The Challenges of Transfer Application Essays

02/25/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

College counselors often refer to September-December as the "application season." Students usually begin their applications at the end of the summer and have to submit them by January 1. And, for many counselors, at schools and in private practice alike, every application season is like this year's winter in Boston.

By January, the skies clear. You can almost hear Lorne Greene's soothing baritone announcing the arrival of fawns, chicks, and flowers on that old wildlife program. But then comes the deluge of transfer applications.

Transfer applications, often due March 1, pose challenges that students did not face the first time around. Transfer applicants often don't have the camaraderie that they shared with their fellow high school seniors, and they rarely have college counselors to support them, morally and logistically.

Fortunately, transfer applicants need only go to the dining hall to find their most important form of support: coffee. Fully caffeinated.

While undergraduate Common Application essays leave plenty of room for whimsy, prompts for transfer essays, both the personal statement and many schools' supplements, can be downright soporific. Colleges (optimistically) assume that college freshmen have outgrown personal stories and should focus almost entirely on academics. I'm all for academics, and I encourage even freshman applicants to write about intellectual topics (rather than delve too deeply into childhood anecdotes, trips to Africa, etc.). But transfer applications sometimes take it too far.

Here's the prompt for the personal statement:

Please provide a statement that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve. (250-650 words)

So far, so good. It's a reasonable question. Colleges are going to take only those students who are going to be academic assets. They want to know what they're getting, and they want students who know what they want.

Some schools, though, pile on supplemental essays that are so repetitive that it's hard for students to reveal anything but a narrow picture of themselves. Some supplements are so redundant it's as if the schools' admissions staffs have never read the personal statement prompt.

USC has a short essay about an extracurricular activity, and then it has this:

Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (250 word limit)

Here's Columbia's first supplement:

For applicants to Columbia College, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time. (300 words or less)

And Columbia's second supplement:

Please tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)

Here are Brown's two supplements, much like Columbia's:

Please tell us more about your interest in transferring. Why does Brown appeal to you as a college option? Who or what has influenced your decision to apply? (250 word limit)

Describe what academic field(s) you wish to pursue at Brown, how you came upon that interest, and any post-graduation career plans you may have considered. (500 word limit)

If that's not enough, here's Brown's engineering supplement, which applicants have to write on top of the first two:

Engineering (500 words.)

1. Many applicants to college are unsure about eventual majors. What factors led you to your interest in Engineering? (Feel free to elaborate on one of your earlier responses.)
2. What experiences beyond school work have broadened your interest?

You see what I'm getting at. Every one of these prompts asks a different version of, essentially, the same question. What's an applicant to do?

My answer is far from perfect. On the one hand, an applicant could blow off the prompts -- especially the personal statement -- and write what he or she wants. If that sounds too risky, then an applicant has to do some serious strategizing.

I recommend that applicants take stock of their entire academic careers, past and future, and collect as big a pile of material as they can. Generally, they can consider the following categories:

  • Personal intellectual moments and inspirations: what experiences, or perspectives on the world around you, inform and inspire your academic goals?
  • High school academics: inspirations, seminal moments, major accomplishments.
  • Freshman year (college) academics: What have you learned and accomplished recently? Did any epiphanies inspire you to transfer?
  • College goals: what will you major in and what do you want to focus on?
  • Goals for a specific college (for supplemental essays): what classes, professors, special programs, etc. will you pursue as a student at the college in question?
  • The distant future: what career do you envision? How do you hope to contribute to the world 4-5 years from now?

In the personal statement, applicants can recall an academic highlight or two and describe their broad academic goals -- basically the first three bullet points above. In the school-specific essay, they can essentially pick up where the personal statement left off: "Now that I've described these goals, here's how I'm going to pursue them at School X..."

With a Brown or a Columbia, students have to channel your inner Akira Kurosawa. Students have to mete out details judiciously and figure out how to tell the same story from multiple angles. They can, for instance, think of a few anecdotes that illustrate their academic interests and use different anecdotes in different essays.

Students are going to need that coffee just to stay awake through this process. Then again, this is where deep thinking and great writing come in. The students who are truly inspired by the opportunities of college will articulate the ideas that inspire them and will tell stories that make their intellects come to life on the page. And maybe the folks at Brown will forgive you if the fourth essay isn't quite as peppy as the first.

A final word of advice: Transferring almost always involves a degree of dissatisfaction with a student's current school. Students can explain why a school isn't right for them, but they should avoid gratuitous criticism of their current school. The weather, for instance, is not a valid complaint. Even if you're in Boston.