My son is a junior at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. He’s doing what’s called a 3:2 engineering program, where students spend their first three years at a liberal arts college and get an undergraduate degree (my son: Chemistry)–and then transfer into a larger university for two more years to get a second undergraduate degree (my son: Chemical Engineering).

So guess what he gets to do this holiday season? You guessed it. Write a college application essay.

I thought this 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 chronicle the brainstorming/planning process.

We started by reviewing the prompt:  “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 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 incoming freshman, transfer students have a pretty clear idea of what they want to study. Most are required to select a major at this juncture. That in itself gives these a strong focus. I thought it would be a good idea to start the session with my son by flushing 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 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.

NOTE: Although the Common App specifically directs students to write only ONE main transfer essay, some students opt to write multiple versions so they can tailor their answers to this second question in the transfer prompt to specific schools. Most schools ask students to tell them why they want to go to their particular school in one of the supplements questions–so in general, you have a chance to talk about that (and it doesn’t matter if your main transfer essay is generic).

Some schools, however, only require the one main essay, so it’s up to you to figure out how to convey why you love their school and why it’s the best fit for you. Apparently, students have been advised to do this by insiders of the college admissions community, even though it totally disregards the directions in the Common App. (Just do a Web search on this and see the mixed messaging for yourself!)

MAN, IS THAT CONFUSING!! And until I hear otherwise, I would advise my client to stick with one general essay, and not mention specific schools in it. Why would you not obey the directions? (If you want to find the instructions for submitting up to three versions of your main Common App essay, go here: Home>Help Center> Knowledgebase>Common Application (on left in gray box)>Writing>Updating the Essay. Customize Your Common App “Why Transfer” Essay As Needed also explains how to send in different versions of your main Common App transfer essay. Use it at your own risk.)

To start my son’s main essay, we fished around for an anecdote (mini-story or real-life example). 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 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. 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

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!


5 Responses to How to Write Your Transfer Essay for the Common App

  1. Stassi Mcpherson says:

    Wow, this is amazing! Thank you for all the helpful advice and guidance you have provided throughout this article. I am confident in my essay thanks to this piece.

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you thank you! This was soo helpful

  3. Grant says:

    Nice article! I will definitely refer to this as I write my essay.

  4. Devin Nelaka Wijesinghe says:

    This was really helpful. Thankyou so much. :)

  5. Devin Nelaka Wijesinghe says:

    This is amazing. Thankyou so much. :)

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