I transfered from a 4th tier Nova Southeastern to a top third tier Penn State this past year. I sent nearly 20 applications to transfer to schools all over the southeast and in my discussions with the admissions counselors they explained their criteria.
1. Last year and especially this year, admissions are tough and many schools have accepted too many students therefore the amount of students who are transferring have decreased because there is little room at other schools. For example Penn State had almost 40 applications, they accepted 4 people. The school I came from Nova Southeastern, only had 5 students leave via transfer. In other years they had between 20-30 students transfer. Some schools I applied to accepted 1-2 students. Keep in mind those schools that have over-enrollment can only accept as many student as have left.
2. You must show a direction connection to the school/area you want to transfer to. The "better school" reason doesnt work, apparently nor does the boyfriend or girlfriend in another state reason. The admissions committee feel that you should have thought about this before you committed to going to another school. The one caveat to this is engagement or already married.
3. Grades are important, but w/o a connection transferring will be tough.
4. If you are at the top of your class - top 5 people (not 5%) its your call, but dont expect to go from Cooley to Harvard or Yale. A jump in 1-2 tiers is realistic.
5. Establish a connection with the schools admission office - call them, become friends. Since decisions will not be made on your transfer application until August (yes that means 2-3 weeks to move, find a place to live and start a new school). If you establish a connection with the Dean of Admissions/Students they are more likely to remember who you are when it comes down to making a decision in August.
6. Good Luck!!