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4 Tips for Writing Amazing Notre Dame Essays

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Sep 15, 2019 12:00:00 PM

College Essays



The University of Notre Dame is one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. It attracts the best and brightest students from around the country—in fact, 38% of the student body ranked in the top 1% of their high school graduating classes! That means that most applicants will have exemplary academic records.

Because most applicant have amazing grades and transcripts, your Notre Dame application essays will be one of the most important ways for you to stand out from the crowd!

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about writing Notre Dame's application essays. We've broken it into a few major sections. First, we'll give you an overview of the Notre Dame supplement. Then we'll walk you through each essay individually and answer the following questions:

  • What is the essay asking you to do?

  • What makes for a good answer?

  • What are some potential essay topics?

  • Are there pitfalls you should avoid?

And finally, we'll give you four top tips for taking your Notre Dame essays to the next level. So let's get started!


Why Are the Notre Dame Application Essays Important?

The hard truth is that getting into Notre Dame is tough. Only 16% of applicants in 2019 were accepted, which makes Notre Dame even harder to get into than schools like Emory University and Vassar! And because Notre Dame attracts top talent, admitted students also boast excellent standardized test scores. In fact, the average Notre Dame student scored between a 1410–1540 on their SAT or a 33–35 on their ACT.

So that begs the question: what kind of applicants get admitted? According to the Notre Dame Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Notre Dame is looking for well-rounded, passionate students who excel in the classroom and are involved in the community. Here's how Notre Dame sums up the importance of the essay portion of your application:

Your essays are the most enjoyable part of the application reading process. Why? Because we learn about important decisions you've made, adventures you've survived, and lessons you've learned, family traditions you've experience.

In other words, admissions counselors want to know that if you're admitted, you'll make the most of your time at Notre Dame—both inside and outside the classroom

The Notre Dame essays are your chance to show admissions counselors that you're the whole package, especially since Notre Dame does not conduct admissions interviews. That means your essay responses will be one of your only opportunities to show admissions counselors that you're an excellent fit for their university.


An Overview of the Notre Dame Supplement

The Notre Dame supplement is available through either the Common App or the Coalition App websites. The Common App and the Coalition App are online platforms that let you apply to multiple colleges at once. If you aren't sure what they are or how to use them, check out our guides to filling out the Common App and the Coalition App, which include tips for tackling the personal essays!

Here's where things get a little bit tricky: the Notre Dame supplement is submitted in addition to the application you have already filled out. That means you will be submitting additional essays specific to Notre Dame on top of the essays you've written for your universal application package. That's why it's called the Notre Dame supplement!


The 2 Parts of the Notre Dame Supplement

The supplement itself asks you to write and submit three additional essays, which are split into two groups:

  • First, there's the mandatory essay. This is the prompt that everyone who applies to Notre Dame must answer.

  • For your next two essays, you're given the choice between four prompts and must answer two.

The online portals give you between 150 and 200 words to respond to each prompt, but the Notre Dame admissions website asks that each essay is 150 words. We recommend that you keep your essay as close to 150 words as possible! We know that's not a lot of space, but remember: your admissions essays are about quality, not quantity.

Now that you have a general sense of the Notre Dame supplement, let's take a closer look at each essay topic.


Essay 1: "Why Notre Dame?"

What excites you about the University of Notre Dame that makes it stand out from other institutions?

Remember: this essay topic is mandatory, which means you must answer it to complete the supplement. But don't worry...we're going to walk you through the process!


What Is the Essay Asking You to Do?

This prompt is essentially the "Why This College?" question. This is a common supplemental essay question designed to help admissions counselors understand why Notre Dame—and literally no other university!—is the perfect school for you. The "Why Notre Dame" prompt also serves another purpose: it helps they want to get a sense of how you, as both a student and as a person, will contribute to the Notre Dame community.

In answering this question, your job is to show admissions counselors that you're the perfect fit for Notre Dame, and visa versa.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

#1: Do your homework. The key to writing an amazing "Why Notre Dame?" essay is showing admissions counselors that you've really dug into the resources and opportunities available at the school. Doing this proves you're more than interested—it shows you're passionate and motivated, too.

As you research, look at specific classes you might be interested in taking and/or professors you might want to research under. (Here's a list of all the colleges and departments at Notre Dame to get you started!) For example, if you want to program the next Alexa, you'll want to mention taking classes like Artificial Intelligence and Software Development Practices. Or if curing cancer is more your thing, you can mention working with Dr. Jessica Brown, who is researching RNA to better understand how cancer works.


#2: Not sure what you want to major in yet? No problem. This is a common question we get when it comes to the "Why This College?" essay. The simple answer is: it's okay to not know! Admissions counselors know that your major isn't set in stone, but they do want to see that you're thinking about the future. Even if you're not 100% certain about what you want to do in the future, pick a potential major for the sake of writing this prompt.


#3: Don't overlook the Notre Dame community, either. Admissions counselors are looking for students who will do more than study—they want to find people who will become members of the community, too. For instance, if you were in theatre in high school, you might want to participate in Shakespeare at Notre Dame! Also, many departments have their own student organizations (like the American Studies Club or Beta Gamma Sigma, a business honors society). Make sure you check departmental pages for this information.

One quick note about religion: Notre Dame is a Catholic university, so many of its community programs are religiously affiliated. Unless you're serious about becoming a member of one of these groups, don't mention it in your essay. Admissions counselors read thousands of applications every year, and they will know if you're being sincere!


#4: Start narrowing things down. Now that you've done your research and have a list of classes, professors, programs, and extracurriculars, choose the two or three things that stand out most. You only have 150 words, so you need to give yourself space to talk about the items you've chosen!


#5: Relate your topics to your goals. Remember, your job is to show admissions counselors that Notre Dame is the only school for you. Explain how the classes, programs, and activities you've mentioned will put you on the path to achieve your goals. For example, if you want to study adolescent psychology, explain how your coursework and experience at Notre Dame will help you go on to research how social media affects adolescents' brain development. By making it personal, you'll be able to emphasize how Notre Dame is the only place that can set you on the path to success.


What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

Along with the examples we mention earlier in this section, here are a few other topics you might consider for this essay:

  • Talk about how you hope to contribute to a specific ongoing research project with professor in your department.

  • Explain your future career goals and mention how joining specific campus organizations will help put you on the path to success.

  • Discuss how you want to take classes in two departments in order to think about a problem in your future profession in new ways.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

#1: Avoid generalities. Make sure you're being as specific as possible about what makes Notre Dame special. Don't just say you're excited to attend because of the school's study abroad programs—most, if not all, major colleges in the United States offer study abroad. What specific programs does Notre Dame offer that you can't find anywhere else? The same goes for talking about your career interests. Don't say that you want to stop climate change. How do you want to do that? How will specific classes, professors, and research opportunities at Notre Dame help you save the world?


#2: Leave sports out of it. We know, we know: part of the appeal of Notre Dame is joining the legion of Fighting Irish. But unless you're joining one of the athletic teams, focus on academics and career/service opportunities instead.


#3: Don't sound bored. The question asks about what makes you excited to attend Notre Dame, so let your passion show through in your writing.




Essays 2 and 3: Choose Your Prompts

For this section of the Notre Dame essay supplement, you're given four different essay prompts. Your job is to choose and answer two. Keep in mind that the word limit for these prompts is the same, which means you'll only have 150 words for each answer.

For some people, choosing the prompts is the hardest part! There are a few things you can do to make this easier:

#1: Choose prompts that let you share new information. Go through the list and rule out any prompts that you've already discussed as part of your Common App or Coalition App. Some of the Notre Dame supplement essays involve talking about similar topics to the Common App and Coalition App essay prompts. Make sure you choose Notre Dame essay prompts that let you talk about something fresh and new!


#2: Brainstorm every prompt. Take an afternoon and write down potential ideas for every prompt below. Don't worry about whether the ideas are good or not—just write them down! Once you're done, take a look at which prompts give you the opportunity to share something new that you haven't already mentioned in your application.


#3: Read ahead. Take a minute to read through the Notre Dame essay example topics below. See if any of the ideas or strategies jump out to you!


Now let's take a closer look at each prompt and how to answer them.


Option 1: The Community Question

The founder of the University of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., was only 28 when he established the University with the vision that it would become a "powerful means of doing good." We have always known that young people can be catalysts for change. What is one way that you have made an impact in your community?


What Is the Essay Asking You to Do?

This prompt wants you to take a look at your life and what you've accomplished with it so far. Being a teenager may feel like you can't really have an impact on the world, but, as the prompt points out, young people can be "catalysts for change." To answer this prompt, think about the things that matter to you and what you've done to make those things different.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

#1: Think small. With this question, it can be tempting to feel like you have to have done something really huge and impactful like starting a worldwide charity or curing an illness. Those things are great topics, but they aren't the only way to have an impact on your community.

Your community can be as big as the entire world and as small as you and your best friend. What matters isn't how many people have been affected by whatever change you've made, but rather the profundity of the impact. Starting a clothes donation program for local homeless people is as worthy an essay topic as traveling overseas.


#2: Explain the change. Naming something you've done is a good start, but you also want to be able to demonstrate exactly what changes have occurred. To return to the example of setting up a clothes donation program, you should go beyond the actual establishment of the program into the effects that it had. Did it raise awareness for the experiences of homeless people in your area? Did those people have an easier time finding jobs with the clothes that were donated as part of your program? How did initiating that change in your neighborhood change you?


#3: Think forward. This essay prompt is a great way to show the impact you're already having on the world as a young person. But college is about expanding your horizons and growing as a person—think about how you're going to continue to have the impact you started as you grow older and have more influence. How will attending Notre Dame help you deepen the impact you've already had? Feel free to be specific—noting classes, professors, or clubs that will help you is a great way to demonstrate that your ties to Notre Dame are not just in its reputation, but rather in what truly makes it unique.


What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

Along with the example we discussed earlier in this section, here are some other topics you could write about:

  • Standing up for one of your classmates who was being bullied.

  • Writing a letter to the editor of your local paper about the high price of school lunches.

  • Giving a speech at a protest for a national organization.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

#1: Avoid condescension. When writing about community service or other acts of public service, it's easy to slip into talking too much about what you learned and how this experience impacted you. That's not necessarily a bad essay topic, but you want to stay away from writing about how working in a soup kitchen showed you how lucky you are to have a hot meal every day. It may very well be true, but the essay is looking for how you have changed your community, not how your community has changed you. Be sure that you're showing not just what you learned from a single experience, but how you plan to carry that knowledge forward in your life.


#2: Being too general. Specifics will serve you well in this essay prompt. Instead of talking abstractly about work you've done, dial into something very specific, like how your community came together to build a garden or how your clothing drive benefited low-income and homeless students. Specifics make your actions stand out, so don't be afraid to focus on something that might feel comparatively small to volunteering for Doctors Without Borders or other widely known organizations!


Option 2: The Hometown Question

If you were to bring a new friend to your hometown and give them a personal tour, what is a meaningful place you would show them?


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

This question asks a straightforward question: what place in your hometown is most important to you? But there's an unspoken question attached to it: why is that place important to you? Why would this be the place you introduce to someone else?

This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame to learn more about where you came from and how it's shaped the person you've become!


What Makes for a Good Answer?

#1: Pick your place. The first component in a good answer to this prompt is having a place to pick. Think back to where you grew up and the places that have had the most impact on you. That can be somewhere as familiar and personal as your bedroom, or somewhere more public, like the swing set of your favorite park or the restaurant where you worked your first job. Don't worry about picking places that sound intellectual or that tie into your major; if those places are important to you, by all means, pick them! But it's more important that you're genuine, as the strength of your response will come from a genuine interest and love for a place than from trying to sound impressive.


#2: You need a strong "why." Though it's not part of the question, assume that Notre Dame also wants to know why you chose this place. That "why" should be stronger than that you have a positive memory there; think about what that place means to you. This might not be readily evident right away, but spend a little time thinking about your favorite places and why they're important to you.

If a park is your favorite place, you might have fond memories of spending time there with your friends and family. You might think about seeing a lizard hiding in the grass and how it made you curious about what other creatures might live there. This may not have been the exact moment that led you to want to study biology, but it may have been an early indicator that the natural world was exciting for you.

Or maybe the place that matters most to you is the coffee shop where you got a latte before class. The coffee was good, but what matters more is the time you spent with friends there, laughing and talking about what you were learning in school. At first glance, this might not sound any different from most of the places you spend time with your friends, but it's also where you learned about working as part of a team and how fun and exciting intellectual discussion could be—and that's how you knew college was the right choice for you.

Again, you don't have to tie the place you choose to Notre Dame or your chosen major, but it should speak to something deeper than that it was a place you hung out with friends. Dig a little deeper and see what you find!


#3: What would this location tell your new friend about you and where you come from? Remember, your college essays are how colleges get to know you beyond your grades and test scores. Think of this imaginary new friend as Notre Dame—they want to know where you come from and how it shaped who you are. How would you answer that question by taking Notre Dame on a tour?

Remember, the key is not to focus on being overly impressive. Be honest; let Notre Dame get to know you through the places that matter to you.


What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

In addition to the examples we just discussed, here are some other ideas that might inspire your essay:

#1: You'd take your new friend to your dad's teriyaki restaurant, where you first gained an interest in the relationship between cooking and culturee.

#2: Maybe your favorite place in town was the local library, where you could read about anything you could imagine. You'd spend every day after school there, reading any book you could get your hands on, because you loved learning new things more than anything else, and decided you wanted to spend the rest of your life doing just that.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

#1: Pick a place that matters to you. This sounds like a no-brainer—that's what the question asks for, after all! But when answering college essay prompts, it can sometimes feel more like you need to pick the "right" answer. In this case, there is no "right" answer; this is a question for Notre Dame to get to know you. Just as there's no correct favorite color or food, there's no correct important place in your hometown. Pick what's true and natural, and then examine why that place matters to you rather than trying to reverse-engineer an impressive choice.

#2: Don't focus too much on explaining the place. This may sound a little contradictory, but this prompt is not so much about the place itself as it is about its impact on you. A few concrete details go a long way; remember, your word limit is around 150 words, so focus on the important stuff. Notre Dame really wants to know about you, not your hometown, so hone in on the important stuff.


Option 3: The Unpopular Opinion Question

Defend an unpopular opinion you hold.


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

Notre Dame doesn't necessarily want to know what your unpopular opinions are—they want to see your well-reasoned thinking and what matters to you within a limited space. Defending an unpopular opinion isn't too hard when you have endless space, but when you're constricted to a mere 150 words, things get tricky.

Don't be afraid to be creative here; you don't have to get political or inflammatory to be successful. You can be just as successful defending pineapple on pizza as a great culinary choice as you would be debating immigration. Remember, Notre Dame wants to see you discuss something that matters to you in a short essay; that can be something very serious or something a little more lighthearted, so long as it demonstrates your ability to write concisely and clearly and it's something you're able to defend as an opinion.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

#1: Brainstorm ideas. The key to a good essay is having a good idea. Don't just jump right to the first unpopular opinion you have; take some time to list out different ideas and pick the one that feels strongest. You can jot down a few ideas to hone in on for each topic to help figure out which ones you can discuss both quickly and with clear ideas.

Let's return to the example of pineapple on pizza. Some people are vehemently opposed to it, but you happen to think the play of sweet, sour, and savory is delightful. Not only that, but you find the contentious nature of Hawaiian pizza itself fascinating; order a pineapple pizza and you'll never lack for dinner conversation as your friends and family launch into a heated debate about whether or not it's a good food.

Come up with a few little defenses for each topic on your list, and use those to plan your essay. The topic can be the one with the strongest defenses or just the one that feels the most interesting to you—pick whatever one best represents you and your interests.


#2: Come up with a strong defense. Choosing a good topic is important, but your defense needs to be strong, too. Remember, Notre Dame wants to see a facet of you expressed through your ability to argue and convince people of your point of view. Choosing the hottest, most popular topic of the moment may be tempting, but it may not be representative of you or your best writing. The defense is important, because it shows Notre Dame that your interest is not in being impressive for the sake of being impressive, but rather that you care about this issue (even if it's as seemingly inconsequential as pineapple on pizza) and have reasons why you care.


#3: Be economical. 150 words is a small amount to make a strong argument. Choosing a good idea and having a strong defense are the first two steps, but you also need to be sure it's something you can write about succinctly. Keep it short and snappy; don't get mired in complicated details and decades of backstory. Simplicity is good for this prompt, so don't be afraid to choose a topic that's more narrow and less complex than you might for a lengthy essay.


What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

Since we've already talked about pineapple on pizza, a particularly controversial topic, let's look at some different opinions you might write about:

  • School lunches should include vegan options, because those options are healthy and good for the environment.

  • The voting age should be lowered to 16, because people at younger ages are also impacted by the choices of adults, and if you are legally able to drive, you should also be legally able to vote.

  • College tuition should be free because there are many students who don't even know they are eligible for financial aid.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

#1: Your topic is overly complex. Always keep in mind your wordcount. This is a very short essay, and wasting precious words explaining a complex issue can wind up weakening your final point. Keep the topic simple, your explanation brief, and you'll be in good shape.


#2: Your topic is too inflammatory. "Unpopular opinions," by their nature, are things not everyone will agree with. But be careful; this essay isn't really about convincing the admissions officer to think your way, and picking a topic that's too incendiary might put them off rather than show off what a capable communicator you are.


Option 4: The High School Reading List Question

Many high schools have books that are required reading. Thinking beyond the common examples, what book do you believe should be on your school's reading list and why?


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

Reading lists are something students and teachers both have strong feelings on. By asking this question, Notre Dame is inviting you to share a book that has meant something to you, and explain why it might be important to others as well. What book you choose is not just reflective of what you like to read, but also what you value in education, and that's really what they're looking for.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

#1: You have strong feelings about a book you've read. Obviously, you need a book to write about. While you could write about a book you've read for school, the prompt asks you to think beyond the common examples. If you've read a book that has had an impact on you in some way, that's a good subject for this essay.


#2: Ask yourself why that book matters to you. No matter what book you choose, you're going to need an explanation as to why it should be required reading for high schoolers. If you were moved by A Wrinkle in Time, think about the parts that matter to you and how they might impact other people as well. Even something very specific can affect a lot of people; don't worry if your choice isn't universally applicable to all people. Choose something that matters to you, and you'll find that you're more than equipped to write a solid response to this prompt.


#3: Explain why this book would benefit others. High school required reading is often chosen to give students some historical and literary context for the world. We read Shakespeare not just because Shakespeare's plays are great reading material, but because they have influenced decades of writers to come, and it's a little difficult to navigate the literary world if you aren't familiar with his work. Books like The Great Gatsby provide us with historical information, while Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 give us glimpses of what writers imagine the future to be like.

That said, you can choose your own required reading for any reason at all. Keeping the reasons we read books in mind can guide you toward a strong choice for this prompt. You may not like reading Huckleberry Finn, but it likely exposed you to things you hadn't thought about before; can you think of any books you've read by choice that have done the same for you, and that might have that impact on others?


What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

What book you choose is going to depend on what books you've read and what impact they've had on you. But for some recent examples of books that might have an impact on you and other readers, consider:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which follows Starr Carter and her struggle to find herself and stand up for what she believes in after her friend is shot by a police officer.

  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is about a group of friends who find their true selves in the search for a long-dead Welsh king.

  • Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova is the story of Alex, a bruja on the run from her own power, and her journey into the supernatural underworld to save her family.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

#1: Pick something that matters, not just something you like. There are lots of great, fun books out there, but this prompt is about adding something to a required reading curriculum. That means that your choice should have value beyond being something that you enjoyed reading—it should shine a light on an important issue, or present a valuable lesson, or otherwise provide some information students may not otherwise have.

That said, the joy of reading is itself an important value! If a book you've read has convinced you that reading is actually rad, that's worth remarking on. If you can make a compelling case that your book of choice will do the same for other readers, by all means, write about that.


#2: Pick something you like, not just something that matters. On the flipside, don't pick a book just because you think it'll sound impressive. You might be tempted to select whatever book won a prestigious award this year, but if you haven't read it or it didn't resonate with you, your essay is going to feel hollow. It's okay to pick something that might sound a little frivolous as long as you can justify its importance. If it meant something to you, it's a good candidate!


#3: Remember, your choice should be illuminating for lots of high school students. Your personal connection to the book is important, but if everything you love about it is tied to personal memories, the book may not land the same way for other people.

For example, say you have fond memories of your grandmother reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham to you; while those memories no doubt have a powerful impact on your feelings about the book, those are the kinds of things you can't really impress upon other people. But you can talk about how your grandmother sharing her experiences during the Civil Rights movement made you realize how fiction can relate to real life. Tying that into your essay rather than just your fond memories will help make your case that The Watsons Go to Birmingham belongs as required reading!




4 Tips for Writing a Killer Notre Dame Essay

Follow these four tips to write a great Notre Dame essay that'll show the school who you are and why they want to admit you.


#1: Be Authentic

You're unique, with your own passions, experiences, and beliefs. Admissions counselors want to try to learn more about the "you" behind the transcript, so don't be afraid to let your personality shine through in your essays. Even more importantly, don't try to fabricate stories about yourself that you think will impress the admissions board. We guarantee that there are plenty of compelling things about you! Besides, admissions counselors have a finely tuned lie detector; they'll know if you're making things up.

Admissions counselors look to your essays to learn more about you. That's why it's important to be yourself! Here's what the Notre Dame Admissions website has to say about being authentic: "Your essays are the most enjoyable part of the application reading process. Why? Because we learn about important decisions you've made, adventures you've survived, lessons you've learned, family traditions you've experienced, challenges you've faced, embarrassing moments you've overcome."


#2: Deal With the Religion Question

Not everyone who gets into Notre Dame is religious, but it's important to know that some older demographic surveys show that the student body is up to 85% Catholic. Likewise, institutionally reported data indicates that a student's religious affiliation and/or commitment is considered in the admissions process. So if you are religious and haven't already mentioned that elsewhere, you might consider discussing it in your Notre Dame application essays.

But be careful! Make sure you review Notre Dame's mission and commitments to make sure your answers align with the university's beliefs. Additionally, don't beat a dead horse. Every response shouldn't revolve around religion—Notre Dame is looking for well-rounded students with a variety of interests and passions.

And if you're not religious, don't lie to try and make yourself a more appealing candidate. Like we mentioned earlier, admissions counselors read thousands of applications every year. They'll be able to tell if you're being honest or not.


#3: Jump Right In

Abandon the long-winded introduction! You only have 150 words, so make every one count. To do that, get right into your topic from the very first sentence. If that feels weird, don't worry: you can write a sentence or two of introduction to get you started, then delete it when you start revisions.


#4: Show, Don't Tell

Use descriptive words to paint a picture for your reader. Don't say "I was so nervous to sing in the talent show." Instead, say something like, "My palms were sweaty and I thought I might faint, but I walked on stage and sang anyway." One tells the reader what you did, and the other gives the reader a glimpse at your experience.




What's Next?

Notre Dame is one of the top 20 colleges in the U.S., so you know admission is competitive. Using an acceptance calculator can help you better understand your chances of getting in.

Notre Dame accepts both the Common App and the Coalition App. Not sure which one you should use? Don't worry: we've got a handy-dandy guide to make your decision a breeze.

Both the Common App and the Coalition App require additional essays beyond the ones we discussed in this post. (Yep, that means even more writing! Yay!) Thankfully, we have in-depth guides for both the Common App essays and the Coalition App essays.


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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