Planning Ahead to Transfer from Community College to Selective Schools
Question: I graduated from high school when I was 19 and will start a two-year community college at 20. I haven't taken the SAT's yet and am wondering what I can start doing now to help me get into an elite institution such as Columbia or NYU.
"Elite" colleges such as Columbia and NYU are indeed interested in candidates from atypical backgrounds, and this often includes transfer applicants from community colleges. So you're wise to be looking far down the road as you begin your community college career.
For starters, in order to be a contender at the most competitive colleges, you will need straight A's--or close to it--at your community college. You should also take a broad range of liberal arts courses (English, math, science, foreign language, etc.) regardless of your intended major.
Beyond this, you should have something "extra" on your application, too. This could mean that you get involved on your new campus and hold one or more leadership roles there. It could, instead, be a special talent or interest that you cultivate outside of school, or even a paid job, especially if you're working a lot of hours.
One thing you might want to do now is to call the admission offices at Columbia, NYU, and any other college that is especially attractive to you. Ask for the name and e-mail address of the admission official who oversees transfer students. (Most colleges have at least one staff member whose duties include working with transfers.) Then you can contact him or her directly (e-mail is fine) and explain your current situation and your goal in two years. Ask about the type of community college curriculum that their institution recommends. Chances are, you'll be told the same thing we just told you ("Range of liberal arts courses") but you could pick up some specific advice as well. Moreover, you may establish a relationship with the transfer counselor that will help you when you're ready to make your move. (In other words, if this official volunteers to assist you with answers to any questions that crop up in the future, be sure to take advantage of that offer.)
You should also visit the transfer office at your community college as soon as possible. Ask how often graduates from that school make moves to Columbia, NYU, and other competitive institutions. Ask what path the successful candidates have followed. Some community colleges regularly send top students to highly selective schools, and their experienced counselors provide good advice about course selection and other transfer imperatives. At other CC's, however, an elite-college transfer is rare, and you may not get the most effective counsel. That's another reason why it can't hurt to contact the four-year schools right away.
As for your SATs, many (though not all) colleges will require them, even for non-traditional transfer students. You should wait to take the tests until the spring of your first year at community college or the fall of your second year. Presumably, by then you will have had additional math and English classes that will help to boost your scores. You can certainly sign up to take the tests sooner, if you're curious to know how you'll do.
While SAT scores typically don't play as big a part in transfer admission as they do in freshman admission, if your scores are way out of the median range at the colleges on your list, this could hurt your final verdicts. So, you might want to know now if you're even in the ballpark at those colleges that will require test results. However, do expect the scores to go up after another year or more of schooling. Also, be sure to find out whether only the SAT I is required or if you need to take the SAT II (Subject Tests) as well.
Hope that helps. Best of luck to you as you begin this new step in your life. You may even find that as an "older" student you will get more out of your education than many of your traditional-aged counterparts, even if they're only slightly younger than you are.