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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In this post, we analyze an essay example excerpted from College Admission Essays for Dummies by Geraldine Woods to complement the example for the University of Pennsylvania that we’ve previously critiqued. The essay we’ll analyze here leaves a lot of room for improvement, though it has many positive aspects. We’ll tell you what you can do to write a much better essay and give you advice on how to approach writing a winning piece. If you want other examples, our book provides examples of successful transfer essays for Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Common Application.
The essay here includes reasons for transferring to a specific four-year school, Northern State. Many colleges and universities now use the Common Application for transfer applications, requiring transfer applicants to write a Common Application essay describing the reasons for transferring and to also write several school-specific supplement essays. The prompt for this essay wasn’t included, but it was probably for a school-specific essay. We’ll critique the essay as is and explain parts that might fit into the Common Application essay or a school-specific essay. We’ll analyze the essay one paragraph at a time.
No, I am not homesick. I have friends. The work is not overwhelming. Nor has it interfered with my involvement in extracurricular activities. My first semester has been a time of transition as it is for most college freshmen. Making decisions regarding course selection, seeking advice from advisors, and utilizing time efficiently have all been part of the process, accomplished at a distance from the familiar support structures and cues of both home and high school. As a result, I have developed a greater sense of myself and my abilities, both academic and social. The experience has been satisfying. However, with all due introspection and now retrospection, I feel a change is necessary.
This opening is fairly weak because it is very general. I learned very little about this applicant from this paragraph, which could be entirely omitted to reduce the number of unnecessary words. Admission officers have many applications to read; there’s no need to burden them with excessive words. Some of the best Common Application transfer essays I’ve read started with a brief “a slice of life” anecdote, a short narrative that captures an episode in one’s life. If you decide to feature an anecdote in your introduction, create a vivid image (or movie) of a piece of your life in the reader’s mind. You would then have a hook. Other than including a short transition, avoid dragging this story into the next paragraph. Don’t make this episode the sole content of your essay. For school-specific essays, which often have a tight word limit, writing an anecdote might not be the best use of the limited space. Instead, consider writing one or two introductory sentences and then diving right into your specific reasons for wanting to transfer.
Sociologist Lev Vygotsky believed that peers play a major role in an individual’s development and learning. The students and friends with whom I grew up were extraordinarily bright, competitive, and creative. In high school, discussions and opinions on almost any subject were spontaneous and interesting. At Central State, the small class size and the seminar formats have presented a great setting in which to learn. The highly motivated professors, who encourage participation, have been the highlight of my experience thus far. However, the level of student interaction has not been gratifying. Conversations concerning classroom topics and related materials have been limited. I have not been sufficiently challenged or stimulated by my peers.
This paragraph has an interesting topic sentence. Also, the applicant writes positively about her current school, citing, for example, its small class size and the seminar formats. Avoid sounding overly negative about your current school because you don’t want to badmouth any school. Despite its positive aspects, this paragraph lacks concrete details. Why is it that “the level of student interaction has not been gratifying”? What did the writer mean in stating, “Conversations concerning classroom topics and related materials have been limited”? Adhering to the word limit, make sure to reserve space for specific details that will help the reader understand exactly why you want to transfer.
Your Common Application transfer essay should include this type of information, especially if you’re not writing for a particular school. That is, if you’re writing a non-school-specific Common Application main essay, much of your essay will discuss why your current school isn’t your best fit. On the other hand, your school-specific “why” transfer essay must focus on the aspects of that particular school that align with your needs or the type of college experience that you seek.
During my first semester, I have come to realize the influence a community has on my learning and growth. At Central State, the campus is active from around eleven in the morning until three in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. One Saturday in October, while walking to the dining hall, I realized that I was one of five people on campus. With the majority of undergraduates living in on-campus dorms, the campus of Northern State fosters a unique intimacy. The campus is lively throughout the day. Such activity creates a comfortable environment that promotes interaction and the formation of strong bonds between members of the community. Having experienced a year of college and dorm life, I am more aware of what is best for me. As a transfer student, I would appreciate this style of living even more.
The type of information in this paragraph is well-suited for a school-specific transfer essay. The writer has now moved from focusing on classes to discussing campus life. The statement, “One Saturday in October, while walking to the dining hall, I realized that I was one of five people on campus” provides clear imagery of a negative aspect of the applicant’s current school in terms of the applicant’s needs or desires. Brief examples should be included to show how Northern State “fosters a unique intimacy” and how it is “lively throughout the day.” To conclude this paragraph, the applicant writes, “As a transfer student, I would appreciate this style of living even more.” I wonder what she plans to do to take advantage of this style of living so that she can be more appreciative of it.
Based on conversations with current students, it is my understanding that members of the Northern State community make it a unique place to live and learn. Many renowned professors choose to teach at the undergraduate level. Having the chance to interact with an instructor such as Avery Marks, whose passion and mastery of botany are unrivaled, would be quite an experience. The most defining aspect of Northern State’s faculty, however, is the manner in which they approach their role in influencing a student’s life. Professors, instructors, and advisors guide the student so that he/she can make independent decisions.
By the end of the paragraph, we still don’t know how “members of the Northern State community make it a unique place to live and learn,” but as you’ll see, she gives a clear example in the next paragraph. Here, the applicant includes interesting, specific examples to show that she knows about the school and has compelling reasons to want to transfer there. Mentioning a specific professor that you’re interested in would show that you’ve researched the school. If you plan to major in biology and you’re especially interested in plants, highlighting a professor who specializes in botany, as in this paragraph, would be appropriate, but avoid empty name-dropping. Your interest in, say biology or botany, should also be apparent in other parts of your application. The last sentence regarding student guidance does not seem to be substantiated anywhere in the paragraph or essay.
Furthermore, the structure and aspects of Northern State’s residential colleges foster the formation of relationships. For the remainder of my undergraduate years I want to return “home” to a very close group of friends for nightly dinners and conversations concerning daily activities. The strong bonds that are formed within a diverse group of people who make up these individual communities create an optimal atmosphere in which to grow, socially and intellectually.
This paragraph, which emphasizes a unique aspect of Northern State, provides an example of information to include in a school-specific transfer essay.
All aspects of Northern State seem to enhance learning. Guidance from faculty members and challenges from peers within Northern’s close-knit community create a setting in which I can pursue current interests and discover new one while simultaneously discovering my future direction. This is the purpose of the undergraduate experience.
The best part of this conclusion is its brevity. I’m not sure what “this” refers to in the last sentence; many writing guides suggest that you place a noun after “this” to avoid ambiguity. Though every essay does not need to end with a “bang,” conclusions should be at least interesting. One strategy for writing a good conclusion is to tie it to the introduction, a strategy that could not be used in this essay due to its weak, general introduction.
Concluding words: Each transfer application is unique, and therefore, we cannot provide an exhaustive list of details and information that should be included. Use this analysis as a guideline for writing your Common Application essay(s)–whether you’re making it school-specific or not–and school-specific essays and try to critique your own essays in the manner we’ve done here.
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