College Transfer Q&A: Common Application General Transfer Essay vs School Supplement Essay?

Question:

When I looked at the common application, I noticed that there is a generic “why transfer” essay and a supplement for each school that asks, “Why do you want to transfer here?” What should be included in one versus the other?

Answer:

Before we get into the differences between the two essays, we think the most important overarching thing to remember is that each application to each school has to tell the story you want to tell that school. If the common app “why transfer” essay that you wrote for one application that has a supplement doesn’t make sense for another application without a supplement, then, by all means, customize your common app essay for that school.

That said, here are the differences between the two essays.

The Common Application “Why Transfer” Essay

There are two ways to tackle this essay:

1) Write a general essay: You may provide reasons for your desire to transfer in general, not your reasons for applying to a particular school, and submit the same essay for each school you’re applying to. For much of this essay, you might end up explaining that, though your current school has provided you with many opportunities, it is lacking in certain aspects. Here are some examples of points you might include in this essay:

  • an explanation discussing why your current school won’t help you meet your short-term and long-term goals
  • a discussion of how the courses in your major are limited in range and level
  • an explanation of the lack of opportunities to conduct research at your current school
  • an earnest explanation of the lack of a community among the student body that fits your needs and interests in terms of your academic, intellectual, and/or social life

Warning: Be tactful and avoid sounding like you’re just whining about your current school.

2) Write an essay specific to the school you’re applying to: You can write a separate version of the “why transfer” essay for each school you’re applying to. Consider tailoring the common application essay, especially if the school’s application doesn’t require a supplement essay. For example, Washington University in St. Louis doesn’t ask for a supplement essay. In that case, this would be your only chance to directly discuss why you want to transfer to that specific school.

If the school’s application does require a supplement essay, you might still want to tailor the common application essay to that school if you feel that doing so would help you to tell the story that you want to tell in your overall application. If you take this route, carefully consider what you want to include in the common application essay as compared to the supplement essay to avoid being redundant.

We’ve seen students get into the most selective schools in the country both by writing general “why transfer” essays and by writing school-specific “why transfer” essays. Bottom line: always step back, look at the whole application, and ask yourself at the end if the application tells the story you want to tell the school. If it doesn’t, revise and, if necessary, customize.

The School Supplement Essay

The supplement essay for a particular school usually asks, “Why do you want to transfer to THIS school (as opposed to another school)?” If you’re applying to, say, Brandeis, then you would write about why Brandeis would be the ideal place for you to transfer to and how the university would meet your needs. Here are some examples of points you might include in the school supplement essay:

  • the specific major at the school you want to transfer to and what
  • distinguishes that program from programs offered at other schools
  • particular professors and/or classes you’re interested in
  • particular resources and opportunities offered at that school but not elsewhere
  • characteristics that make you a good fit for the school and its student body

These points are just some examples of what you might write for each essay.  Start with information that is most relevant to your situation and you should be on your way to solid essays.

(Photo: Jinx!)

  • John

    Hi,

    I know that the common app personal statement should be 250 words or above, but do you think there is a limit to how much I can write? In other words, can a personal statement be too long?

  • Hi John, thanks for the comment! The common app people actually announced a limit of 500 words for the main essay this year. No one’s actually counting though, so you can go over that limit, but we recommend students keep their essays to around 600 words or less. Let us know if you have any other questions!

    Cheers,
    Chris

  • John

    Oh shoot, when did they announce that? I have a pretty long essay going on (about 800 words), so I guess I’m gonna have to trim it down a bit. 

  • Ever since they came out with the new common app a few months ago. If you want us to take a look at it, you can contact us here: http://thetransferbook.com/one-on-one-help/, otherwise just be ruthless, there’s always stuff you can trim.

  • John

    Cool. I’ll get on that in a little bit. By the way Chris, what should I do for the extra-curricular essay(1000 characters max) portion if I haven’t done any extra-curricular activities(I’m a freshman) at my current school? Should I just write about an activity from my high school career?

  • As a last resort, sure, but to be honest we haven’t really encountered anyone who didn’t have a college activity to write about (not that this is necessarily a bad thing).

    Do you have a part-time job? Did you do anything just before you entered college? Do you spend a significant amount of time helping out with your family? Entered any competitions? These are just a few of examples of things that we’ve found a lot of students don’t necessarily think about as “activities,” but can be very significant and could make for great essay subjects.

  • Katelyn

    Hi, Chris!

    I’m in the process of completing my transfer applications for UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia.  Will it count against me to personalize the “why” essay on the CommonApp, and just submit them separately?  I’m afraid if I do that, they’ll think that I didn’t follow directions properly.  Thanks!

  • As we advise here in this article, you have to look at your whole application and see if it makes sense to personalize the main common app essay. If it does make sense, then it’s fine to personalize the main essay despite what the Common App instructions say. We’ve seen customized essays work for Brown, Columbia, UPenn, Wesleyan, WUSTL, and many, many more.

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  • Andy

    Hello Chris-

    How does the whole instructor evaluation thing work? What should I give to my professor if I am trying to get a recommendation from him/her? 

  • Hi Andy,

    Full details in the book! But, briefly, since you seem cool:

    -Talk to them in person (lots of reasons why you should do it in person)
    to explain why you want to transfer. When giving your reasons, avoid
    bad-mouthing your current school.

    -Give your professor our patented “cheat sheet” to quickly remind them
    who you are, why you’re transferring, and what you’ve accomplished.

    -Ask them for the letters at least one month before they’re due.

    Good luck with the process!
    Chris

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  • Sophiason92

    “Write an essay specific to the school you’re applying to: You can write a separate version of the “why transfer” essay for each school you’re applying to. Consider tailoring the common application essay, especially if the school’s application doesn’t require a supplement essay. For example, Washington University in St. Louis doesn’t ask for a supplement essay. In that case, this would be your only chance to directly discuss why you want to transfer to that specific school.”For this comment, I was wondering how you could do this because once you submit your essay in for one school it sends it in for all the other schools for common app. I’m looking at vanderbilt and they don’t have a supplement essay. So how should I make it sound like i’m talking directly about that school without putting their school name on it 

  •  Hi Sophiason92!

    Actually, you can send out different versions of your common app to
    different schools. The instructions are in our latest post:
    http://thetransferbook.com/2012/02/customize-your-common-application-why-transfer-essay-as-needed/

    Let us know if you have any more questions! Best of luck with the process!
    Chris

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  • Sharleen Yan

    Hi Chris. I wondering if I am just applying to one school, do I still have to write differently on the general why transfer essay and the specific supplement essay? Thanks a lot!

  • Hi! I’m not 100% sure I understand the question, but I’m thinking it’s basically this: “If I’m applying to one school, can I write the same thing for the common app main transfer essay and my school’s supplement essay?” So I’m going to answer that question. If I didn’t get it right, just let me know and I’ll answer again!

    First, it depends on the question the school supplement essay asks. If it’s a completely different question than what the main transfer essay asks (“…your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve…”), then the answer is obvious: you need to provide different answers for the two different questions.

    But the more difficult case is when the supplement basically repeats the same question as the main essay prompt.

    The answer is that the two essays can overlap, but they shouldn’t overlap too much. This can be a tricky thing, however, to figure out: how much overlap is too much?

    Unfortunately, we have yet to figure out a “rule” that you can easily follow in this case. The best I can tell you right now is that you should stay more general in the main essay and get much more specific in the supplement. And definitely don’t exactly repeat anything you used in the main essay!

    Hope that helps!
    Chris