In the few years since I transferred from Oxford to Harvard, about half a dozen people who were thinking of making a similar move have found my brief blog post on the switch and have emailed me with questions. I am incredibly glad that I transferred, so I am very happy to help others do the same; definitely do reach out if you have questions! But there have been some common themes and questions in the emails, so I’ll try to save you time by answering some of them here.
Caveat #1: If you just like the idea of wrenching both schools’ names into your undergraduate degree, I can’t help you. This tends to be a more prevalent attitude amongst high school students than university students though. So before you email asking me how you can plan to go to one institution and then transfer into the other, let me just say: that is a terrible plan. The huge amounts of luck involved in getting admitted through the transfer process means that extremely smart, lovely, and talented people get rejected all the time. I only transferred because I found Oxford unsatisfying, and it would be a really dumb idea to go to a university just for the name and put yourself through a year or two of misery before you let yourself apply to the place you actually want to go.
Caveat #2: Although I applied and was admitted to several American colleges back in 2013, including Harvard, I only applied to Harvard for transfer application. This was mainly because it was the university that I had visited, and I could talk about a strong connection I felt with the place in my essays. Therefore all my advice and knowledge is pretty specific to Harvard’s transfer application process, and you should definitely check if the other colleges to which you are applying have a different process or timeline.
Final note: this little explainer is aimed at British university students who are unlikely to be familiar with the overall system of applying to American colleges, so it goes over things like the SATs which you may already understand. It may not be relevant to you if you’re American.
The Timeline and Application Components
Most Ivy League colleges have an end of February/early March deadline. In Harvard’s case, they let us know the outcome of the application in mid-May, for admission that September.
Either the ACT with writing or the old SAT I (the one I took in 2012) or the new SAT with writing. Harvard asks for two SAT subject tests as well (I took Math 1 and English Literature), but they say that “you may apply without them if the cost of taking the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them”. Preparing for and taking these tests requires some organization. When I was taking my SATs during my gap year in the fall of 2012, I was working 4 days a week and then spent Fridays and weekends doing practice tests and working with a Kaplan tutor for a couple of hours for the math parts. So it should be manageable with an Oxford-like schedule for a term. I took the SAT 1 twice and got a better score on the second one, but when I was admitted for transfer and got here I actually found out that they never received the better score, only the first one. So it is not the end of the world if you can’t take it twice. You can also get a fee waiver for the cost of registration.
Common App and college-specific supplements
The Common Application is an online web application that lets you apply to colleges in the United States. This is where you bring together your application materials and essays. Every university will require at least one essay (if not more) on why you want to transfer to that school. These take a long time to write and can never be started too early. They may also require supplementary essays or materials (Harvard has a Harvard-specific essay just for them). Although a fee is required to apply to each school (~$70), you can get a fee waiver from the school.
High school / secondary school transcripts
You need to get your secondary school ready to send copies of your exam results to each college you are applying to. This was the most worrying part for me; the first copy got lost in the post, and Harvard called me to complain that they hadn’t received them a month after the appliction deadline had passed. Unfortunately you cannot send these yourself; they must come directly from a school official.
College transcripts and Mid-Year Report
In Oxford PPE, I only had first-year exam results to show Harvard even though I was applying eighteen months into the degree. So those were my transcripts, and I had to ask Oxford’s admin office to send the transcripts by post. You can’t send them yourself.
2 tutor recommendations
You need to get two tutors to write recommendations for you. Harvard asks for them to be in different academic subjects, which was fine for me in PPE, but if you are studying a regular British degree in one subject then I am sure they will understand. You input their email addresses to the Common App system and they will get an email invite to write a recommendation for you. You cannot submit your application until they have done their part, so give them a lot of heads-up about this.
Financial Aid: I’ve been told by the admissions folks that Harvard has experienced an increase in applications from Britain since the 2012 university fees hike, because even though the sticker price is much higher in the States, with need-blind admissions and financial aid the final cost is much more comparable. International students should be careful of colleges that profess to be need-blind; some, like UPenn, are need-aware for international students. Harvard and Yale are need-blind for all applicants, though, and the majority of students at Harvard are on some financial aid. Harvard’s net price calculator gives you some idea of what they will ask you to pay, based on some info about your family. Financial aid applications are separate from admissions apps, but they need to be submitted at the same time.
1) Doesn’t applying to transfer out of your current university make things really awkward with your tutors? What if I don’t get into my transfer colleges?
It’s definitely a risk. The two tutors I asked for recommendations were understanding once I explained my reasons for thinking I would fit better somewhere else. Other than that, the only people you have to tell are the university administrative officials who need to send off your transcripts, and you can generally keep it to yourself. However, see next question…
2) Is there an interview, and if so what is it like?
They did not do an interview for me for transfer admission. However, the universities of everyone who eventually got admitted did receive a phone call from Harvard admissions counselors about a month before we were notified of acceptance, which seems to have been about just checking that I was who I said I was and that Oxford didn’t entirely hate me. Luckily for me, someone at my college had the presence of mind to hand the call to a tutor who had studied in America, and she therefore knew roughly what they wanted to hear. But there’s nothing you can do to control that, so don’t worry about it.
3) Would you mind doing a Skype call with me?
Not at all! I’ve even met up for coffee (when I’ve been in London, which isn’t very often these days) with a couple of people who wanted to talk more broadly about the differences between their university and Harvard, and get a better sense of whether Harvard would be a good fit for them. I’m more likely to be in the States though, so a Skype call is more likely.
As always, feel free to email me with any questions (alexcabrahams [at] gmail [dot] com).
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