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The Best Transfer Essay Advice From Admission Insiders

Your transfer college application essay is just as important as it was the first time around. Learn how to write a winning essay with this expert advice.

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is clear about what they want in the supplemental essay that’s required of every transfer applicant. In no more than 500 words, U-M asks students to “Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?”

“I want to understand why they want to transfer,” says Kimberly Bryant, Assistant Director of Admissions and point person for transfer applications. “Sometimes they don’t say it: Why do they want to come to U-M? Why now? What is the reason?” Bryant would like to see genuine answers to the question. “I want them to talk about the journey,” she says. “I’m not going to guess why someone missed a semester of college. Maybe they just weren’t ready. That’s okay. They are now, and we want them to talk about that. We don’t want to guess.”

What is a transfer college essay, anyway?

Bryant and other admission professionals at top universities across the country say the transfer college essay provides an opportunity to show people who may never meet you just what kind of person you are and why you need to switch schools for your goals. Most schools don't conduct transfer interviews, so the college essay requirement could be your only opportunity to share your unique voice with the people who get to decide your fate inside the admission office. Amy Jarich, Associate Vice Chancellor of Admissions & Enrollment and Director of Admissions at the University of California, Berkeley, wants to know what you care about. “What would you tell me in an elevator? Let me know that you’re active and alive in the world you live in.” Tamara Siler, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Rice University, says any application essay will add context to any transfer application file. “A personal statement can provide context and truly show why a certain student is a better match than other clearly capable students,” she says. “Sometimes an essay can be the conduit for a student to reveal something to the admission committee that we would never have thought to ask.”

How do I make my essay stand out?

Colleges will use your essay to help select a diverse class from among the many other transfer applicants whose grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities can make everyone look alike. How will you stand out? Overall, admission officers look for a glimpse of who an applicant is as a writer, but more importantly, as a person. They use the essay to help determine what an applicant can offer them and what the student has learned from their life experiences—the things that aren’t easily captured on a transcript or activities list. Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University, gets excited when he reads a stellar essay. Just like admission officers at other highly selective schools, Wise expects 4.0 GPAs and top test scores. “We need to dig deeper,” he says. “That’s where the essay comes into play. That’s where we find out more about the student. We are looking for your story. Academically, we’re glad you’ve done well. We want to know who you are. What did your experience mean to you? How did it shape you? “I never run into a colleague’s office and say, ‘Look at this 4.0 GPA,’ Wise adds. “I will run into an office with a good essay to share; that excites me.”

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What do you want colleges to know about you?

Your essay should show who you are beyond your grades, transcripts, and test scores. Consider your best traits and characteristics, not your accomplishments and experiences. Colleges want to know who you are, not what you did. They want genuine stories that illustrate a positive trait or characteristic. When applying as a transfer student, they also want to know why this school is a better fit for you. What do you want to do there? The transfer essay is a variation of the “Why College X?” essay supplement. It can be challenging for freshman applicants as well as transfer students. A prompt from the new Common App transfer application reads: “Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve” in 250–600 words. Most transfer essay prompts will be a variation of this question. For example:

  • Cornell University: Tell us what you'd like to major in at Cornell, and why or how your past academic or work experience influenced your decision, and how transferring to Cornell would further your academic interests.
  • University of California Los Angeles: Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.
  • University of Virginia College of Arts and Sciences: How do your possible career or professional plans relate to your planned course of study?

Every college wants to know specifically why you are applying to that institution. You started somewhere else, either community college or a school that just isn’t working out the way you had envisioned. They expect you have good reasons for making a move, so share them in your essay. Be thoughtful. Be honest. Is there something this school offers that your current school doesn’t? Are you more clear about what you want to major in and realize the program at the new school is stronger? Let them know. You know more about yourself now; you’ve matured since you first applied to college. Perhaps you took time off to work. Just tell them why you want to make a move.

Related: How to Write a Transfer Essay That Works

What makes a good transfer essay?

In your transfer statement and other writing supplements, you need to reveal something meaningful about yourself. What are three traits you want to share with a new school? Are you resourceful? Dependable? Curious? A hard worker? Shy? Funny? Competitive? Determined? Shawn Felton, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University, reviews thousands of applications each admission cycle. What delights him? A story that rounds out an applicant’s package and an essay that helps him understand who the person is. “We want to put a face to the pile of paper,” Felton explains. “It is part of a number of identifiers that deliver who you are as a person.”

What turns him off? Stories that aren’t genuine, don’t answer the prompt, or fail to give him any insight into the applicant’s character. He doesn’t like it when students try too hard to impress him or write essays that seem forced or inauthentic. “The essay is not something to be cracked,” he cautions. There’s no rubric for a good transfer essay, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question;
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic;
  • Sound like a college student;
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student;
  • Explain why a student wants to transfer to a new school; and
  • Demonstrate reflection.

The best transfer essays showcase a more mature student and are often simple and to the point. As a student who has already succeeded in a college classroom, you can tell your new college of choice that you know how you learn best (e.g., you shine in small classrooms, love leading group projects, excel in science or math or any subject). How can you build on your current educational (and work) experience at a new college?

Related: The Transfer Essay: What’s Your Story?

Your transfer essay isn’t all that different than the one you wrote for when you applied to college back in high school. You may have to focus a little more on the topic of why you’re transferring, but the process of writing it should be more or less the same. Take this advice into consideration as you do and you’re sure to write a great essay that’ll allow you to transfer to the school of your choice.

Get more great tips for the transfer admission process with the articles and advice in our Transfer Students section.

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