College Transfer Essay Three Keys

The College Transfer Admissions Essay: Three Keys

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The big question you have to answer through your essay is basically this: “Why do you want to transfer?” We cover the transfer admissions essay in great detail in the book (with real, successful examples), but I wanted to follow up on the college essay seminar we’ve just sent out to people on the Five Steps list by giving out a couple of more transfer-specific tips. (Sorry if you’ve missed out on the Five Steps list!). Here, I cover tips that apply to both the Common Application transfer essay and school-specific transfer application essays. When I say, “the transfer admissions essay,” I’m referring to both cases. Some schools don’t even use the Common Application, but these tips are, nevertheless, useful because it’s very likely, if not certain, that those schools will also ask, “Why do you want to transfer?” Calibrate these tips to satisfy the requirements of the particular schools that you’re applying to.

Reflecting on what I wrote in my Stanford transfer application and what I’ve learned from interviewing many other successful transfer students, my biggest tips on writing the transfer application essay are:

(1) Be mature.
(2) Be honest.
(3) Be specific.

(1) Be mature.

When you’re applying as a freshman, it’s expected that you’ll be a bit naive and uncertain about a lot of things. However, as a transfer applicant with some college experience under your belt (you’ll have a whole year of college experience if you’re applying to transfer as a junior), you must be mature and show that you’ve learned from your previous experience. Know what you want out of college and clearly express why the school you’re applying to can give you what you want.

(2) Be honest.

I’ll keep this one short: be honest. That means (a) don’t lie about anything, and (b) if you’re unhappy with your current school for some real reasons, then feel free to let the admissions people know, but don’t be overly negative and/or whiny.

(3) Be specific.

It’s better if what you say in your essay specifically reflects the rest of your application. For example, if you say that you’ve realized that you want to major in journalism, but the closest thing at your current college is English, other parts of your application should clearly show that you’re gung-ho about journalism. In this case, your list of extracurricular activities might show that you were on the staff of the school newspaper.

In explaining why I wanted to go to Stanford in response to one of the school’s supplement short essay prompts, I talked up the economics program at Stanford (AFTER doing my research on the school), and it was clear from the rest of my application that I had a strong interest in economics: I put economics down as my major, my college transcript showed that I had already taken a few economics courses and had done very well in them, AND I had my economics instructors write my recommendation letters. In other words, provide solid evidence to support the reasons behind your desire to transfer.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, stress that your experience at your current college helped you gain a profound understanding of what you want to do (academically/professionally). Show that making the mistake of going to your current school has taught you about the kind of college experience that you really want. Explain that the best way for you to pursue your goals is to transfer to the college of your choice and prove it. And again, (1) be mature, (2) be honest, and (3) be specific.

UPDATE: If you want to see a real-life example of a transfer application essay to UPenn with my analysis, click here.

Thanks for reading! If you have any tips that have worked for you, or if you have any questions, leave them in the comments section below!

(Photo: Martin Kingsley)


18 responses to “The College Transfer Admissions Essay: Three Keys”

  1. Joan Rynearson Avatar

    I thought that I heard on the news that the overall transfer rate had increased over that past decade from a quarter to a third of all students. As in, 33% end up leaving their initial college or university to transfer to another school.

    Can you confirm this?

    1. Chris Avatar

      Thanks for the comment! The 33% number does get thrown around a lot and the document usually cited is a 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office on how to ease the process of transferring credits. You can get it here:… (.pdf file, 329 kb).

      Two interesting things to note about this number. First, we’re not sure why everyone says it’s 33% since the document clearly says it’s actually 40%: “Education’s (sic) National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) found that 40 percent of students who entered college in the 1995-1996 academic year attended at least two institutions in the following six years (emphasis mine).”

      Second, the study tracked student transfers between the 1995-1996 academic year to the 2001-2002 academic year, so the numbers are slightly old (though I would guess that more recent data wouldn’t be too different). However, we haven’t been able to find a more recent study. If you happen to come across any newer sources for information (and this goes for whoever else is reading this), do share!



  2. 2ndSopranoRocker Avatar

    While I looked at the common application, I noticed that there is a generic “why transfer” and a supplement for each school that asks “why do you want to transfer here?” What should be included in one versus the other?

    1. Lan Avatar

      The Common Application “why transfer” essay: In the “why transfer” essay in
      the Common Application, you should provide reasons for your desire to
      transfer in general, not your reasons for applying to a particular
      school.  For much of this essay, you might end up explaining that,
      though your current school has provided you with many opportunities, it
      is lacking in certain aspects.  Here are some examples of points you
      might include in this essay:

      -an explanation discussing why your current school won’t help you meet your short-term and long-term goals
      -a discussion of how the courses in your major are limited in range and level
      -an explanation of the lack of opportunities to conduct research at your current school
      -an earnest explanation of the lack of an intellectual community among the student body that fits your needs and interests

      Be tactful and avoid sounding like you’re complaining about your current school.

      The school supplement essay: The supplement essay for a particular school
      usually asks, “Why do you want to transfer to THIS school (as opposed to
      another school)?”  If you’re applying to Brown University, then you
      would write about why Brown would be the ideal place for you to transfer
      to and how the university would meet your needs.  Here are some
      examples of points you might include in the school supplement essay:

      -the specific major at the school you want to transfer to and what
      distinguishes that program from programs offered at other schools
      -particular professors and/or classes you’re interested in
      -particular resources and opportunities offered at that school but not elsewhere
      -characteristics that make you a good fit for the school and its student body

      Again, these points are just examples.  Include details that you think are most relevant to your situation.

  3. yermaine Avatar

    I’m planning on transfering from a community college with a culinary major to NYU but changing my major to journalism. I’m weary of how to approah this in my transfer essay. Should i discuss why the change in my major or omit it and otherwise describe the unfavorable aspects of the classes taken not dealing with culnary (e.g. english, marketing, history ect)?

    1. Chris Goodmacher Avatar

      Hi yermaine, you absolutely need to explain why you’ve decided to change your major (and you should take some journalism or journalism-related [like English] classes before trying to transfer as well).

      As for the second part of your question, I’m not sure I understand. It sounds like you’re asking if you should describe the things you didn’t like about your non-culinary classes. But doing so would make the opposite of the case you want to make, right? (That is, you would be making a case for why you might want to stick with culinary classes, if your essay talks about the “unfavorable” aspects of all your other classes.)

      I’m pretty sure I’m not reading what you want to say though. Please reply so I can understand what you mean, and I’ll give you a better answer!


      1. yermaine Avatar

        Thank you for replying. In my second question I was wondering if i should also discuss the non-culinary classes I took that werent up to my expectations (not challenging, too crowded etc) so therefore i want to transfer to a university that actually has what I’m looking for. Yet, I dont want to end up looking like I didnt like anything from my previous college experience. should I omit those facts and instead just focus on how some classes actually helped me realize my interest in journalism?

        1. Chris Goodmacher Avatar

          Oh okay, I got it.

          You should do both, just don’t dwell too much on the negative stuff (why you weren’t happy with those classes).

          It’s important to explain why you want to transfer, but a mistake a lot of students make is they talk on and on about why they’re not happy with their current school, when they should spend more time explaining why they’re excited about the possibility of studying X subject at the school they want.

          Also, if your classes at your current school were seriously bad, make sure you back up what you say with data/examples.

          For example, we’ve seen students write things like, “No one at my college cares about learning.”

          That may be true, but it’s a serious accusation: no one at all?

          Better instead to be accurate and specific. Instead it might make more sense to say, for example, “Learning doesn’t feel very valued at my college. For example, in my X Class, I’ve never seen anyone raise a hand to ask a question.”

          Or something like that. You get the idea.

          Hope that helped, let me know if you have any follow-ups!

  4. […] It is also likely that admissions officials at students’ prospective schools will want to see sound reasoning behind the decision to transfer as a double major student, so individuals considering this route may want to spend additional time explaining their motivations in their application essays. […]

  5. transferhope14 Avatar

    I’m planning to transfer from a community college, and I’m applying to several selective schools including Brown, Smith, Vassar, and Barnard. I’m kind of stuck on my common app essay. I struggled with depression during high school, and it significantly affected my academic performance and had a huge impact path I took from there. It’s basically the entire reason I decided to attend community college. I’m very successful at my community college with a 3.8 average, PTK membership, several leadership positions, and scholarships and awards, but I view my high school struggles as something that was extremely important to my development as a person and a student. I’ve included that struggle as a significant part of my Common App essay (I’ve structured the entire essay around overcoming those problems and excelling at my CC), but after reading some articles discouraging the inclusion of mental illness on college applications, I’m worried that mentioning it may hurt my chances of being admitted. I think that I’ve made it clear that it’s in the past now and I’ve got it under control, but should I omit it and write about something else? These schools are difficult to get into in the first place, and I don’t want to hurt my chances. I’d appreciate any help you could give me. Thank you!

    1. Chris Goodmacher Avatar

      It really, really depends on how you present everything. If the whole essay is about your struggles, and you come off as making excuses, then that would be bad. If, on the other hand, you talk about things carefully; minimize the negative and focus on the positive; and still talk a lot about your academic interests and how you’ve been pursuing them (this is what colleges really care about), then great!

      1. transferhope14 Avatar

        Thank you so much for your help! I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

        1. Rutwik Patel Avatar
          Rutwik Patel
  6. Dina Avatar

    My husband is currently active duty in the Navy and will be applying to ASU for spring 2015. I am most likely going to be helping him write his personal statement/ application essay and Im not really sure how to go about it.
    Obviously its a different kind of situation, he has an AA plus his Navy training so he will have more than enough credits and Im not sure if we should focus his essay on why ASU and this major or why school at all.
    We feel that AZ is going to be the perfect place for us to settle down. I have close relatives there and the job market for him is perfect for both a part time job during his studies and after. Its exactly where we want to be.
    I guess what I’m really asking is if my hunch to focus on the personal side of his choice more than his academic/military past is correct.

  7. Ana Avatar

    I was wondering I want to transfer to a college after being academically dismissed due to failing grades. How would I explain my situation in a essay? Because I am required to explain why I was due to the Campus Security Act of 1990. And also why do I have to if my reason for being dismissed has to do with my grades? Thank you.

    1. Lan Ngo Avatar
      Lan Ngo

      Assuming that you’re going to use the Common App, it would be best to use the “additional information” section to explain your situation so that you can save space in your why transfer essay to highlight your strengths.

  8. John Avatar

    Hello! I am planning on applying to Stanford as a sophomore transfer this coming year and was curious as to how I should go about my transfer essay regarding my major. Applying to college as a freshman last year, I had tunnel vision on getting a film degree of some sorts; however, after taking a physics courses I have found that I actually love physics and want to pursue a degree in it. (I liked physics in high-school but never really looked into it) Haha I feel like I answered my question already, but anyways, would it be best to mention this or would I seem too indecisive on my major?

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