health–friendly campus looks like.

How does the transfer process work?

So, let’s say you’ve decided to transfer. What should you do next?

According to Marsha Shaines, an independent college counselor with College Strategies in Kensington, Maryland, the first thing to understand is that the competition for transfer slots is very different from the competition for first year–admissions. Colleges decide on the number of transfer students they accept based on the number of unfilled spaces they have in a class. This means that some colleges and universities may accept no transfer students at all, some highly competitive schools may have many spots, or some less competitive schools may have just a handful of openings.

Transfer application deadlines differ from first year–admission deadlines — they generally run later in the year, with March or April as a deadline for applying for the upcoming fall. Some colleges will also accept transfer students for mid-year admission.

Shaines says that the most important factor in College B’s decision to accept you is what you’ve achieved at College A, including what recent professors have to say in their recommendations. How much College B weights your high school record may depend on how many credits you have earned before you apply to transfer. Generally, the more transferable college credits you have earned, the less weight College B will give to your high school transcript and your SAT/ACT test scores. Instead, College B will focus more on your college record up to this point.

You may also want to bolster your achievements at College A by taking a class or two in a required subject as a visiting student at a college or university near your home during the summer or winter break. It’s a good idea to make sure that both College A and College B will accept these credits.

Shaines notes that College B may set a minimum GPA level for transfer applicants and may also choose not to accept all of your College A credits (which will mean you need to take extra classes in order to graduate, resulting in possible financial implications for your family).

Most importantly, College B will want to know why you want to transfer — why you want to leave College A (or have already left) and why you want to go to College B. This may, in fact, be the only essay question on a transfer application. You should frame your answer in positive terms — explain why College B will be a better fit for you — rather than focus on College A’s perceived shortcomings.

College can be an incredible time of growth, but that development can’t happen if you don’t feel you are in a supportive environment. If your current college doesn’t feel like the right place for you, rest assured that there are dozens of other schools that can offer new opportunities for success.

If you are debating what to do, first read this article, Four Questions to Consider About Transferring Colleges. You can also search for college here on Noodle, and you are welcome to post any question you have about transferring to the Noodle community of education experts.