Over the years I’ve been asked many questions about college, and a common one is “can I re-apply as a freshman?” I’m asked this by both students and parents, often with the hope that after a student does poorly or even fails at one college they can transfer to another for a fresh start. There can be a lot of confusion around this issue, so being clear on how colleges feel about this issue is very important. Keep in mind that in the U.S. all colleges are similar, but can be very different from each other as well. As I usually put it: There is similarity, but not uniformity, in U.S. higher education. So there is no one set of universal rules.
How Colleges See Student Applicants
In general, colleges have two categories of applicant types based on when they entered the higher education system. The first type is a freshman, and this means that a student is applying directly from high school. They are “first timers” in that they have not attended another university, or any kind of post-high school institution in the higher education system (including a community college). U.S. colleges usually receive the majority of their applications each year as this kind as freshman.
The second kind of applicant type is a transfer student. A “transfer” to colleges, in general, is any student who has attended a higher education institution after high school. This includes any four-year college, two-year community or junior college, or similar school. This definition also doesn’t care whether they attended there part-time, full-time, earned a two-year degree, or even took a single class. If the student “attempted” a course, which means enrolled and began a class, that’s attendance to them. Most colleges have a transfer admission system set up, separate from the freshman one, which has it’s own application process, admission criteria, and even transfer counselors in some cases. For some colleges, transfer students – like their freshman counterparts – must submit essays, Professor recommendations, or other information to be considered by the school. And, as a standard, they will want to know about any prior attendance of classes and want to see an official transcript.
Many students, upon reading the transfer requirements for a school, become concerned that they will not be accepted. They may have low grades or a low GPA, be unable to get Professor recommendations, or encounter other problems that will prevent a successful transfer. And this is when the temptation hits to just hit the “reset” button and apply as a freshman student comes.
The Temptation To Just “Restart” When Transferring With A Low GPA
While I have my own view of this, I’ve learned that students and parents want to decide this for themselves, despite my advice. So I can say that there are really two options for considering the temptation of just re-applying as a freshman.
Option one is that yes, you can do that, but at your own risk – which can be considerable. Over the last 10 years colleges have become increasingly serious about things related to “deception” like plagiarism and academic integrity. Most schools have written policies about this, and some even incorporate these right in to their application forms. One student wrote me last year about wanting to apply as a freshman after he attended elsewhere and did poorly, but then saw in all capital letters a statement right on the school’s application that essentially said “you must disclose all prior class attendance, whether successful or not.” Most colleges consider falsifying any university documents, which includes an application, to be academic dishonesty and say that the student can be expelled. Some colleges are so serious about this issue that not only may a student be dismissed, they assert that “the university reserves the right to withdraw a degree that has been granted.” In other words, if you falsify the application to get in, succeed and even graduate, they can take back the degree if discovered later.
Responses From Colleges For Low GPA Applications
Option two is a more difficult but sustainable route: You apply as a transfer student. But there are some predictable responses from schools that you can expect.
When a student applies to a college with a low GPA, there are actually several things that can happen, and not all lead to an automatic rejection. The first response from a college could be an outright rejection, usually without a given reason, but usually happens at large public colleges that are too busy to see past grades. If you apply to a small private college, or even a small public one, they may be more willing to explain what they want to see before they will consider a student for admission. The stock explanation that colleges have given, in my experience, is that they want to see recent good grades in the form of earning credits “elsewhere.” They usually tell the student that these recent good grades will outweigh the bad grades of the past, and the most likely scenario to earn these credits is in the open enrollment two-year community college system.
Another thing that can happen is that, despite a poor one or two semesters, a student may actually be admitted on their high school grades. However this route is usually time-linked, and by no means universal across colleges. Some schools will consider this only for a first-year student because their high school grades are recent, so this may not work for a student applying as a sophomore or junior. If a student is early in their college career, some schools may feel that their high school grades are more representative of their academic abilities. For example, some schools will demarcate a credit number, such as 12 or 24, and say that if a student has attempted below that number of credits in college they will favor high school grades more strongly for admission. Above that number they will look at college grades as more representative of their potential.
Always keep in mind that there is a big difference between applying to a college as a freshman after attending a different school, and being admitted as a freshman to a new school. For the application process, “freshman” means a first-time attender of any college, but this is different from being a “freshman” in the college system in general. The latter usually means that the student has earned below 30 semester hour credits (or 48 quarter hour units), so the second connotation of this term is a merely a progress indicator.
Making Your Decision: Transfer Student Or Not?
So in contemplating which application route you should take when transferring, keep in mind your end goal. Do you want to get in so badly that you are willing to take a big risk? Or are you the kind of person who wants a more sustainable pathway once you do find your next college? While I might say the choice is yours, what the college system says is clear. If you did attend elsewhere, you’re technically a transfer student, and must follow a school’s rules for applying. But be assured, even though you might have had bad grades or failed in the past, there are circumstances like I discussed where they might let you in.
For More Information:
College problems can repeat across schools unless solved, so please see:
And also take the Low GPA Transfer Quiz to check you knowledge!
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.