How to Transfer Credits and Stay on Track at a US University

advice for students
Cleveland State University
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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Save time and money by following our expert advice when switching schools.

Three international students sit in front of a wall of windows and collaborate on coursework while one student writes in a notebook

Universities and colleges in the United States offer some of the best learning opportunities, internship options, and career outcomes anywhere in the world. Whether you are an international student and want to continue your education in the United States or a domestic student looking for credit transfer university options, there are many reasons to apply for your spot at a university in the US by transfer deadline day.

Read on to get answers to your most common credit transfer process questions, with tips and advice from experts here at Shorelight and Cleveland State Global. Remember, not all credits will transfer to your destination university in the US. Making smart class, program, and institutional choices can save you a lot of time and money as you pursue higher education. 

Why Transfer Universities? 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 1.3 million students transferred schools in the United States in 2019. There are several reasons students choose to transfer colleges and universities, including simply changing their minds. Pedro Cobos, Shorelight’s assistant partnership manager, US Onshore Recruitment, often reminds students that it is OK to explore their options after graduating high school. 

“I don’t expect a freshman to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” said Cobos. “I started [in] engineering and look at me: I’m not an engineer.” 

After starting remotely, some students decide to transfer to in-person universities as COVID conditions improve. Others transfer universities to save money. Still others start at community colleges and/or work to improve their grades before applying to a four-year university. Transferring can also be a great way for a student to get a second chance after a low grade point average (GPA) in high school. 

“Once the student hits 30 credits, meaning after they’ve completed the first year of junior college or community college or an overseas program, it’s more of a clean slate for them,” said Cobos. “For most schools, your first-year junior college grades are more important” than your SAT score or high school GPA.

Other students transfer because their school does not have the resources, relationships, or opportunities students can get from a university in the United States. The US is home to eight of the top 10 global universities. US universities value experiential learning and often incorporate projects in state-of-the-art labs or offer internships with prominent businesses as part of the curriculum.

Rose Begalla, managing director of Cleveland State Global at Cleveland State University,* uses a mechanical engineering transfer student as an example. “We may ask: ‘So, you want to be an engineer. What kind of lab experiences did you have? None? OK,’” she says. “Or we may ask: ‘Did you do any co-ops or internships in the summer? No?’ We bring in a list and show them all the places that they can go and do those sorts of things. We have an area on campus called The Maker Space, in the engineering building, where students can learn how to use a lathe or see a CNC press in person. We’ve even got filament and 3-D printers.”

Begalla points out that Cleveland State University started as a commuter school, which means they’ve always focused on educational opportunities to help students advance their careers. By working closely with industry leaders, Cleveland State makes sure they create an informed curriculum that represents the latest thinking in many different areas of interest — which often appeals to transfer students. As a result, Cleveland State graduates have an education that prepares them for a modern workplace and professional experience before entering the workforce. 

Both Cobos and Begalla agree: If you’re committed to transferring universities, it’s important to attend one that prepares you for the real-world application of theory and class- or book-based learning. 

“At Cleveland State, [we’re known for] engaged learning,” said Begalla. “Every [student earning a] degree has the opportunity to do an internship or conduct real-life research. When they leave us, students have more than the theoretical knowledge for the classroom — they have that hands-on experience.”

Learn more about experiential learning at universities in the United States >

How Do I Transfer Credits Between Universities? 

There are several important considerations when transferring credits from one school to another. The earlier you decide to move to a university in the United States, the better. That’s because not all of your credits are guaranteed to transfer over. You want to make sure you choose your class load and your junior college carefully to ensure that you get the most credit you can for classes that you have already taken (and for which you have already paid). 

Read our guide to transferring to a university in the United States >

“All students think that all of their credits are going to transfer and they’re going to be juniors right off the bat,” said Cobos. “Realistically, around 45 to 50 of their 60 credits will transfer, meaning they may have to do an additional semester that they may not be expecting at a four-year school.”

Let’s take a look at some of the most important considerations when transferring credits, no matter if you are transferring from a junior college, community college, or an international institution. 

Keep Your GPA Above 2.5 

It’s easier for many students to transfer from one university to another than to apply right from high school. For one thing, those standardized test scores are less important. That said, Cobos recommends keeping your GPA as high as you can while attending college. 

“Most universities require a 2.5 GPA to transfer, but many students don’t realize that their GPA is attempted courses,” said Cobos. “Failed classes can’t necessarily be deleted from your record because your GPA is based on all attempted courses. So, especially in a community college or a junior college setting, you should strive for a 3.0 to be competitive when it comes to admission.”

Begin the Transfer Application Process Four to Six Months Before Classes Start

The best time to begin the transfer process is always as early as possible. There are several good reasons to think about your eventual transfer school, even if you are only starting your studies at a junior or community college. Knowing what you will study and where you want to go will save you time down the line. Once you are ready, Begalla recommends beginning the application process four to six months before the first day of classes. 

“I always tell students, ‘don’t wait until the last minute,’” said Begalla. “Earlier, there might be scholarship money available. Or if you’ve got transfer credit or advanced placement credit, we can look at that sooner.” 

Remember, Most University Application Processes are the Same for Transfer Students

For many universities, the difference between the application process for first-year students straight from high school and transfer students is which box you check on the form. Even though many schools deprioritize standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT, they still require students to share their transcripts and exam results. 

“The application process is pretty much identical. It’s just that you check a different box,” said Begalla. “With transfers, an agent or enrollment services [staff member] will usually reach out to my team to say that a student is coming into pre-nursing or engineering, and [ask us to] look at their credits and see what Cleveland State can use.”

Look for Articulation Agreements 

An articulation agreement between a junior college or community college and a four-year university is where both schools agree to certain credits and classes transferring within a given program. Gonzaga University, for example, has articulation agreements with Washington State Community and Technical Colleges and North Idaho College, which detail accepted associate degrees and student resources available. 

“Some schools have similar agreements that are not officially articulated. For instance, when a student tells me they really want to go to Louisiana State University (LSU), but can’t afford it or can’t get in, I tell them they should consider going to Baton Rouge Community College because they have already evaluated all the credits,” said Cobos. “Starting at local community colleges or schools with relationships with your goal four-year school will maximize your opportunities of getting transferable credits.” 

Look for Transfer Tables Before You Enroll in Classes 

Many universities in the United States use previously accepted transfer credits from earlier students to guide their decisions about contemporary credit transfer policy. This information is contained in transfer tables and, in many cases, is available to everyone. LSU publishes its transfer tables on its website for students to use. 

Transfer tables list all the classes from other colleges and universities that a US university has already accepted as creditworthy for a specific program. If possible, look for the transfer tables at your US university before enrolling. See if any students from your current program ever transferred to your US university and use their accepted credit transfers as guidance when choosing classes. 

What to Do if Your Credits Are Not Accepted When You Transfer

If your transfer university does not initially accept your credits, you still have options. Transfer tables link classes from one school to another. They originally came from students who had their courses evaluated by professors and faculty and were deemed transferable by the university. Just like those students, you can have your courses evaluated by instructors in your area of study (if they haven’t been already). 

“If you do take something specific, a coding course, for example, it may not immediately translate to the computer science or computer engineering program at your new four-year school. It may need some evaluation,” said Cobos. “If you are not sure your credit will be accepted, make sure you keep the syllabus. You make sure that when you come for orientation, you bring your transcript, but you also bring a syllabus of the course to get it evaluated by the faculty. So, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be transferable, [but] maybe it just needs to be evaluated.”

You May Still Be Able to Get General Education Credit, Even if Your Department Doesn’t Accept Your Credits

Even if your classes are not accepted as counting toward your major, you still have other options. Your courses may count toward your general education requirements, which most universities in the United States require. 

Learn more about general education courses at US universities >

“Just because a university accepts your transfer credit doesn’t necessarily mean the major can actually use it,” said Begalla. “The first thing I always tell students is that although Cleveland State specifically will accept a whole lot of different types of credit for transfer, not everything that transfers is able to be used in the degree program.”

Cleveland State works hard to get credits to transfer and will even reach out to your current college faculty to better understand a specific class and find a parallel in their curriculum.

“We always try to find a way to use the credit that the student has earned in some way, whether it’s general education requirements or it’s major requirements. Some of the majors have so many open electives and take classes in various areas,” said Begalla. “I don’t want students wasting their time or money. Sometimes we can get it to work beautifully. Other times, you might not be able to use two or three classes.”

Pick Courses That Transfer

Finally, both Begalla and Cobos recommend that students consider the courses that they take before transferring to their four-year university in the United States. Try not to pick anything too easy or remedial, and stay away from classes that are too specific for a particular major as they may not translate to the department offerings at your university. If you are unsure and worried about credits transferring, start with your general education requirements.

“Typically, if students take a general first year overseas for one or two terms, we can usually fit that credit into general education [requirements],” said Begalla. “If you know you want to study humanities or science, you can always lean more into the core classes for those disciplines.”

“If you want to play it safe, just take your bio, English, math,” said Cobos. “Nothing remedial, nothing overly technical, and nothing way too detailed into a major because it won’t transfer.”

Studying at a university in the United States can open career doors that aren’t available elsewhere for students. Students have access to internships, work-study programs, and networking relationships that can better prepare them for life after university. If you get stuck, work with a Shorelight advisor to help you plan classes, understand transfer tables, and apply to a university in the United States. 

Shorelight can help you transfer to a four-year college or university >

*Rose Begalla is no longer at CSU Global. All titles were accurate at time of publication.