How to Write the University of Notre Dame Essays 2019-2020
Nestled 100 miles outside of Chicago in South Bend, Indiana lies the University of Notre Dame. Currently ranked #18 in National Universities by US News, and #11 overall for Best Undergraduate Teaching, the University of Notre Dame is home to about 8,600 undergraduate students enrolled across eight colleges and schools and 75 major programs. Priding itself on its distinct culture and achievements in research, Notre Dame aims to cultivate its unique community rooted in faith and enriched by its students’ and faculty’s constant pursuit of knowledge.
And they’ve done just that. Attracting over 20,000 undergraduate applications each year, Notre Dame is quite selective, with an acceptance rate of 15.8% for the class of 2023.
Students can apply to Notre Dame through either the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or Questbridge Application. While the restrictive Early Action Deadline is November 1, students have until January 1 to apply to the school regular decision. In addition to the Common App, Coalition or Questbridge personal essay, applicants must complete three shorter supplemental essays in order to be considered for admission to Notre Dame. While the first of these prompts is required for all students, the second prompt allows students to choose from among four options for the two they’d like to answer. Want to know your chances at the University of Notre Dame? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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Writing the University of Notre Dame Supplement
It’s no easy task to craft a compelling narrative in only a few words, especially when the stakes are so high. As Notre Dame only asks for shorter written supplements in addition to the common app personal statement, you’ll need to be strategic about how you make your case.
While it can be tempting to experiment with structure and format on school-specific supplements, a 200 word essay might not be the best place to test out your wayfaring poems or prose. But don’t be discouraged—brevity doesn’t have to mean a death sentence for your creativity, and often the most memorable responses are those with a clearly (and efficiently) articulated message.
Everyone applying for undergraduate admission will respond to this prompt, so it’s important to make your essay stand out for all the right reasons. “Why school” essays, like this one, invite you to reflect on how the school’s opportunities fit with your personal goals. Admissions counselors want to know whether your interest in the school is genuine.
Specificity is crucial to the “Why School?” essay, and while you’ll likely write quite a few essays of this kind, it’s important that each essay exudes as much passion and thought as the last. Consider the programs, resources, and activities you care about most, and what differentiates them from similar opportunities at other schools. Identifying examples that you can speak to genuinely and comprehensively is crucial to a successful execution here. So do your research and find something or somethings that, well, excite you about the school. These *things* should be a specific as possible.
Generic statements like “Religion is important to me” or “I want to take advantage of the study abroad options available” are too broad and cookie-cutter, as they can be used for many universities across the US (many colleges have a religious affiliation and most colleges offer opportunities to study abroad). Rather, turn this around to demonstrate how going to a strong Catholic institution will strengthen your spiritual roots or how a service trip that Notre Dame offers to Nicaragua can give you the chance to work with underserved communities and use your Spanish skills.
Pro Tip: It’s important to keep the unique culture and values of each school in mind when crafting supplemental essays. As an unapologetically Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame places a special emphasis on students actively contributing to their community and seeking to improve the world around them. While you needn’t be Catholic or even religious to become a valuable member of the campus community, it’s important to think about how your values and interests fit into this larger picture. As you write your essay, think about how this culture of service will influence your college experience and even perhaps your career more broadly. Addressing this alignment in your essay will demonstrate a deep understanding of the campus community, and give admissions counselors a good idea of how you might fit into it.
A quick note about choosing prompts. Before immediately setting your mind on two prompts, try brainstorming ideas for each of the four options provided. Start to draft bullet points or mini paragraphs to get a sense for which prompts you may be more passionate about. There is no right or wrong prompt, but some prompts will allow you to unleash more of your personality or tell more of your story — which will frame your application in a more positive light.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you choose your prompts:
- Which prompts will allow you to really showcase your personality (especially generosity and a commitment to service)?
- Which prompts are you more passionate about?
- Which prompts do you think will allow you to have a stronger, more confident voice?
- Which prompts will allow you to discuss something meaningful that cannot be found anywhere else in your application?
- Which prompts will allow you to further showcase your desire to attend Notre Dame?
Essentially, this prompt is asking, “How have you supported others?”
As Notre Dame explicitly outlines the importance of community and service across its website, it should come as no surprise that admissions would like you to reflect on your role within your community as part of the application process. The strongest essays will be the most personal, addressing a time where you helped out a family member, friend, team, club or special interest group. You want to show how you specifically had an impact on the people around you and were there to support them through a challenge or process.
Avoid talking about raising money for an organization or 5Ks that you did for a certain cause. While those activities may mean a lot to you, they are very common activities (think ice bucket challenge) and don’t highlight the direct impact you as an individual had on your community.
Focus on an example in which you really worked, even demonstrated leadership (whether formal or informal) in order to make a difference. Perhaps you proposed a community engagement initiative in your school’s chapter of a nationwide club. Why did this cause matter to you? What was the outcome?
Or maybe you acted as a mentor to underclassmen, helping them navigate the transition to high school and teaching them important skills like organization and time management. While stories like these may seem mundane, they clearly demonstrate how you personally supported others in your community and made them feel welcome in their new high school environment.
Remember that we don’t all have cinema-worthy backstories to share with admissions counselors. But that doesn’t mean that our stories aren’t worth being told. In fact, as readers, we often tend to carry with us the stories which we could connect to in some way. That means that you give your story power in the way that you choose to tell it. So be reflective! Talk about how you felt throughout the process and what you learned about yourself.
Lastly, be honest with yourself. If community service wasn’t always your strongest suit, don’t take this prompt as an opportunity to play up an experience that you don’t truly value. You have options here, so there’s no need to force your stories and experiences to fit this prompt.
This prompt asks you to reflect on your personal experiences in a more creative way. In cases like this one, you can easily overthink what the prompt is asking you to do. Remember that admissions counselors want to get to know you as an individual. That means understanding how you think and interact with the world around you. What better way to glimpse that than to ask about a place in the world that you particularly enjoy?
Take a step back and really think here. It’s OK if your favorite place is your bedroom or your school library. The most important element to tackle here is the implicit “why” of the question. Why is the end cubicle in the public library your favorite spot? Is it because you found the initials of a hometown hero scrawled into the corner of the desk? Was it where you finally mastered proofs after having struggled to understand them for weeks in geometry?
Perhaps your favorite place is more private. Maybe it’s the shady spot under an old willow tree in your backyard. Maybe this is where you and your sister could always make peace after having a huge argument.
Whatever that meaningful place is, reflect on what makes it so meaningful to you personally. As with all college essays, your answer here doesn’t have to allude to some groundbreaking discovery or life-altering event. You don’t have to cure cancer in order for your lab to be a meaningful place, nor do you have to have dug up a time capsule for your backyard to matter.
Explaining the meaning of your sacred spot will help give admissions officers a good sense of who you are, what you value, and even perhaps how you may contribute to your campus community. So have fun with this question and reflect on a place that genuinely matters to you. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer here, only a poorly supported one.
Like the last option, this prompt allows for some out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. It asks you to show how you think by having you reflect on an unpopular opinion you hold.
This prompt can go either incredibly wrong or incredibly right. Unpopular opinions can be unpopular because they are more nuanced or complex than the dominant narrative, or they can be unpopular because they are ignorant or harmful. Applying to a school with a strong Catholic value system like Notre Dame allows very little wiggle room if your unpopular opinion falls within the latter category.
There are a few topics which you’d want to avoid really in any college essay, and some that may be more specific to Notre Dame. For one, it’s a good idea to avoid bashing any real-life political figures, as you never know who’s reading your essay. Spending your 200 words eviscerating a senator could alienate your audience in ways that a critique of popular shows like Friends wouldn’t. The same goes for any divisive social issues, like abortion, especially since Notre Dame might be more conservative than most universities. While it’s important that we hold our personal, professional, and political beliefs with conviction, pounding them on the desk of an admissions counselor isn’t the best way to do it, especially if your beliefs might be especially controversial and negatively impact your chances of acceptance.
As a general rule of thumb, you should also avoid defending illegal activities. While the nation has certainly begun to decriminalize activities that have historically been considered illegal, penning an ardent albeit well-written defense of smuggling marijuana from Colorado to Kansas isn’t likely to score you any points with an admissions office.
You should also avoid any topic that might feel like a “cop-out.” At its heart, this prompt wants to hear about your thought process behind a personal opinion that many people are likely to disagree with. You should not interpret “unpopular” as something that people will likely support, but hasn’t received enough attention. For instance, you might feel strongly about child homelessness in the US, which isn’t necessarily “popular” since it’s not at the forefront of national debate, but you shouldn’t use this as a topic for this essay; the general public is unlikely to disagree that we need a solution to child homelessness. Your opinion is not unpopular here—the topic itself is just not popular. You want to be sure to pick an opinion that is actually unpopular, but not alienating.
We can’t stress enough how much Notre Dame values community and helping others. Consequently, an essay which in any way devalues (whether intentionally or not) disadvantaged groups would be a poor topic choice here. Unpopular opinions shouldn’t be devoid of empathy in any case, but especially when it comes to applying to schools with such strong core value systems.
While we’ve listed quite a few Don’ts here, it’s important that you do reflect on something that matters to you. As with any essay, you’ll need to defend the “what” with authenticity and conviction, so you shouldn’t just pick any old topic because it’s “safe.” Perhaps your unpopular opinion is that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t deserve its place in the canon of English literature. Maybe you’ve read novels which both depict childhood and address race in more thoughtful ways relevant to the 2019 young reader.
Or maybe you think that technology hasn’t jeopardized human interaction. Maybe you’d argue that you can form equally deep, meaningful relationships in online games as you can hanging out at the park after school. Whatever your unpopular opinion is, commit to it and defend it in a way that provokes your reader to reflect on their own stance. While it may not change minds, the most successful response will cause your reader to think, and perhaps want to learn even more.
The last of the four prompts asks you to reflect on your school’s required reading list. Essentially admissions counselors want you to select a book that you’ve read outside of class and to make a defensible argument of why others should read it too.
Students shouldn’t be afraid of this prompt, even if they aren’t an aspiring English major, as you can attack this prompt from multiple perspectives. Perhaps there’s a book that you read as background information when working on a project. This is the type of reading that wasn’t required, but that you instead chose to do as a way to better educate yourself on a topic or issue, whether it be historical, scientific, or really anything else. How do you think other students in your school could benefit from reading it?
You could also discuss reading that you chose to do entirely for fun. Maybe you’ve recently read a really impressive novel or a thought-provoking essay. Whether it’s a non-fiction piece on climate change, a collection of short stories from an up-and-coming author, or a beautifully written novel, think about something you’ve read that left a strong impression. You’ll need to clearly and concisely articulate what the book is, why and how it impacted you, and how you think it could benefit your classmates.
It can be a difficult task unpacking all the great moments in a piece of literature, so be sure that you’ve understood what you read well enough to distill and summarize it down to its key components. From there, you can reflect on why others should read the piece too.
Some Final Thoughts
Regardless of which prompts you choose to answer, you’ll need to follow some general guidelines in order to craft the best responses possible. Here are some final tips to keep in mind:
DO: give yourself time
Writing a short essay can often seem like a straightforward and deceptively quick process. This isn’t always true. Clear and concise writing often takes more time, as you need to communicate your arguments effectively and in a compelling manner without fluff. While you can build your thesis over the course of a few lines in a longer multi-paragraph essay, you’ll need to jump right into your narrative in a short answer, in a way that still feels thoughtful. Clumsily jumbling together broad and lofty ideas won’t get you far with a 200 word prompt, so leave yourself enough time to plan, draft and redraft your response until it’s ready for submission.
DON’T: regurgitate what’s on the website
It’s important to demonstrate that you’re a quality fit for both the rigor and culture of any school. However don’t just write what you think admissions counselors want to hear. Instead reflect on what about the school aligns most with your goals, values and interests and communicate that in your essay using clear and specific examples. Then reflect on how you as an individual will fit into that picture and what unique perspective you’ll bring as a member of the campus community.
DO: Be Specific
It’s important to tailor any prompt to the specific school it’s intended for. That means including specific details and examples relevant to the school. Don’t simply say that you want to study at a research university. Mention a unique course that aligns with your academic interests a special club that allows you to develop your extracurricular passions.
DO: Be true to yourself
It’s counterproductive to spend hours and hours writing about things that don’t truly matter to you. So be honest! Highlight the things that you care about most and talk about how you hope to pursue them further while on campus. If diversity isn’t key to your interest in a school, then don’t pretend that it is. If you are a standout student in Chemistry, but begrudgingly show up to French class everyday, then don’t pen a response about how foreign language changed your worldview.
Admissions counselors want to get to know you outside of your test scores and GPA and essays are your opportunity to really introduce yourself in your own voice. So take a deep breath and know that no one could ever be better equipped to showcase you than you.
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