When my son wanted to transfer from his small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest into a larger university to pursue chemical engineering, I offered to help him with his college application transfer essay.
I thought it would be a good opportunity to share my approach to writing the main Transfer Essay required by schools that use The Common Application.
My son, though with great reluctance, agreed to be my guinea pig.
I wanted to walk through the steps and chronicled the brainstorming/planning process:
We started by reviewing the prompt for the Common App transfer essayt: “Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.” (250-650 words)
There are two main questions they want students to answer:
1. What are your reasons for transferring?
2. What objectives (goals) do you hope to achieve?
We agreed that the first part would take up most of the essay, about three-quarters.
Unlike the regular Common App prompt for incoming freshman, this prompt was less open-ended, and wasn’t looking for a classic “personal statement” essay.
It’s a direct question: Why do you want to change schools and attend a new school?
Not a: “Who are you?” question.
The transfer essay should try to answer the questions as directly as possible, and back up the main points with specific examples.
Still, I believe students should use this essay as an opportunity to reveal their personality and individuality as much as possible.
Students don’t need to use a narrative style, but I believe a story-telling format makes the best essays.
In a way, you are telling the “story” of your educational journey, and explaining a shift in your path.
You describe where you started and why, how it went so far (current school) and what you learned there, what changed and why, what you intend to study (your major) at your next school, and what what you hope to accomplish there and in the future with that degree.
Unlike most incoming freshman, transfer students need to have a clear idea of what they want to study.
Most are required to select a major at this juncture. That in itself gives these essays a strong focus.
I thought it would be a good idea to start the session with my son by fleshing out some of his core or defining qualities that he thinks would make him effective in his chosen major: chemical engineering.
Even if he didn’t include any of these ideas in his transfer essay, I believe it’s helpful for students to have a sense of who they are and articulate those before starting to write.
My son told me things, such as, “I find that I can get my head around complex ideas relatively quickly,” and “I like to see how things work, but also want to know more, how they can be used in other ways.”
I wrote down some of his statements, which he could refer back to later when he started writing.
(Find Your Voice shows why you could benefit by having another person question you to help you capture your unique language for your essay, the same way I did for my son.)
With the “why transfer” question, you need to talk about what inspired your interest in your field, and how that evolved and developed over the years, and what eventually led you to seeking a new school.
So I asked my son to think about some specific touch points in his life that sparked his interest in sciences, and specifically chemistry and engineering.
You don’t need to include all of these, but it helps to compile a short list.
If your essay traces this progression, it will have a natural order that makes it simple to write: chronologically!
My son remembered different experiments he did with various teachers over the years in both high school and college.
I also thought it was important to highlight the positive experiences he had at his current school, and then use those as a springboard to explain why he wanted more of those at his future school. Or maybe he wanted something different.
The last thing you want to do is diss your current school. Keep it upbeat. List about 3-5 features of your current school. Then list a similar number of features that the new school will have.
Coming up with the positive parts of his current school was easy.
The second part took a little more work: What objectives do you hope to achieve?
Because your one main Common App essay will go to all your schools, you need to keep the answer general enough so it works for all the schools.
So you should answer what objectives you hope to achieve at your next college or university, whichever it happens to be.
I would start by talking about the major you want to pursue there, and how you plan to join and support their academic and social community.
It is very difficult to avoid broad, generic answers here, but do your best to be specific about what you want to do there related to your major and goal, how you will participate in various activities and opportunities there, and how you envision using your degree after graduation and in the workplace.
To start my son’s main transfer essay, we fished around for an anecdote (mini-story or real-life example).
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
The idea was to find an incident, moment or experience that would SHOW the reader a key quality about my son, which he would then go onto explain how that drove his path toward his major and new school.
His main theme turned out to be how he was the type of student who loved to learn new concepts, but was also eager to find “innovative” ways to use them.
This is just one way to approach this transfer essay. It might not work for everyone.
My son was unique in that he knew he would transfer when he started at his current school (where he did what is called a 3/2 program). But I think the approach of explaining the inspiration for your path–whether it’s art or business or biology-could work the same way.
Even if you are making a radical shift, just explain why and go from there.
As in all these essays, the admissions officers mainly want to hear how you think, what you value and that you have a plan.
Here’s What a Sample Outline Might Look Like for a College Application Transfer Essay
1. Introduction: An anecdote (mini-story/real-life example) showing what inspired your interest in your subject–what fired it up, or if it changed, what caused that shift.
2. Background: Take the reader back to some of your earlier experiences with your subject. Use specific examples.
3. Talk about your current school and what you got out of it. Give specific examples: focus on academics, but you could also mention other interests, social skills, etc.
4. Transition into the main reason you are ready to move on and into the new school. Maybe you liked certain things at your old school, but it had limitations and you wanted more. Maybe you changed, your interests changed, and the new school can serve those better than the first one. Back up your points with specific examples.
5. Objectives: Talk about what you want in your new school, or what you expect it will have to help you succeed. Focus your “objectives” around your intended major or field of study. Discuss what you hope to do both at the new school and after.
What do you want to learn? What do you see yourself doing with your degree? Possible jobs/specialty fields? Additional schooling/training? (You don’t have to know; just mention a couple possibilities.)
6. Conclusion. (This might just be combined with number 5.)
It never hurts to end with a sentence or two that projects your goals into the future.
What do you believe a degree in your major will allow you to do to follow your largest dreams–not just for yourself, but for the world?
More help for transfer students and their college application essays:
Don’t miss my Help for College Transfer Students that has links to resources, advice and inspiration for transfer students and their transfer essays!
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by Emily Dauenhauer
Director of Undergraduate Enrollment Marketing, Sacred Heart University
The transfer essay is your chance to introduce yourself to your dream school. As with your first college essay, there are certain strategies that work and others that should be avoided in order to make a lasting impression. But one simple question can be your main guideline: why are you applying to this particular school?
A clear, concrete answer to this question should be a large part of a transfer student’s application essay. “Why do you want to come to this school? That’s the primary thing transfer admissions officers want to know,” says Cara Jordan, Director of Transfer Admissions at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
The application essay also provides transfer students with the opportunity to take responsibility for less-than-perfect grades, recognize academic challenges, and explain the steps they have taken to conquer them.
“Certainly, you don’t want to use your essay to spotlight weaknesses, criticize another school, or in any way be defensive or negative,” Jordan says. “But when appropriate, the essay can be an effective way to show your character, your ability to take ownership of your actions, and your determination to succeed. The essay is a wonderful tool, because it allows you to tell your own story in your own words.”
And like a first-time, fresh-out-of-high-school college application essay, it should paint a picture of who you are, Jordan adds. For most transfer students, this picture is significantly different from what it was just one or two years before. “Transfer students generally have a clearer, more concrete picture of what they want out of their lives and where they want to be,” Jordan says. “They’re older and have experienced more, and they’ve had the chance to find out what college is like and whether a certain type of institution works or doesn’t.”
Related: More transfer essay and application advice
What admission counselors look for
“Transfer students generally have a very specific reason for wanting to leave one college and attend another, and that’s what I want to read about in the application essay,” Jordan says. “A student can share other information with me as well, but that ‘why’ must be included somewhere. I want to see why the student believes he or she and Sacred Heart are a good match.” (And though these examples may be specific to one school, they reflect elements relevant to any transfer essay!)
One of the 3,488 full-time undergraduates who enrolled at Sacred Heart in fall 2011 conveyed that information particularly well. Transferring from a local community college, the student expressed in her essay her desire to be part of a diverse student body and taught by experienced professors invested in students’ success. “The staff and students I met during my campus visit showed me the potential Sacred Heart students have to achieve and succeed. It seems to be a real partnership, with teachers who are truly interested in helping their students meet challenges and be the best they can be. For me, a business major, it was also impressive to see that many of the adjuncts who teach at Sacred Heart’s John F. Welch College of Business are not just well-respected instructors, but well-respected leaders out in the business field,” the student wrote.
Available majors, social environment, internship opportunities, and class size are all common reasons that lead students to leave one school for another. In their essay, transfer students should explain these or other reasons as clearly and concisely as possible, taking advantage of the opportunity to show what they have learned about themselves and the kind of college they believe is right for them.
Related: Find scholarships for your intended major
For the application essay and all aspects of the college or university application, transfer students also need to be sure to follow directions exactly: stick to word counts, submit all requested materials and information, meet deadlines, and pay close attention to details.
The latter is especially important, Jordan says, because transfer admission officials generally pay close attention to details about each applicant too. She pointed out that although the National Association for College Admission Counseling says as many as one in three students enrolled in a two- or four-year college or university will at some point transfer, most school admission officials are able to give potential transfer students more personalized attention than first-time undergrads, since the overall volume of transfer applications is lower.
“It’s nice, because it gives admission officials like me the chance to really look at and meet each applicant and make sure we’re a good fit,” Jordan says. “Most transfer applicants have already proven they can do college-level work, so for many applicants, it’s a matter of determining whether they’re right for [the school], and whether [the school] is right for them. Successful college transfers occur when both sides communicate clearly, fully, and honestly. And from the student’s end, the transfer application essay is a big part of that.”
Do’s and don’ts
Transfer essays should also serve as examples of your best work and should follow general college application essay/personal statement do’s and don’ts, including the following:
- Keep your focus narrow. You only have a few hundred words to tell a memorable story and show who you are. Focus on a single point or thesis.
- Be specific. Develop your main idea with specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid details. What concrete examples from your life can you include to distinguish yourself from other applicants?
- Write first, edit later. The first objective in writing anything is to get it on the page first. Then you can go back and edit. Trying to edit as you go interrupts the process of getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page, causing you to lose your thoughts and forget what you were saying.
- Remember the “show, don’t tell” rule. Be descriptive when writing. Use all of your senses and fill each paragraph with details. It’s specifics that will grab the attention of admission officials and give them something to hold onto—and remember you by.
- Put words in people’s mouths. Dialogue, used appropriately, always makes an essay more interesting.
- Start your essay with an attention-grabbing introduction. A compelling anecdote, quote, question, or engaging description will often capture admission officials’ attention.
- Proofread several times. Typos and spelling or grammatical errors are a sign of carelessness. Also, don’t rely on your computer’s spell check program. Many software programs don’t know the difference between “there” and “their,” “its” and “it’s,” or similar words.
Related: College Application Essays: What Really Works!
- Write what you think admission officials want to hear. They read plenty of essays like that. Be yourself. Surprise them. Give them something unique.
- Write a résumé or focus on information listed elsewhere in the application. If you do this, you’ve wasted the opportunity the essay affords and offered nothing new.
- Make things up. Dishonesty shows.
- Summarize yourself in the introduction. Remember that you’re telling a story that describes who you are, not introducing yourself at a party.
- Include information that doesn’t support your thesis. Stick to the main idea you want to get across.
- Try to impress your reader with your vocabulary. Simple language is generally the best and most effective. Plus, it’s easy to misuse thesaurus-generated synonyms.
- Do it alone. Give your essay to a mentor and/or guidance counselor to review your work—preferably someone who knows you well, who may be from your hometown or high school—both for errors and content. Friends and family can be helpful as well.
- Rush. Give yourself the time needed to thoroughly work through the brainstorming, writing, and editing processes.
Related: Warning! These College Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work
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