How to Write a Transfer Essay That Works

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.


  • 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.

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