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I'm applying to PhD programs in math. The thing is: I went to a great school coming out of high school, but it didn't work out. (No GPA problems thankfully; just personal stuff.) I ended up going to an engineering program, where I eventually understood math was my calling, and everything has been going swimmingly since then.

The question is: do I need to explain myself? Every program I apply to will be getting the transcript from my first institution. It seems to me I should explain why I left and how I've gotten to where I am. That said, only one school I'm applying to actually requires a statement about this kind of circumstance, which has left me a bit confused. Presumably my having transferred will raise questions that I should strive to address in my application, rather than letting the admissions committees' imaginations fill in the gaps. That said, I feel as though anything I can say to explain the situation will detract from the positive developments that transpired after I transferred, particularly given the prestige I chose to give up.

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If there were no GPA problems at the first school, then there's nothing in that first transcript to look askance at; hence, no explanation needed.

However, the specific change you made, from engineering to pure math, might help your application. Perhaps a small anecdote will help me explain why.

When I took my Calculus III (multivariate), it happened that my fellow students had no patience for proofs. They were overwhelmingly engineering students. One of them became a self-appointed spokesman for the impatient majority, and would interrupt the instructor in the middle of a proof of a major theorem: "Excuse me, Ma'am, could you skip the proof, please, and go straight to the applications?"

Not all engineering students are like that; and to be fair, the large number of credit hours they are frequently expected to take per semester isn't conducive to stopping to smell the roses.

Conclusion: a brief mention in the essay or cover letter of your change of major from engineering to math might help your application.

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I feel it's difficult to give an elaborate answer to the question without knowing the specifics, but I'd say you don't have to be too straightforward with it.

Consider the following:

You want the admissions people, whether that is the HR department or the group leader him/herself, to not be suspicious about your transfer, but you are not sure whether you should justify the transfer to them in your application. Justification sort of implies that something out of the ordinary (or something that requires explanation) has taken place, which puts you in a rhetorical weak position.

Instead of trying to formally explain your choice of transfer, maybe you can take up the subject in a non-direct way in your personal letter or letter of intent or anything like that, which I presume you will have to write anyways.

You can explain where/how you started, briefly touch upon the transfer reasons and work your way to the core: how your transfer caused you to find your calling and how it has contributed to your intellectual development. That way you not only explain that you have transfered and why, but also what positive effects it has had on you, without being a bit uptight about it by writing a separate letter or a specific paragraph about it.

Of course it is possible that I misunderstood your question but that's my two cents :) Good luck

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