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4 Tips for Writing Amazing Notre Dame Essays

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Dec 21, 2018 12:00:00 PM

College Essays

 

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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 17% of applicants in 2018 were accepted, which makes Notre Dame 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.

 

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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

As a Catholic university, we strive to be a community in which the dignity of each person is respected and everyone can truly flourish. Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., challenged our community to reflect on the following statement: “Let us never do anything to make another member of our community feel unwelcome, and let us not stand by if we see others doing so. Either we walk together in mutual support, or we do not walk at all. Either we are all Notre Dame, or none of us are." Tell us about a time when you walked with others.

 

What Is the Essay Asking You to Do?

“Walking with others” is a very specific phrase, especially in a Christian context. Imagine you are hiking a trail and you see someone limping because they’ve sprained their ankle. To help them, you would help support their weight and walk beside them to get them to safety. That’s what “walking with others” means: it’s about supporting someone through a difficult time.

With that in mind, this essay prompt is essentially asking you to talk about a time where you supported someone else when they were in need. Through this prompt, admissions counselors want to better understand how you view your role in your relationships and/or your community.

 

What Makes for a Good Answer?

  1. Use a personal anecdote. The key to this answer is telling a story about a very specific moment where you supported someone who needed it. Take a minute and jot down as many details as you can remember about that experience. Where were you? How old were you? Who was there? What happened? What was the outcome? Don’t worry if this is longer than 150 words. You just want to capture the details—you can condense the story as you write your essay.

  2. Don’t be afraid to think small. Many times, the most powerful experiences in our life are small ones. If you’ve done something huge that made the news, that’s great! But if you haven’t, that doesn’t mean you can’t answer this question.

    For example, maybe you and your family helped someone stranded in a snowstorm by letting them stay the night with you. That’s a small action that probably taught you about generosity, trust, and opening your family to strangers.

  3. Explain the situation. Remember, the admissions counselor reading your essay wasn’t there to see what happened. Make sure you set the stage by explaining the important details of your story. Keep it short and sweet since you need to discuss the impact of your experience, too.

  4. Focus on what you learned. Keep in mind that the admissions board wants to learn about you more than the person you helped. That’s why it’s important that you discuss the long-term impact of your actions in this situation. What did you learn? How did this experience change you?

    For instance, if you helped your mom through her cancer treatment, you might talk about learning to emotionally support your parent after she’d supported you for eighteen years. You want the admissions counselors to understand that you’ve taken the experience—even if it’s a negative one—and applied it positively to your life.

 

What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

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

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

  • Supporting a friend who lost her parent.

  • Participating in a service project where you slept outside to raise awareness for homelessness.



Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

  1. Avoid stereotypes. Be thoughtful about the experience you share. Notre Dame values community and diversity, so don’t tell a story that reinforces negative racial, cultural, or social prejudices.

  2. Be humble. One of the dangers with this prompt is that it could accidentally turn into a “look how great I am” essay. To combat this, think about this prompt as telling a story about what you learned, not what you did. Focus instead on how the experience has changed you and/or shaped your life.

 

Option 2: The Keepsake Question 

What is one thing you will definitely bring to college with you?



What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

This question is pretty straight-forward: it wants you to discuss something you plan to bring with you to Notre Dame and why it’s important to you. The meaning of the object is more important than the object itself, so that’s what you should spend the most time talking about in your response. 

Having said that, this prompt also allows for you to be really creative, both in terms of the item you pick and how you explain what it means to you.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

  1. Pick your item. This will be the backbone of your essay, so you’ll want to devote time to thinking about this. Also, there are two types of things you can pick: something physical or something philosophical.

    A physical item is something you can hold in your hand, put in a box, and unpack in your dorm room. It could be a family keepsake, a memento from your childhood, or even a gift that means something to you.

    On the other hand, a philosophical item is intangible, but equally as important. This can be an idea, belief, or value that you carry with you daily that shapes who you are. Some good examples of philosophical items can be a religious belief, a value instilled in you by your parents, or even an idea that inspires you to work for your goals.

  2. Make sure your item tells a story. Make a list of potential items, both physical and philosophical. Now, go through the list and pick an item with a compelling story.

    For example, maybe one of your most treasured possessions is your ticket stub from seeing Hamilton on Broadway. If all you talked about was what a fun trip you had, the story wouldn’t be very compelling. But maybe you’re planning to study stage performance, so seeing the musical inspired you to put in extra hours practicing for your school play...and now you keep the ticket by your bed to remind you to chase your dreams. That’s a more powerful story that shows admissions counselors your passion, drive, and work ethic!

  3. Put an emphasis on meaning. Admissions counselors don’t really care what your item is—they’re most interested in what that item reveals about you. What does this item show about your personality, values, or aspirations?

    Perhaps you’ve decided to take a philosophical approach and discuss one of your dad’s favorite sayings, “Cross that bridge when you come to it.” He said that to you when you were first learning to play the trumpet. You’d get frustrated when you made a mistake, which would make you worry about not getting first chair in the band, and then losing your marching privileges. Your dad comforted you and told you to worry about one thing at a time. You’ve held that philosophy close ever since then, and you use it to help you focus on the things you can control rather than the things you can’t.

    This story shows your will to succeed, how much you care about your dad, and how you’re able to take advice and apply it to your life. It also shows that you’ve learned how to focus on the present as you work toward the future, which is a great skill!

  4. Connect the story to your college experience and goals. Save the last sentence or two of your essay to explain how the meaning of your item will translate to your study and/or success at Notre Dame.

    For instance, maybe you’re bringing your baby blanket that your grandmother made when you were born. She had arthritis, but because she loved you, she knitted the whole blanket even though it made her hands ache. Not only does the blanket remind you of her and her love for you, but it also reminds you that achieving your goals takes toughness, fortitude, and dedication. Your grandmother inspires you to tackle your studies at Notre Dame with the same grit and tenacity that she used in making your blanket.

    Connecting your anecdote to Notre Dame shows admissions counselors that you’re thinking about how to use your experience to become a positive member of the Notre Dame community.



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 plan on bringing a box of food from Taiwan with you to college. You’re an international student, and food connects you to your culture and your family, even though you’ll be far away from home.

  2. When you were little, your mom used to sing you a song she made up about working hard whenever you did your chores. You thought it was annoying at the time, but now you sing it when you study to remind yourself to focus and do a great job. 

  3. You've already packed your baseball—the exact same one you dropped at the state tournament on a clutch play to seal the win. The other team would come back to win the game...and the title. You thought your teammates would hate you for your mistake, but they supported you instead. You're bringing it to remind yourself that mistakes happen, and when they do, you should give others the benefit of the doubt.

 

Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

  1. Keep your item appropriate. If you wouldn’t talk about it with your parents, don’t write about it in your essay.
  2. Pick something unique...or not. Unique items almost always have unique stories. Maybe you have a rare baseball card or one of the picture of your mother playing the piano at Carnegie Hall. But some of the most interesting essays take ordinary objects and tell interesting stories about them, too. Maybe you’re going to take a box of macaroni and cheese with you to college because it reminds you of going on camping trips with your family. It’s an ordinary object that most people wouldn’t think twice about, but it has special meaning for you.  

 

Option 3: The Accomplishment Question

What is your proudest accomplishment for which you did not receive recognition?
 

What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

This question is pretty straightforward in that it wants you to talk about an accomplishment, but it throws in a twist. Unlike most essays, which ask you to talk about your accolades, this essay wants to know about your unrecognized success.

In other words, you should discuss a moment where you did something for the sake of doing it, not because you’re rewarded.

This question is a lot like the first optional essay prompt above since it’s asking you to think about a time that you did something because you wanted to, not because you received a pat on the back. If you decide to write this essay as well as the first option, be careful to make sure that you’re not reiterating the same points again. Remember: you should use each essay to reveal a new aspect of your personality to your reader!


 What Makes for a Good Answer?

  1. Brainstorm small successes. Here’s what we mean—think of a time where you reached a goal that was important to you even if it would seem insignificant to someone else.

    A small success might look like finishing your first 5K. You’ve never been a fast runner, but you trained for months to be able to finish. You didn’t finish first—or even 50th—but you accomplished your goal anyway.

    Ultimately, you’re trying to show admissions counselors that you’re motivated by more than just an A on a paper, which is important when you’re attending a competitive college where high grades are harder to earn.

  2. Focus on the takeaway. What did you learn from your experience? What did this experience teach you about yourself?

    Going back to the 5K example, maybe it taught you that you can do things you put your mind to, even if they’re things you think you’ll be “bad” at doing. Also, perhaps it taught you something about not comparing yourself to other people. You’ve learned that you get to judge what “success” means—just because other people run marathons doesn’t mean your 5K is any less of an achievement.

  3. Think about your motivation. Why were you inspired to take on this challenge? Perhaps you ran this 5K because your grandmother is battling breast cancer and you wanted to support her in her battle while raising money for cancer research. Your motivations for taking on this task can be even more revealing than the experience itself!



What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

Since we’ve already talked about a sports-related topic, let’s look at some different types of accomplishments you might write about:

  1. Helping your younger sibling practice for—and pass!—their driving test.

  2. Stopping to help every turtle you find in the road make it safely to the other side. (You’re a turtle’s personal Superman.)

  3. Emotionally supporting your best friend through her parents’ year-long divorce.


Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

  1. You actually do get recognized for your work. Maybe your parents gave you $50 for helping teach your sibling to drive. That might not be a reward on paper, but it’s still some kind of recognition. Make sure you pick something where the only reward you recieved was the internal satisfaction of meeting your goal.

  2. You reiterate your résumé. Try to avoid talking about your own coursework here. Instead, use this as an opportunity to talk about your experiences outside of school. This is a great time to highlight some of your hobbies and passions beyond what you’ve already mentioned in your application!

  3. Your story comes across as negative. Even if your story is sad, make sure you come up with a positive takeaway. Think of it this way: this essay prompt gives you the opportunity to show how to make good out of a bad situation. Also, be sure you don’t come across as bitter because your hard work wasn’t recognized.

 

Option 4: The Free-For-All Question

You have 150 words. Take a risk. 


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

As the question says, this is a high risk, high reward prompt. Since there’s no specific ask, you can do (almost) whatever you want! Here’s your chance to demonstrate your ability to work with little direction while simultaneously showcasing your creativity.


What Makes for a Good Answer?

  1. You lean into your creativity. If you’re a naturally creative person, this is a good space to let that shine. But remember: this is an optional prompt! If you’re not a poet, don’t try to become one for the sake of answering this question in a unique way. Instead, think of what you’re passionate about. Perhaps you’re an excellent cook. Why not share one of your family recipes, concluding with a sentence about why cooking is so important to you? In other words, you don’t have to be the next Hemingway to answer this prompt!

  2. Be specific. No matter how you choose to do this, your answer here—just like your other essays—should focus on a specific story. Don’t try to tackle a huge topic! Narrow your focus until you have one particular idea, event, or area you want to focus on.  

  3. Focus on your personality. Admissions counselors are trying to get to know the “you” behind your grades and activities. Your goal here is to help them understand you, so don’t get too esoteric in your response. 

  4. Don’t be afraid of humor. Let’s start by saying that these responses don’t have to be funny! But maybe you accidentally wandered into a wedding reception and ended up catching the bouquet, much to your mother’s horror. If you’re a naturally funny person, and there’s a hilarious experience that you think will help admissions counselors get to know you, this is the perfect place to share it.



What Are Some Potential Essay Topics?

This isn’t really a “topic” based prompt, but here are some ideas for how you can “take a risk”:

  1. Write a poem or a very short fictional story that embraces themes and experiences that are important to you.

  2. Dig into the french fry debate: which fast food joint has the best fries, and why?

  3. Share your little-known passions. Maybe you are a World War II buff and want to share the story of Winkie, the carrier pigeon that saved the crew of a Royal Air Force bomber that was shot down over the North Sea.

  4. Talk about why you love one of your guilty pleasures, like eating cookies in bed or watching Korean soap operas on YouTube!



Are There Pitfalls You Should Avoid?

  1. Keep it appropriate. We know we’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Make sure you’re choosing a G-rated topic. That means no sexual content, no drugs, and no illegal activities.

  2. Don’t forget to make a point. Just because the prompt is open-ended doesn’t mean your response should be random. For example, if you tell the story of Winkie, make sure to explain why it’s something you wanted to share. Maybe the story has taught you that even the smallest member of a team can have a huge impact!

  3. Spelling and grammar still count. Just because you can be more creative with this response doesn’t mean you can be less diligent. Grammatical mistakes and misspellings will count against you, so proofread carefully.

  4. Don’t blindly submit your essay. Some topics that might seem harmless to you could potentially be offensive to others, including your admissions counselor. Be sure you have a variety of other people read your essay to ensure you come across the way you intend.  

 

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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.

 

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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, too.

 


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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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