Deciding whether or not to transfer to a new college or university may be one of the most challenging choices you'll have to make during your time in school. If you do decide you want or need to transfer, though, how exactly do you start the process?
Think about what you want in your new school. Do you want a different academic field of study? Do you want a college that's more intellectually challenging? Less intellectually challenging? Do you want something closer to home? Farther from home? Something that's a bit cheaper, perhaps? Or just one that has a campus culture you think is a better fit? Making sure you have answers to these questions is critically important as you try to figure out where you're going to transfer to. After all, you don't want to go to another institution just to find out you've duplicated your problems somewhere else.
Research your new institutions' requirements. Once you've narrowed down your field of good transfer colleges, spend some time looking at the requirements of each school. Keep in mind, too, that many schools have different requirements for transfers than they do for, say, students coming straight in from high school. What might have been a good fit for you when you first started school may no longer be a good match. Erase what you knew before about what schools would be a good match and look closely at each institution's requirements. How are they different for transfers? Are the deadlines different (e.g., spring deadlines instead of November 1)? What different materials might you need to submit?
Keep things positive at your current institution. Even if you absolutely can't stand your current school, do your best to keep things positive. Keep your grades up; you'll need to demonstrate to the schools you're hoping to transfer to that you can hold your own in a college environment. Maintain good relationships with your professors and campus administrators; you just might need a letter of recommendation from them for your transfer application. If nothing else, you don't want to burn any bridges at your current institution until you know exactly where you're transferring to next year.
Look into what credits are going to transfer to your new institution. This is especially important to consider if you're transferring for financial reasons. If, for example, you're going to lose nearly a year's worth of credits through the transfer, you might not end up saving much money by switching schools. Talk with an admissions counselor at a potential school so that you're clear, from the beginning, about which credits you can take with you -- and which will have to be left behind.
Remember: Your application should communicate why you want to transfer, not why you want to go to college. Try not to sell yourself short by shifting the focus inappropriately in your transfer applications. Clearly, you want to be in college ... but why do you want to leave the college you're currently enrolled in? And why do you want to transfer to ABC School in particular? Your applications as a transfer should be markedly different than your applications were as a high school student. Communicate why you want to go somewhere new without being too harsh on why your current school isn't a fit.
Learn about withdrawal/transfer dates and penalties at your current school. You don't want to have to pay a small fortune because you forgot to officially withdraw at your current school. Check in with the registrar and look at an official academic calendar to learn the dates you'll need to submit all paperwork and other information if you do decide to go through with the transfer. It can be easy to be so focused on your new school that you forget all the details that have to be handled at your current one. A few small mistakes, however, can end up proving quite costly later on.
Consider a leave of absence if you're transferring for personal reasons. Sometimes, life just gets in the way, and what was a good fit for you a year or two or three ago is no longer a match. If you need to transfer quickly, see if your school can offer you a leave of absence and some kind of arrangement so you don't lose all of your hard work. For example, if you must transfer somewhere closer to home so you can help take care of a sick family member or help with the family business, see if you can finish up your classes long-distance so you won't lose a semester's worth of credits (and tuition payments!).
Make sure you complete as many tasks as possible before leaving campus. If you thought it was a major pain in the brain to get transcripts, financial aid printouts, and 10 million other documents while you are still on campus, imagine how hard it will be if you're trying to do these same tasks from far away. Do as much as you can before you leave campus for good so that you can focus your energy on building up a new life at a new school -- instead of on tearing down the life you're trying to leave behind.