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4 Tips for Writing Amazing Notre Dame Essays

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Sep 11, 2021 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, and its acceptance rate shows that. For the 2020/2021 school year, they admitted only 15% of applicants. Because most applicants 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. 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 15% of applicants in 2020/2021 were accepted, which makes Notre Dame even harder to get into than schools like Georgia Tech 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 1460–1540 on their SAT or a 33–35 on their ACT.

So 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.



Let's take a closer look at the Notre Dame supplement, which you'll have to fill out as part of your overall application.


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 two 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 other essay, you're given a choice between three prompts and must answer one.

The online portals give you a maximum of 200 words to respond to each prompt. That's not very much 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?"

The founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, wrote, "We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart." How do you hope a Notre Dame education and experience will transform your mind and heart?

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?

If you want to knock this essay out of the park, here's what you should do.


#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 academic field for the sake of writing this prompt.


#3: Plan to address the "head" and the "heart."

You probably already noticed that the application prompt very specifically mentions two concepts: the "head" and the "heart." Notre Dame is a religiously affiliated institution, and while they don't require all students to be religious, part of their core mission is to foster "the development...of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit."

So in your response, you need to make sure you're doing more than just talking about how Notre Dame will shape you academically. Admissions counselors also want to see how the school will shape you as a person. You'll have to address both of these things in order to accurately answer the prompt!


#4: Don't overlook the Notre Dame community, either.

The prompt specifically asks you about how the Notre Dame experience will impact you, which means admissions counselors want to know more about how you'll fit into the Notre Dame community.

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!


#5: 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 200 words, so you need to give yourself space to talk about the items you've chosen!


#6: 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 while growing as a person.

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?

Avoid these mistakes so you don't leave the wrong impression with admissions counselors.


#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.





Essay 2: Choose Your Prompt

For this section of the Notre Dame essay supplement, you're given three essay prompts, and you'll choose one to answer. Again, you'll have a 200 word limit. 


How to Choose Your Prompt

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


#1: Choose the prompt that lets 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 a Notre Dame essay prompt that lets 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

During the spring semester, Notre Dame faculty gave 3-Minute Lightning Talks on exciting topics within their fields of expertise. While you don't have a Ph.D. yet, we bet you're developing an expertise in something. If you were giving a Lightning Talk, what topic (academic or not) would you choose?


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

The purpose of this essay prompt is to learn what you're passionate about. Colleges love passionate applicants because they're more likely to be dedicated to both their courses and campus life in general.

So, if you could give a three-minute talk on anything in the world, what would you choose? If you need help deciding, think of your favorite hobbies, academic interests, and the topics you can talk for much more than three minutes.

A major part of this essay is explaining how it relates to who you are as a person, so be sure to choose a topic that you feel will give readers a bit of a better insight into who you are.


What Makes a Good Answer?

#1: Be honest. Don't be tempted to choose a topic that you really don't care that much about but feel will "impress" Notre Dame. It'll result in a weak essay they'll see right through. Choose a topic you're genuinely passionate about, and let that passion shine through. 

#2: Explain why it interests you. So you're really into spelunking? Or French literature? Or Thai politics? Tell the people why! Explaining why the topic you chose fascinates you is probably the most important part of your response since it shows readers what makes you tick.

#3: Give examples. In order to show that this topic really is something you're passionate about, give examples of the time you've spent learning about it. Did you join a club? Read up on all the literature? Attend events? These examples show what it really means for you to be passionate about a topic, and the lengths you'll go to in order to expand your knowledge on the topic.


Are There Pitfalls you Should Avoid?

#1: Lying. As we mentioned above, don't make up an interest to try to impress the admissions team. It's very hard to fake passion, and, in any case, it won't help your application. Notre Dame isn't looking for the "best" passion; they're looking for people who really throw themselves into what they love, whatever that may be.

#2: Forgetting to tie it back to yourself. So you love researching recipes from Medieval Europe. Great! But what does that say about you? Notre Dame didn't ask this question to learn about the topic you chose; they want to learn about you! So whatever topic you go with, be sure to explain why you're passionate about it and what you've done to further that passion.


Option 2

There is a story or meaning behind every name or nickname—both those we’re given and those that we choose. What is meaningful to you about your name?


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

This is a bit of an unusual essay from Notre Dame, which typically doesn't choose "quirky" prompts like this. We like it though! And it's straightforward, too. You're asked to describe what you find meaningful about your name or nickname. How did it come about, what do you like about it, do you feel it has had an impact on your personality? Basically, they're trying to learn more about the person you are through the lens of your name, so make sure to tell them a lot about yourself!


What Makes a Good Answer?

#1: Relating your name back to you. As with all the Notre Dame essays, the main point is to show them more about who you are as a person. So don't just explain how you got your name or nickname, explain the impact you feel it has had on your life.

#2: Specific examples. Do you have a funny story about how your best friend bestowed your nickname upon you? Or a special memory of your grandfather, whom you were named after? These little details, unique to you, will help your essay stand out from the thousands Notre Dame receives.


Are There Pitfalls you Should Avoid?

#1: Spending too long on the origin story. Even if you have a fascinating or hilarious story behind how your name came to be, don't spend all, or even most, of your wordcount going over it.  Remember, the purpose of the prompt is to explain why your name is meaningful.

#2: Being vague. Another major pitfall in answering this question is being too vague and general. For example, stating something like, "I was named after my uncle, and it has given us a strong connection" isn't specific enough. A more effective answer would explain what is so strong about your connection with your uncle and how you feel sharing a name contributed to that.


Option 3

What would you fight for?


What Is This Essay Asking You to Do?

This essay prompt is asking you to describe something in your life that you find worth fighting for. Is it a person? A belief? A cause? A place? A group? Are you very into environmental sustainability and fight for the health of our planet? Did you grow up being bullied and fight for the rights of people who are picked on by others?

This prompt can be widely interpreted, but what Notre Dame admissions wants to know is what's important enough in your life that you're willing to fight for it. The causes closest to you offer great insight into who you are and what you value. 


What Makes a Good Answer?

#1: Explaining the why. You'll need to start this prompt by explaining what you're fighting for. But then don't forget to delve into the "why." Why is this what you've decided to get behind? Why do you find it important and valuable? Is it personally important to you, do you think it benefits the entire world, or a combination of the two? Explaining why you think education equality/women's rights/disability access/etc. is important will show readers that you really are passionate about this issue.

#2: Explaining the how. Once you've explained what you think is worth fighting for, how would you fight for it? This can be things you've already done or things you hope to do in the future. Would you raise money? Contact politicians? Educate others who don't understand the topic? Get specific here to prove your dedication to the cause and make your essay more unique.


Are There Pitfalls you Should Avoid?

#1: Not taking the prompt seriously. There are some schools (University of Chicago well-known for this) that encourage quirky/ironic/humorous takes on their essays. Don't be tempted to do that for this prompt, choosing something like, "I fight for the right to eat ice cream for breakfast." Notre Dame tends to take its prompts fairly seriously, and they're asking this prompt to learn what your deepest values are, not how well you can form a joke.

#2: Being too general. You don't want to write about a topic that's really common. For instance, writing about how you fight for equality is a little too general. You'd want to really highlight the specific details of what inequality you fight against and the specific ways you do this.




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 200 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 US, 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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