Customize Your Common Application “Why Transfer” Essay as Needed

Transfer college

We have been getting a lot of questions regarding what to write for the Common Application main “why do you want to transfer” essay. Our advice is to customize your essay if doing so would tell the story you want to tell the reader, keeping in mind the rest of your application. You might then ask, “What?  I can tailor my Common App essay?  But the Common App instructions says to NOT customize my essay.” You would be correct, in that the Common App main essay instructions say this:

Note: The Common Application essay should be the same for all colleges. Members that wish to review custom essay responses will request them on their Supplement form.

However, you can actually customize the Common App essay if you want to. The technicalities of the Common App allows you to submit different versions of your application and essay to different schools. Here are the Common App’s instructions for submitting an “alternate version” of your application:

The standard functionality of the Common Application allows an applicant to submit a single  application to many Common Application member institutions using one application. In the event that an applicant chooses to provide slightly different information from institution to institution, she may do so by creating alternate versions of their application.

You can read the complete instructions for submitting alternate versions of your Common App at the end of this article.

We think that the Common App’s instruction not to mention a particular school in the main essay is incredibly awkward: it’s strange to ask students to explain why they want to transfer but at the same time tell them that they can’t mention where they want to transfer to. If it were up to us, we would do away with the Common App and have a simple separate application for each school, allowing the student to explain clearly and exactly to each school why he or she wants to transfer to it.

Like we said in our previous blog post on the Common App essay vs. the school supplement essay, depending on the story that you want to tell each school you’re applying to, you should customize your Common App for each particular school. That means that you might want to submit the same “why transfer” essay to some of the schools you’re applying to. At the same time, you might want to customize your “why transfer” essay for, say, Dartmouth, which doesn’t ask for a school supplement essay where you can talk about why you want to specifically transfer to Dartmouth.  We’ve seen both general and customized main essays work for admission to the most selective schools in the country.

Let us know which approach to the Common App “why transfer” essay you take and how it works out for you!

From Commonapp.org

Application Versions

The Common Application should generally be completed once, with identical copies sent to all colleges. You should create a new version if you wish to correct an error discovered after submission or provide new information not available when you first submitted the application. It is not necessary to “customize” your Common Application for individual colleges. Individual college supplements and supplemental essay questions should be used to provide special information to different colleges. Below are the steps necessary to create an alternate version.

Step1: You must submit the Common Application to at least one institution first. You cannot create an alternate version until this has occurred.

Step 2: You must log out of the application then go to this special URL:



and login using your existing User Name and Password. 

Step 3: Upon login you will be taken to the ‘Common Application’ page, where you will see information about the application you have already submitted. The ability to create an alternate version of your submitted Common Application is now activated, and you should click on the ‘Replicate’ link to make an alternate version of your submitted application. When this is complete, a second version will be visible on your screen and a special drop down list will appear in the upper right corner of your application. You can use this drop down to move between application versions.

All data from your original version of your Common Application will be transferred to your alternate version, with the exception of any documents that you uploaded. You may edit any of this information before you submit it to another institution.

You only need to go to the special URL the first time you create an alternative version. Thereafter, additional application versions can be made by going to the ‘Common Application’ section within your original Common Application and using the ‘Replicate’ link. You may make up to 10 versions, including the original version. You only need your original User Name and Password to access all versions.

When you create the first alternate version of your application you will see a simple confirmation message. If you create any additional alternate versions of your application you will need to complete two affirmation statements then click the ‘OK’ button. You may also click the ‘Cancel’ button to not create the new alternate version.

You will have a separate My Colleges page for each application version. Each institution can only be on the My Colleges list of one application version, and you can have a total of 20 institutions across all versions.

You can move an institution from one version to a different version at any time prior to submitting the Common App to that institution by selecting the college on the My Colleges page and clicking on the “Move College” button.

(Photo: dennis)



19 responses to “Customize Your Common Application “Why Transfer” Essay as Needed”

  1. Christian C. Avatar
    Christian C.

    I’m not quite sure what approach I should take with my college acceptance essay. 
    Some people take the banal, straightforward (but often effective) approach of simply and lucidly answering the question* and the second approach (what I thought was necessary to write a successful essay for top-ranking schools) is to write some lofty, virtuoso composition that indirectly answers the prompt but tells a compelling story. 

    What approach do you recommend and what is more acceptable from what you’ve seen : straightforward or lofty?


    1. Chris Avatar

      Hi Christian, thanks for the comment! The full outline and real examples are in the book, but we generally recommend something that you might call a hybrid between the two: open lofty, answer the question, then end a bit lofty again.

  2. Christian C. Avatar
    Christian C.

    Also, the general “why transfer” question is kind of a tough one to elaborate on with me and people like me: I’m transferring from a public, 2 year college. Its the end of the road – I have no choice but to transfer. Any suggestions? 

    1. Chris Avatar

      Instead of explaining why you need to switch schools, just explain why you want to continue your education.

      Hope all this helps, best of luck with the process!

    2. Lan Avatar

       Also, if the school you’re applying to doesn’t require a supplement that asks “why this major,” you can use the general “why transfer” essay to talk about your desired major and where you want to go with that major (as part of explaining why you want to continue your education, like Chris suggested).

  3. Peteryoo Avatar

    I have a question.
    If we apply to transfer into different school, can we not go back to our old school?
    For example, if I attend Case Western and want to transfer and did not get accepted to any, can i go back to Case Western?

    1. Chris Goodmacher Avatar

      Absolutely. All that happens is that you continue on at the school you’re at.

      The only reason you wouldn’t be able to continue at your current school is if you withdrew from it, but there’s no reason to withdraw until you know for sure you’re going to attend a different school next term for sure (i.e., after you’ve applied and been accepted).

  4. Faizel Avatar

    I have a question regarding the transfer essay.

    I’m planning on applying as a transfer student to UMich only, my question is that can I write a customized transfer essay stating that I’m applying to a specific college in U of M and why?

    Thank you.

  5. Faizel Avatar

    Also can I add the specific major I would like to do. Umich requires students to also do two supplement essays.

    Thank you.

    1. Chris Goodmacher Avatar

      Hi Faizel! Thanks for the comment!

      U of M’s supplement question lets you explain why you want to transfer to the specific school you’re applying to, so in that case we think it makes more sense to keep the main essay general and get specific in the supplement.

      Just don’t feel like you have to keep your main essay completely vague. Feel free to mention any specifics you want in the main essay if it helps you answer the prompt there, but remember that there’s that supplement that specifically asks you for all the details of why you’re applying to the college at U of M that you’re applying to.

      Hope that helps!

  6. Faizel Avatar

    Thank you Chris Goodmacher!

  7. Eric Schurr Avatar
    Eric Schurr

    this article was incredibly helpful.

  8. Indigo B. Avatar

    According to Common App I’m allowed to make three revisions to my personal essay, and I’m fortunately applying to only three colleges. So would I want to submit the first one then revise to submit following ones?

    1. Lan Ngo Avatar
      Lan Ngo

      If your strategy is to submit a customized version of the main Common App “why transfer” essay to each of the three schools, then yes, your description of the process sounds correct.

  9. Raven Reynolds Avatar
    Raven Reynolds

    I have a quick question…

    What is a great opening sentence to write a personal essay to columbia college (school of arts)?

  10. Lan Ngo Avatar
    Lan Ngo

    The best essays I’ve seen usually begin with an anecdote or example that includes concrete details. Brainstorm a few potential stories or examples that you might use for the introduction of your essay, and you should be able to come up with an appropriate opening sentence.

  11. Lan Ngo Avatar
    Lan Ngo

    Update: For the 2015-2016 Common Application, colleges and universities can decide if they want to make the “why transfer” essay optional. This is what it says in Common App in the “Writing” section:

    “Some colleges require submission of the personal essay with your Common Application. You may submit a personal essay to any college, even if it is not required by that college. If not required by a college, you will be given the option during submission to include your essay or not for that college.”

    Many colleges and universities, however, require the “why transfer” essay, and the prompt has not changed:

    “Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve. You can type directly into the box, or you can paste text from another source. (250-650 words)”

    1. Wileen Avatar

      Does the transfer essay still have a limit to the number of times it can be edited after submission? The link
      doesn’t work for 2015-2016.

  12. Lina Avatar

    no longer seems to work for the 2015-16 transfer commonapp. Can the main transfer essay still be revised multiple times after submission?

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