“I’m transferring and plan to major in education/business/engineering/sociology/music/ art/film production/psychology/creative writing/computer science/archaeology/(fill in the blank), but I don’t have any experience in the field. The only place I ever worked is McDonalds.  How can I answer the application question related to prior experience?”

First of all, know that schools do not require you to have had experience at this stage in your academic career. That question is designed to provide an opportunity to describe any experience you have had, but not everyone will already have had internships or summer jobs in the field they plan to pursue. A lack of relevant experience will not be held against you, but evidence that you have benefited from whatever experience you do have will certainly work in your favor. So…

If you are planning to major in:

Education? At McDonalds, you have had a great deal of experience observing developmental differences among children, reading readiness levels, evidence of self-confidence, play-related learning, decision-making, communication skills, and parental interactions.  You will easily be able to build on those observations and bring them to bear on classroom discussions about how to effectively support children and parents through the educational process.

Business? This one’s a no-brainer.  At one of the most successful businesses in the world, you were able to observe effective business practices at all levels. Marketing, accounting, customer service, human resources, supply and demand, effect of competition, impact of a down economy on sales? You’ve seen it, and those observations will deepen your understanding of the theories you will be learning in upper-level classes.

Engineering? Remember that time the french fry machine broke down because of a faulty design? And how frustrating it was to watch handicapped people try to access the condiment station?  Remember how your shiftmates were always talking about that one process that would work so much more smoothly if only someone would invent a machine that could do part of it?

Sociology?  What better place to observe a “slice-of-life” than McDonalds.  You’ve seen the affluent business man come in every morning for his $8 breakfast, complete with pricey lattes at the McCafe, and you’ve seen the homeless guy who always used to hang around the parking lot until he’d scraped up enough money to buy an item off the dollar menu.

Music?  My goodness, if ever there was a place to inspire the availability of better “music for public spaces”, it’s McDonalds!  You’ve seen first-hand the impact of volume, tempo, and tone on the demeanor and buying habits of the general public.  You’ve seen music consumers of every age and demographic.  You *know* you can have an impact on people by creating music that will move or inspire them!

Art? From “theme décor” to the choices of color on restroom walls, you know for a fact that the components of art not only affect commercial success, but also the overall happiness of customers.  From small children happily coloring on placemats, to the old man wistfully studying the historical “Wild West” reproduction on the wall next to his table, you have seen first-hand that art is personal.

Film Production?  Remember when you were in the middle of a long slow shift and couldn’t keep from day-dreaming about a film crew suddenly bursting through the door to catch a segment of “everyday life” at McDonalds? Everyone from the servers to the customers would have had a role. As Director, the whole set was at your command. With a degree in film, you could make it happen!

Psychology? Anyone who has worked in a customer service capacity has learned *tons* about psychology! Handling the irritated customer whose order didn’t come through the way they wanted? The co-worker who called in “sick” all the time and how the manager handled that situation? Parents at the end of their rope after a long day, dropping in to feed their cranky famished kids on the way home from day care? The developmentally-challenged adult employee who maintained the serving area and wash rooms? Those observations will be useful examples when you are studying theories of human behavior in the classroom.

Creative writing?  No matter how gifted a writer you are, you may find you need to sell your words commercially to put bread on the table. Copy-writing for print advertorials?  Proposals to headquarters for a new product line? Training manuals for new staff members? Descriptive text about the latest scratch-off game? If you were willing to work at McDonalds, you know what it means to put in the hours necessary at a less fulfilling job in order to finance your dream of writing the next great American novel.  And that quirky middle-aged woman who used to stop in for a small cone every Wednesday? The vivid scarf she always used to wear might just show up on one of the characters in your best seller!

Computer Science?  Proprietary corporate formulas to track consumer habits, employee records and management marketing decisions? Apps for hand-held devices allowing customers to speak an order into their phone, pay for it electronically, and pick it up at the window without waiting in line? Built-in touch-screen tabletop games to keep restless kids occupied while the food is getting ready or the parent checks in at work with Wi-Fi?  You know the need is there – you saw it first-hand while working at McDonalds.

Archaeology? This one’s my favorite!  What could the experience of working at McDonalds possibly do to enhance the application of an Archaeology major?  Well, think for a moment about archaeologists of the future.  Imagine the excavation of an American city in ruins when they come across the rubble of a McDonalds.  Logos, Bluetooth headsets, foil condiment packets, car keys (what do you suppose this so-called civilization used *those* for?) a Star Wars backpack with a perfectly-preserved Twinkie inside – what a find!

Bottom line? No matter how humble, don’t let the lack of directly-related experience stop you from a creative evaluation of the positive characteristics and qualities you did gain from whatever experiences you did have.  Clearly, they helped shape you into the desirable applicant you are today for any major!

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At this time of year, Admission Committee members put in long hours and they have a very short time to read each application. You spend weeks putting your best effort into this.  I hate to tell you this, but very probably your whole application will be reviewed in 20 minutes at most.

Often it’s very late at night. They’ve been reading all day. There may be one space left in the class, and two applications. Both applications are equally well-qualified in terms of grades and activities – one has a strong essay, one does not. Or even let’s say both are pretty good essays, but one is full of typos and the other has been carefully proof-read. Which candidate do you think will get that one spot?

Grades are the number one qualification. Your transcript is the first thing the reader will look at, then your activities list, then the essay. A strong essay will not get you in if your grades and activities are weak. The most heart-wrenching and well-written hardship story won’t save a lousy transcript. But a dull, poorly written, or poorly proof-read one may keep you out even if your grades and activities are excellent.

You will hear that at some campuses, and for some majors, if your grades are outstanding, they may never even read your essay, and in fact this is true. But the thing is, you don’t know which ones those are, and you don’t know if your grades are that much better than the competition. Even the head of the Admissions Committee could not tell you right this minute if your essay will be read, because they don’t know until all the applications are in and they have a chance to compare the number of applicants and the number of openings. For sure, if you are applying to an impacted major, or if you are in that big middle pile (not in at first glance, but not necessarily out) then your essay will be crucial.

If your transcript is all A’s, you have been founding President of six clubs on campus and during the summer you built an orphanage in Afghanistan for the 300 children you rescued single-handedly from a terrible mountain avalanche in which all their parents had been killed…OK fine, you might rightfully assume you have a pretty good chance of being admitted to the school of your choice. But you’d be surprised how many other applicants have all A’s and a stellar set of activities. No pressure, but unless you tell that orphanage story really well, one of those other shining stars might just grab that spot you thought was yours.

At virtually every school, every application is read by more than one person. If two agree, you’re in (or out, depending on what they agree on) If they disagree, a third reader will break the tie. Or, depending on the school, sometimes that pile is reviewed & discussed in greater depth by a committee.

It’s also, important to remember that scholarship committees will read these essays too.

So, what are these weary but well-meaning people looking for when they read your essays?

They are looking to find out if you are smart enough, inclined to work hard enough and will fit in. They are also looking to see what unique contributions you will make to the student body.

The U. C. Berkeley Undergraduate Admissions site provides an excellent set of “Characteristics of a Good Personal Statement”:


And their Transfer Application site states that Berkeley seeks information about:

  • Demonstrated interest in the major
  • Choices you’ve made and what you have gained as a result of those choices
  • Exceptional personal or academic recognition
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Unusual talent or ability
  • Leadership/service to others
  • Substantial experience with other cultures
  • Participation in an outreach program or internship
  • Your ability to overcome or manage significant challenges
  • Your ability to think analytically and write critically

Your essay needs to show (not just tell) them that you are some combination of creative, resourceful, hard-working, intelligent, unique, talented, tenacious, altruistic, committed to a cause you believe in, mature, goal-oriented, introspective, self-confident, receptive to challenges, assertive (but not aggressive!) resilient, either an inspiring leader, or an effective follower, and authentic. Those are all words I have heard application readers use in describing their desired candidates.  Piece o’ cake, right?

Last but not least, don‘t let anyone tell you that an Admissions Committee member can’t possibly really care about you. In my experience, application readers care a great deal. The problem is they only have the luxury of caring about you personally for about 20 minutes. Your task is to make whatever they know about you at the end of those 20 minutes so memorable that they very much want to include you in the world of wonderful people on their campus.

Read on for some tips about how to “show not tell” and how to get started on this all-important writing assignment.

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It's a matter of words... for when the right words matter.