How to Write a College Transfer Essay in 2024

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Transfer Application Statistics for Top Schools

For most students, making the final decision about which college to attend is the end of a long, stressful process. But what if you go through all that and aren’t happy at your current school? Or perhaps you’re finishing up your Associate’s degree at community college and plan to transfer to a four-year school. Either way, you’re not alone–and you’re not stuck. 

Many students decide to transfer from university to another at some point in their academic careers. While this isn’t uncommon, it can be hard to find good guidance about transferring schools. How is a transfer application different from your regular Common Application? How important are transfer essays? How are transfer essays different from your college application essays?

In this post, we’ll use our decades of experience guiding students through the admissions process to help break down how to write your college transfer essay to maximize your chances of acceptance. 

Jump to section:
What Is the Common App Transfer Essay?
Transfer Essays Dos and Don’ts
Transfer Essay Writing Tips
How Is the Transfer Essay Different from the Regular College Essay?
Next steps

Most universities that accept the Common App for high school applicants will also ask you to submit transfer applications through the Common App. 

When applying as a transfer student, however, you’ll generally have to answer one or more school-specific essays targeted at transfer students. In general, you’ll be asked to write about 500 words in response to a question about why you feel you’d benefit from continuing your education at a different university. 

Some schools, especially more prestigious ones, will also ask additional transfer essay questions–such as what about their offerings attracts you, or what you were missing at your previous university. 

These prompts will vary slightly from school to school and year to year, but you can always find this information on the Common App page for the school you’re applying to, as well as on that school’s website. 

Princeton, for example, will expect you to answer all of the essay prompts that high school applicants answer, as well as two additional ones: 

  1. Have you had any interruptions or gaps in your education since high school or college, or have you left any school voluntarily for a significant time frame? If so, please explain the timeline of your postsecondary career. (Please respond in about 150 words.)
  2. What are your plans during and after your higher education experience? (Please respond in about 150 words.)

Harvard also asks you to answer additional questions for a transfer application: 

  1. Briefly, please indicate the most influential factors in your decision to attend your present college (for example, location, cost, size of student body, only option, special program offered, Early Decision plan, etc.) What alternatives to transferring to Harvard are you considering?
  2. Please indicate your field of specialization and briefly outline your academic plans at Harvard College.
  3. What are your current postgraduate/career plans?
  4. Briefly discuss one book that has strongly influenced you.

These are generally fairly short essay prompts, but the key difference from your original college application is that there isn’t one “main” Common App essay for transfer applications. Instead, your “transfer essay” will be determined by what school you’re applying to. 

When you create a Common App transfer application account, you’ll be asked to add the school’s you plan to transfer to. In addition to the general information you’ll fill out in the Common Application portal (academics, demographics, activities), each school will have a separate application for you to fill out, and this is where you’ll find the transfer essay prompt

So, instead of having one “personal essay,” you’ll likely have several personal statements, one for each transfer school you’re applying to. 

These transfer essay prompts can vary. Generally, though, you can expect to be asked to discuss your reasons for leaving your current school, your career goals, and why you want to attend this transfer college. 

Below, we’ve collected some statistics on transfer acceptance rates to top schools. We’ll be honest: transferring to a top school can be just as hard–or harder!–than applying there out of high school. These statistics can help you get a sense of your chances, aiding in your transfer application planning. Download them for free now!

If you’re looking to scan over your transfer essay and make some quick changes that can instantly boost your chances, check out our quick-fix guide to college essays, then read on for specific Dos and Don’ts. 

Things to do:

  1. Do be clear about what you’re missing at your current university. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s important to be up front about this: if your current school were perfect, then why would you be transferring? Perhaps the academic program doesn’t align with your educational goals. Or perhaps they’re missing resources to launch you into your chosen career path. In any case, be clear!
  2. Do touch on what you’ve been able to gain from your current college so far. What skills/perspective/knowledge do you have now that you didn’t in high school? If you’re the kind of student who was rejected by the kinds of schools you’re now trying to transfer to, you especially need to show how you’ve developed and grown since high school. 
  3. Do identify specific elements that draw you to the transfer school. We touched on this above, but you want to be really clear about why you’d benefit from a transfer. 
  4. Do show what you bring to the table. In other words, why should this school accept you? You might want to connect this to your collegiate academic accomplishments, research experience, or community involvement. 

Things to avoid:

  1. Don’t be overly negative about your current school. It’s a tough line to walk, but the key is conveying that there’s something missing, or that there’s some disconnect between the college experience and what you need. It’s not to complain about your current school or to give the impression that you’re “better than” the school. 
  2. Don’t (!!) complain about other students. This is a huge red flag: even if you’ve had problems getting along with other students, you need to keep this to yourself. Otherwise, you’ll come off as someone who’ll cause problems or who is antisocial. 
  3. Don’t dwell on high school accomplishments. You want to come off mature and self-aware, and there’s nothing less mature or self-aware than someone in college who can’t stop talking about high school. 
  4. Don’t offer generic or shallow reasons for your transfer. Improved job prospects, academic rankings, or the intelligence of the student body are not good reasons to apply to a transfer school. They’ll make it seem like you haven’t really done the research, or that you just want to go to a school with a more prestigious name. 

In general, the same advice we give for how to write your college essay holds true for writing strong transfer essays! To summarize, a good college essay, whether a transfer essay or not, consists of two key elements: 

  1. Story
  2. Reflection 

To break it down further, the “story” element of your transfer essay will be the stuff that makes it personal, the stuff that makes it you. Think about it this way: admissions officers at Harvard and Princeton have to read countless application essays. Eventually, all these essays are going to start sounding pretty much the same. 

Even if you’re smart and a great writer, there are only so many ways that you can answer the prompt if you’re being general. Plus, most of the other transfer applicants are themselves smart and great writers too. So, how do you create personal statements that stand out?

Make it personal. In other words, incorporate a story from your life that nobody else could write about for the simple fact that nobody else has lived it. We’re not saying you need to turn this into a creative writing exercise, necessarily. If the prompt is direct and doesn’t leave you much room to elaborate, then you can’t afford to launch into a full literary narrative. 

But you can still include a brief glimpse into your life or describe a particular moment. For example, you might start by briefly describing the moment you realized you wanted to transfer from your current school. What happened? Where were you? What were you thinking in that moment?

Even something as simple as starting the essay with a short anecdote like that will immediately make your transfer essay more memorable to college admissions officers! You can check out our post here for specific examples of college essay openings that you can use to get ideas for your own transfer application essay. 

“Reflection” refers to what you make of your story. If you read our materials on structuring your college essays, you’ll already know how crucial it is to connect the personal details you provide to your values. 

Ultimately, your “story” is there to make your essay personable and memorable. But it’s your “reflection” and the values you’re able to convey that really show admissions committees that you’re a good fit for their school. 

Most importantly, you need to convey how your values both make you a valuable addition to the community and align with the values of your transfer school. 

If you take a look at the transfer statistics we’ve collected for your use here you’ll see just how selective transfer applications can be. It’s why we recommend working with an expert college essay tutor to craft strong transfer essays. Because there are so many different college essay services out there, we’ve done the research to rank the top 14 college essay services for this year–you can check out our post there. 

Of course, if you’re ready to work with us directly, you can reach out any time: our tutors come from Ivy League universities, and many have years-long track records of placing applicants into the most selective schools in the country. 

Much of the advice for the transfer essay is the same, because ultimately this essay is a very similar piece of writing to the standard college application essay, with the same goal (getting you into college). So, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the process, you can confidently rely on our guides to brainstorm, revise, and end your college essays here. 

You should also especially read about how to write the “Why us?” supplemental essay (and look at our free sample essays that got students into Ivies). You probably remember writing these for your initial applications, but many transfer applications logically require a version of this essay as well!

But, despite these similarities, there are a few things that make the transfer essay unique. 

First, transfer essays should be slightly more direct and to the point than your other college application essays. You’ll notice that you’ll generally have less space for these essays, which means you need to make every word count. You’ll also notice that some of these prompts are more direct, asking you to specifically identify, for example, what aspects of your current university don’t work for you. 

This doesn’t mean you should ditch the personal or storytelling elements of your essays! It just means these elements should be incorporated quickly and efficiently, without as much detail as you might have used in your Common App essay in high school. 

Second, essays for college transfer applications need to focus more on your time in college rather than on what you did in high school. This becomes increasingly true the further into your college career you are: if you’re a college sophomore, then most of your anecdotes should refer to your college experience. 

If you’re still only writing about things you did in high school, you’ll seem immature! Be sure to focus on what you’ve gained, lost, and experienced in your first years of college life. 

Finally, you’ll be expected to have a more concrete sense of what you want out of a college experience. When you were writing in high school, it might have been fine to be a little general, or just to talk about multiple avenues that you might be interested in. 

Transfer applicants, however, will really be expected to concretely articulate their career goals and interests, as well as what specific resources you plan to take advantage of at your new campus community and what resources were missing at your old one. 

These transfer essays are high stakes: for schools like Princeton and Harvard, transfer acceptance rates can be even lower than regular acceptance rates! If you want to make sure you’re writing these essays correctly, get connected with one of our expert college essay coaches here.

Choosing to transfer colleges can be a difficult decision. For many students, it can be the right one–but actually getting into your dream school as a transfer student may be even harder than getting in from high school!

If you’re serious about transferring to a selective university, then you’ll need to put a lot of work into your transfer essays. But you don’t want that hard work going to waste: work with one of our expert college essay tutors to ensure that your essay will impress the admissions committee and boost your chances of acceptance. 

Want to know exactly what your chances are? We’ve put together a resource of the most recent statistics on transfer applications for top schools. Download it for free below to get a sense of what it’ll take to get admitted!

Top College Essay Posts



Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.