How to Write a Great Transition Sentence

What good transition sentences look like

To get a clear sense of why good transitions are important, read the body paragraphs in the “Builder and Problem-Solver” essay without reading the bolded parts.

Take a second to actually do this.

How lost do you feel?

Now read the transition sentences in the “Builder and Problem-Solver” essay (the ones in bold). 

Way clearer now, right? And do you see how, even if you only read those bolded sentences, you can kinda’ still see where the essay is going? That’s what good transitions can do.

Why good transitions are important

Imagine your personal statement is a map that guides the reader—in the case of the admission reader, a stranger—through the territory of you. Think for a minute from that stranger’s perspective—out in the wilderness, trying to navigate the twists and turns of your heart and brain, with just this map. 

Part of your job as a writer is to metaphorically put your hand on the readers’ shoulder and say, “I got you.” To build trust.

Why do you want to build trust with your reader? Because if they don’t trust that your essay is going somewhere informative, or interesting, they might start skimming.

Two ways to build trust with your reader

Below are two ways—and neither is “better,” by the way; both work great.

Option A: Provide a clear map at the start.

Here’s an example intro from an essay that does this:

Lola the lamb. Diego the snake. Jack the Dog. Nutmeg the rabbit. And a Bearded Dragon named Zigzag. No, these aren’t weird titles for kids books. These are actually some of my greatest teachers. But why have I grown up with such a diverse cast? For many reasons, my connection and experiences with these animals have been a major part of shaping who I am today

Reading this, we can pretty much tell that this essay is going to be about how animals have shaped the author. We’ve bolded the “map” so it’s super clear.

But you don’t have to provide such a clear map at the start if you give clear signposts along the way. 

So here’s another possibility:

Option B: Draw us in with a creative opening, then provide clear signposts (i.e., transitions) to guide us along the way.

For a list of 9 creative ways to start your essay, click here. But if you choose a more creative opening, your transitions may be even more important. Why?

Check out the “Poop, Animals, and the Environment” essay at this link. The opening reads: 

I have been pooped on many times. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have been pooped on by pigeons and possums, house finches and hawks, egrets and eastern grays.

At the start, it’s not quite clear where we’re going. Check out the next sentences:

I don’t mind it, either. For that matter, I also don’t mind being pecked at, hissed at, scratched and bitten—and believe me, I have experienced them all.

Still not 100% clear. Is this an essay about working with animals? Sort of. For a while. But then it turns out to be about something else (environmentalism). But this essay works because the transitions—which we’ve highlighted in bold at this link—guide us through the twists and turns of the essay.

The takeaway for this section: Again, part of your job as a writer is to let the reader know they can trust you. You can do this by a) providing a clear map at the start, b) using clear signposts/transitions along the way, or c) both.

This guide will show you a few different options for setting up your signposts/transitions.

But before we show you different transition options, it’s first worth doing a quick diagnosis to make sure your transitions really are the issue.

The Flow Diagnostic: How to know if your transitions are really the issue

Why are we talking about this?

Because one of the most common mistakes students make is thinking that they only need to tweak the transitions (when they actually need to do more). 

To explain using that map analogy: Sometimes, the problem is that you forgot to tell your reader/stranger to take a left at the fork (with a clearer transition). Other times, the problem is that the territory of you that you’re discussing isn’t even on the same map, in which case you may want to consider either a larger restructuring or (honestly) a new topic.

So how do you diagnose if what you need to tweak is only (or mostly) your transitions?

The Flow Diagnostic: Can you outline your essay from memory?

This short exercise takes about 10 minutes, and you can do it either with another person or on your own.

How to do this with another person: 

  • Without looking at your essay, tell that person your essay. 

  • Have them take notes on what you’re saying. 

  • When you’re done, have them tell it back to you. 

  • Is it clear? If so, maybe you just need to tweak the transitions. 

  • If one or both of you are confused, talk it out until a) each idea is clear, and b) the connection between the ideas are clear. Bullet point them. Then you should have your new transitions.

  • At that point, try writing a new outline using those bullet points and THEN writing a new draft.

  • Important: Write your new outline from scratch (based on the new flow) and write your new draft from scratch too. (It’s sometimes hard to let go of a previous draft, but trust me that it’ll likely be faster and lead to a better essay if you do this.)

  • Then come back to this post if you need to.

How to do this by yourself: 

  • Record yourself talking through your essay—again, without actually looking at it. (Tip: Use the voice memo feature on your phone, if you have one.)

  • Listen back to yourself, then create a bullet-point outline of the separate ideas/chunks/story “beats” of your essay.

  • You may be surprised at how just doing this can help clarify the flow of your ideas. 

  • Also notice: How much of what you said was actually in your previous essay draft? And how much was in your mind, but not yet in your essay?

  • Looking back at what you wrote down, see if you can split your story into 5-8 chunks. These will become the sections of your essay, and maybe even your paragraphs. (Note that if you have 8 or more “chunks,” your paragraphs will have to be pretty short.)

Here’s an example for the “Poop, Animals, and the Environment” essay above: 

  • When I’m working with animals, I know their health and welfare is completely in my hands

  • That’s why I worked at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley over the summer

  • But when it was over, I felt there was more to do, and I had some responsibility to do it.

  • That’s what also pushes me toward environmental activism…

  • Sometimes I have mixed/complex feelings around that, but…

  • Ultimately, I feel I have to keep going. 

When’s the best time to start over/brainstorm new ideas?

If this works (or starts to work) for you, great! It could be that your transitions are the issue. Keep reading below for ideas on making those transitions work.

If this does not at all work for you, it may be worth brainstorming new topic ideas. Why?

The best time to try a new idea is right now. Because right now, you’ll have more time than you’ll ever have to make something new work.

Click here for some brainstorming exercises.

All that said, here are …

9 transition techniques (and what they’re useful for)

1. The “What I Did Next” Transition

As its name implies, this approach uses language that directly sets up for the reader what you did next. It will generally use some phrasing that sets up the chronological relationship to where we’ve been so far, and frequently discusses how the focus of the previous paragraph played into your new focus.

A great example of this is the “Builder and Problem-Solver” essay referenced above. Notice how the transitions help us follow, in a chronological way, the author’s journey from problem-solver to lock-picker to art-maker to coder. The transitions provide signposts guiding us along the way.

For another good example of this, check out the “Makeup” essay. Again, notice how the author guides us through the body using clear transitions.

Slight Variation: “The Steps I Took to Solve a Problem” Approach

This variation takes a similar approach, but uses language that clarifies how each paragraph is the next step in pursuit of a particular solution (generally, to a problem that themes the essay).

For an example, check out the “Does Every Life Matter?” essay. Note that the twists and turns are mostly in pursuit of the author’s attempt to solve the problem/answer the question he raises at the start of the essay.

2. The “Steps I Took to Level Up” Transition

Like the “What I Did Next” transition, this approach will generally use language that indicates progress/relationship in time to what came prior (e.g., “I began to …”), but this one focuses on how what you did next helped you build on what you’d done previously, showing how you’ve grown, gained skills and insights … and leveled up.

Notice how in the “Flying” essay, for example, these three transition sentences help us see how the paragraphs act in a chain, with each presenting a way in which the author is expanding in complexity, skill, and insight: “I began to challenge myself academically” + “I also elected to participate in my school’s engineering pathway” + “Most of all, I sought to solve problems that impact the real world.”

3. The “Connecting Back to Your Topic” Transition

With this approach, you establish your central topic, then connect back to it in your transition sentences.

Notice in the “Translating” essay, for example, how each transition sentence connects back to the central theme: 

  • “Translation means reinterpreting my Calculus teacher’s description of L’hospital’s rule into a useful tool for solving the limits.”

  • “My talent for translating also applies to my role as a ‘therapist’ for my family and friends.”

  • “My knack for translating has led me to become a real-life Korean language translator.” 

  • Etc.

4. The “That Last Thing Mattered in This Way …” Transition

This transition is, essentially, the basic form of just about all the other transitions in this guide. For example, the “What I Did Next” or “Leveling Up” approaches are more specific versions of “That Last Thing Mattered in This Way,” but provide your reader with a more specific connection. We’re adding this “That Last Thing” technique as a catch-all: in the somewhat rare case that none of the other approaches here work for you, it’s virtually guaranteed this one has you covered.

To illustrate: in the “12” essay, for example, the author uses “That secret desire manifested itself in different ways” and “That view held sway until a conversation with my friend Alex, the fastest receiver on the team” to give us as readers an anchorpoint. And while what he gets into in the paragraphs contains elements of growth and what he did next, the focus and function of these are different. For example, the latter example is used to set up a pivotal shift in perception.

(Side note on usage: it’s useful to note that these transitions could probably have come at the ends of the previous paragraphs, or at the beginning, as they do.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *