Is it possible to transfer to a top MBA program?

BY Sydney LakeJuly 16, 2021, 2:00 AM
Artistic depiction of a graduation cap
Martin Laksman

You’re here because you’re having second thoughts about your MBA program. The good news is you’re not alone, but the bad news is that changing programs could be a challenge—especially if you’re trying for an M7 or top 15 business school.

The MBA admissions process is an arduous one as you decide which programs to apply to, and which school to eventually attend. But life happens, and sometimes you don’t find the perfect fit. Some of the most common reasons behind MBA candidates’ decision to transfer include concerns about rankings, teaching methods, and school location, says MBA admissions consultant Claudia Nelson.

While it’s not impossible to transfer from one MBA program to a top-ranked program, “the worst thing that could happen is you leave one program to go to another that you’re also not feeling so great about,” warns Nelson, the director of operations and client relations for Admissionado

Do top programs accept transfer students?

Most MBA programs don’t accept what one would typically think of as a transfer student—that is, a student who uses credits from one program to continue on at another from which they will eventually graduate. 

Most schools, including the M7 (Harvard Business School, Stanford University, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia University), will not accept credit transfers, says Sameer Kamat, founder of MBA Crystal Ball, an admissions consultancy. For example, at Kellogg, all MBA candidates (even those who are attempting to transfer) must go through the normal application process. The school does not accept transfer credits from other MBA programs, according to a spokesperson.

In fact, most of the top 15 schools (which include the M7 plus Yale University, Dartmouth College, New York University, University of Virginia, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, University of California–Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business) do not accept credit transfers, according to their respective admissions offices. Rather, students are expected to complete the full program. So if you’re looking to move to a more prestigious school, you’ll likely have to start all over again.

“While I know folks who’ve done this, it’s still pretty uncommon,” says Kamat, who also authored Beyond the MBA Hype. “Jumping ship means you lose out on all that you’ve invested, built, and earned.” This includes time, fees, friendships, credits, and student club positions, he adds. 

Some business schools that do accept transfer students include the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, the University of Texas at Dallas, University of Pittsburgh (Katz), Boston University Questrom School of Business, and University of California–Davis, he adds. 

Back to square one

Two-year, cohort-style programs leave little wiggle room for concessions. Because most top MBA programs are structured this way and have competing learning methods (like case studies, lectures, and group work), it’s difficult to take pieces of one MBA program and apply them to another. 

The Dartmouth Tuck School of Business admissions office describes its two-year experience as an “essential part” of its MBA program and doesn’t accept transfer students. 

“The Tuck experience is unique not only in its curricular aspects, but also by the relationships that students build with their peers, the faculty, and the administrators,” according to Tuck admissions. “Only a full two years will allow our students to experience and fully appreciate this distinctly immersive learning environment.”

These relationships begin to form in the first few weeks and months of an MBA program, Kamat adds. 

“When you move from one school to another—after several months or a whole year—don’t expect to hit the ground running,” he says. “You will have to learn to crawl in the new ecosystem and go through the learning curve.”

Things to think about when transferring

While it’s generally ill-advised to attempt to change MBA programs, there are ways to gracefully do so while also being realistic. Many business schools provide space for an optional essay, which could give you the opportunity to explain your reasons for wanting to transfer, Nelson says. Being honest and upfront is important, she adds.

“You don’t want to make the same mistake twice,” she says. “So talk to as many alumni as you can, go to info sessions. Get as much information as you can about why you want to go to these programs, why you want to make that transfer.”

Additionally, it’s imperative to think about the sunk cost of the investment you’ve made in your current MBA program, both in terms of time and money. 

“For a lot of people it’s a big deal to potentially have to pay up at your former school and then start again with this new program,” Nelson says. “You’re going to be taking a lot more time out of the workforce, so consider that time with your budget and everything as well.”

And beyond logistical aspects, transferring could affect how a recruiter views you. “There may still be the perception that you took an easier backdoor route to get into an elite B-school,” Kamat says.

“As far as possible, try to avoid transferring midway through a program,” he says. “Out of the thousands of programs out there, you selectively applied to a handful after thorough research. If you’re now attending one of them, it does tick a lot of the boxes you wanted. Stick to it, and don’t get distracted. 

“Try to turn the current opportunity into a success story.”