How to Write the University of Notre Dame Essays 2020-2021

Nestled 100 miles outside of Chicago in South Bend, Indiana lies the University of Notre Dame. Currently ranked #15 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 21% for the class of 2024. 

 

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 five 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.

 

Want to learn what University of Notre Dame will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering University of Notre Dame needs to know.

 

University of Notre Dame Supplemental Essays

 

Prompt 1: 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? (200 words)

 

Prompt 2: Please provide responses to TWO (2) of the following questions (each 200 words):

 

  • Option A: A Notre Dame education is not just for you, but also for those who will benefit from the impact you make. Who do you aspire to serve after you graduate?

 

  • Option B: In response to the rising momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement during June 2020, G. Marcus Cole, the Joseph A. Matson Dean of the Notre Dame Law School, penned an open letter entitled, “I am George Floyd. Except I can breathe. And I can do something.” He issues a call to the Notre Dame community saying, “each of us must do what we can, wherever we are.” What is one action you are taking “to change this world for the better?”

 

  • Option C: God and the Good Life is an interdisciplinary course created by the departments of Philosophy and Film, Television, and Theatre that asks students to consider moral questions about what they believe and how they want to live their lives. What do God and a good life mean to you?

 

  • Option D: Notre Dame has a rich history deeply rooted in tradition. Share how a favorite tradition from your life has impacted who you are today.

 

Prompt 1

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? (200 words)

This prompt is asking two questions ─ why do you want to study your chosen major at Notre Dame and which resources outside the classroom do you want to explore on campus? The admissions officers want to know specific details about your academic and personal passions so they can see you as a whole person. Your essay should let the readers see how you will fit into the Notre Dame’s community ─ they want to imagine exactly what you will do every day within the classroom and outside. 

 

The best way you can write this essay is by tying your passions into the unique programs and activities offered at Notre Dame. Rather than writing about generalities ─ for example, about how Notre Dame will help you be a better Catholic and get a job in finance after graduation ─ you should talk about how you want to discuss liturgy at Theology Club meetings every Tuesday and you would be thrilled to learn about Bolivian commodities in the Emerging Markets Investing program in London. The more details, the better.

 

A good format for this essay would be to divide it into 4 parts: 

 

1. An introduction which succinctly defines where your mind and heart are, e.g. “my mind is in finance and my heart is in my Catholic faith.”

 

2. One paragraph which explains which academic opportunities you want to take advantage of at Notre Dame. Mention the names of classes, programs, professors, majors, and minors. Explain why these opportunities appeal to you and how they relate to your background.

 

3. One paragraph which names the student organizations and campus activities you hope to explore. Which organizations would give you personal fulfillment ─ an education in the finer things that you don’t learn in the classroom ─ and how?

 

4. A conclusion which explains how you aspire to tie together your educational experiences inside and outside the classroom. Explain how you want to use this combined education after graduation, e.g. “I hope that my Notre Dame education will empower me to combine my passions for finance and my Catholic faith. I not only want to disrupt the world of emerging market investing ─ I want to disrupt it with a sense of Catholic social responsibility.”

 

Tip:

 

Try to avoid making a laundry list of resources activities. When you name a resource, describe why it is important to you before naming another one. 

 

For example, instead of writing “I hope to join the BRAVE (Building Resilience After Violence Exposure) Research Lab,” you can say the following: 

 

Volunteering at a domestic abuse center showed me the detrimental effects of trauma on young children: they were often withdrawn and fearful, leading other kids to misunderstand and mischaracterize them as “weird” or “mean.” It was my volunteer work that led to my desire to study Psychology. I want to better understand how to support trauma survivors, especially young children. If accepted to Notre Dame, I hope to join the BRAVE (Building Resilience After Violence Exposure) Research Lab, where I can learn about the impact of trauma on childhood development. I’m especially interested in the lab’s international focus, as I know culture can greatly impact how trauma victims are perceived.

Prompt 2: Please provide responses to TWO (2) of the following questions (each 200 words)

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?

A person sitting cross legged, pointing to the text, with an abstract monitor behind them  

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story

 

Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographic, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story

 

Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographic, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Prompt 2, Option A

A Notre Dame education is not just for you, but also for those who will benefit from the impact you make. Who do you aspire to serve after you graduate? (200 words)

To plan for this prompt, answer think through the following questions:

 

  1. What groups of people (the environment and individual countries count) are currently underserved? What struggles do they face?
  2. Which of these groups do you have the strongest personal connection to?
  3. How could you use the skills gained from your major at Notre Dame to solve the problems of your chosen underserved group?

 

A good way to start this essay would be by introducing your chosen group of people to serve. Explain who they are with depth ─ for example, if they are homeless people, explain the different levels of homelessness. Then identify why your chosen group is underserved in society, and how the lack of attention given to their issues affects their daily lives. 

 

Afterwards, explain why you desire to serve your chosen group. This part is best explained with a short human story, such as a specific moment from your time volunteering at a homeless shelter. Humanize the group you want to serve by highlighting your interactions with one of its members. For example:

 

I learned more about homelessness than any class taught me when I asked Mark what music he was listening to on the shelter computer. He told me to come listen, handing me the right earbud. It was an epic violin pop cover, and I was soon bobbing my head along with him. “I can play that on the violin,” he said…

 

To conclude, state your intended major and career direction. Explain the skills and in-depth understanding you would gain from your education, and how you would apply them to your service. Explain how an extracurricular at Notre Dame would give you service practice before graduation. Finish by tying your message back to your human example of the people you want to serve, and how your service is for them.

 

For example, the student wanting to serve the homeless might be interested in studying Neuroscience and Behavior at Notre Dame with plans to go to medical school. They want to address the lack of access to healthcare that the homeless often have. At Notre Dame, the student could partner with the Lab for Economic Opportunities, which “aims to identify the innovative, effective and scalable programs that help people move out of poverty.” They could propose a project to treat the mental health of the homeless.

 

Tip:

 

Avoid being too general when it comes to choosing a group to serve. The world, “my local community,” and developing countries are not specific enough.

Prompt 2, Option B

In response to the rising momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement during June 2020, G. Marcus Cole, the Joseph A. Matson Dean of the Notre Dame Law School, penned an open letter entitled, “I am George Floyd. Except I can breathe. And I can do something.” He issues a call to the Notre Dame community saying, “each of us must do what we can, wherever we are.” What is one action you are taking “to change this world for the better?” (200 words)

If you’re especially passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, this prompt would be a good place for you to share your story and contributions to the cause. Keep in mind, however, that your response isn’t limited to the Black Lives Matter movement. The prompt asks “What is one action you are taking ‘to change this world for the better’?” Your response could focus on other social causes, like the environment, immigration, disability rights, or poverty. As long as your action is impacting the greater good, it’s fair game.

 

The action you highlight does not need to be worthy of a movie, nor do you need to be the leader of a protest for this essay. Not everyone has the time and resources to change the world in a newsworthy way, but everyone does have the power to make small changes that add up. However, try to avoid mentioning actions that don’t have much of an impact, or don’t require much effort. 

 

For instance, don’t write an essay on how you reshared instagram posts with resources for the Black Lives Matter movement. This is low-effort, and anyone could do this. You could, however, share how you developed a website gathering resources related to the movement, from petitions to organizations to anti-racism resources. You decided to do this because you saw so many resources being shared, but no centralized place to access them. This issue is important to you because you’re a Black American who has experienced racism, so this movement is deeply personal to you.

 

Here’s an outline that might help:

 

1. Choose an action that you have taken outside of the classroom, on your own accord. Explain why this action is meaningful to you. The best topic will be one that’s deeply personal and allows you to reveal important elements of your identity. 

 

2. Explain why you think that action will make the world a better place. What have the results of this action been so far?

 

3. Conclude with your goals moving forward, and ways you might continue that activism at Notre Dame.

 

In the case of the student who started a website for Black Lives Matter, maybe it’s been viewed over 10,000 times, and they were able to promote local Black-owned businesses that have seen increased patronage after a slump due to the pandemic. The student hopes to continue maintaining the website and adding more resources. They also hope to join the Black Student Association at Notre Dame and develop an affiliated, online anti-racism course.

 

Tips:

 

1. Avoid some of the common pitfalls of essays which talk about diversity, such as the cliche message that “even though we are different, I realized that we are all actually the same.” 

 

2. Don’t mention short-term projects like overseas mission trips, unless you’ve continued to take a related action. An action that you’ve sustained over time, or is sustainable over time, is always preferable. Notre Dame wants to see that you’re truly committed to making a difference.

Prompt 2, Option C

God and the Good Life is an interdisciplinary course created by the departments of Philosophy and Film, Television, and Theatre that asks students to consider moral questions about what they believe and how they want to live their lives. What do God and a good life mean to you? (200 words)

This question is best for applicants who practice a religious tradition or are interested in philosophy/theology. That said, steer clear of this prompt if you don’t have a highly-personal story or perspective related to these topics. Otherwise, you might end up with a super general essay on religion that anyone could write.

 

If you’re adamantly against religion, this would also not be a good time to express those views, as Notre Dame is a Catholic school with a predominantly Catholic student body. You might even reconsider whether Notre Dame is a good fit for you, if you’re opposed to religion.

 

If you do go ahead with this essay, try to avoid cliche responses not backed up by personal anecdotes. For instance, the thesis of many students’ essays is probably going to be “God is the meaning of life and a good life means serving Him.” That’s okay if you believe the same thing, but explain how your relationship with God and your “good life” are unique. 

 

For example, you could explain how your religion inspires you to start an environmental non-profit, so you can protect God’s Creation. Or you could talk about how a good life for you means running faster every day, since God gifted you with speed. You also raise money for underserved communities through your competitions, and host shoe drives for low-income kids so they can experience how life-changing fitness can be.

 

You might find the following essay structure helpful:

 

  • Start with your first interactions with religion or the idea of God.
  • Describe your struggles to find God or a meaning in life. Tell the story of how you arrived at your conclusions and include any moments where you changed your mind. 
  • Explain how you put your personal philosophy of the “good life” into practice every day.

 

This is an especially fitting essay for related anecdotes. For instance, you might start your essay with a story of when you first wondered about God or confronted your faith. If your relationship with God and faith changed over time, that would also lend itself well to a series of anecdotes. 

 

Tip:

 

Notre Dame has a website dedicated to the God and the Good life course. Try to answer one or more of its front page questions with your essay:

 

  1. What are your moral obligations?
  2. What should you believe?
  3. Should you practice a religion? 
  4. What will it take for your life to be meaningful?

 

Prompt 2, Option D

Notre Dame has a rich history deeply rooted in tradition. Share how a favorite tradition from your life has impacted who you are today. (200 words)

Think about a tradition that you have set for yourself or that came from your family ─ the quirkier, the better. You will want to begin your essay by telling a story about what this tradition is and how it arose. The ideal tradition would be one which has been a part of your life for several years.

 

To think about the impact of your tradition in a new paragraph, answer the following questions:

 

  1. How does this tradition make you feel every time you practice it?
  2. How have your friends, community, and family reacted to your tradition?
  3. What lessons have you learned through your tradition?
  4. How does your tradition connect to your identity?

 

Imagine that the tradition you chose was waking up at 5am every day to do nothing but think. You could describe how your tradition makes you feel calm, serene, and like you have time in your day. 

 

Take the readers through your experience of the tradition to explain the lessons you have learned. Describe how your mind has wandered through past events and predictions for the future ─ you reanalyzed the reasons why the rocket you made for physics class flew sideways instead of up, and you have thought of a future public policy idea that could close the nation’s education gap. Through all the thinking, you learned the lessons of humility, calm decision making, and how to love yourself.

 

Lastly, think about how your tradition is a part of your identity. If your identity is being the “philosopher of your school,” the thinking tradition would reinforce your identity. If your tradition is a family or ethnic tradition, e.g. your Tajik family’s Nowruz celebration, you could talk about how Nowruz makes you feel connected to your distant, yet close-to-heart memories of visiting your extended family in Tajikistan. 

 

Tip:

 

If you choose a more common tradition, such as a major holiday in the US, be specific about why your experience is unique compared to how others live the tradition. Perhaps your Christmas is Orthodox, and two weeks later than the non-Orthodox celebrations, or your family has a unique twist on Thanksgiving dinner. Sell your uniqueness, and you will be rewarded in the college admissions process.

Prompt 2, Option E

What brings you joy? (200 words)

To plan for this essay, brainstorm a list of things that bring you joy. Choose the one that is the most unique to you ─ something that no one else you know derives as much joy from as you do. Describe what this activity or thing is in detail by telling a story about it, for example:

 

When most people talk about their hobbies, being a clown probably doesn’t come up in the conversation. It has for me though, ever since I was inspired by a clown at my fifth birthday party…

 

The main point to bring home in this essay is the why ─ why does this activity bring you joy? Connect your joy to something bigger than yourself or a quick moment of pleasure ─ with the clown example, you could say the following:

 

Don’t worry while the “sad” or “scary” clown is a common trope, I try my best to be a “fun” clown at birthday parties. There’s always a kid or two who isn’t enjoying themselves. It’s my goal to cheer them up. Sometimes a balloon dog will do the trick. Other times, it’s not as simple.

 

At one party, I’d run through all my usual tricks: balloons, miming, juggling, ventriloquism. I just couldn’t seem to get one kid to crack a smile. He lingered on the outskirts of the group, almost afraid to come closer. 

 

As I approached him after my performance, I noticed he was wearing a Bugs Bunny shirt. I gave my best Bugs Bunny impression “Hey, what’s up doc?!”

 

He giggled at my horrendous impression, and countered with a “No, not like that! It’s like this…”

 

His impression was impeccable, and the other kids begged him to teach them. Soon, all you could hear was a cacophony of “What’s up doc?”, yet it was one of the loveliest things I’d heard…

 

 This example gives a little background for the activity, and illustrates an example of how this activity brings them joy. Rather than simply saying, “cheering up kids brings me joy,” the writer shows us this sentiment through an anecdote.

 

Tip:

 

Avoid choosing a general and cliche joyous activity. Instead of choosing soccer, solving challenging math problems, and reading books, write about mentoring new players on the soccer team, attempting to solve the unsolved math riddles of history, and reading the works of Igbo authors while learning Igbo. 

 

If a more common activity is so meaningful to you that you don’t want to choose something else, be sure to make your essay as personal as possible. Don’t just gush in general terms about how playing piano is empowering after mastering a tough piece. Bring us into your life through the essay. Take us to your hours practicing, tough love from your teacher, and late nights composing for your four-piano ensemble.

 

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.

 

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Want more college essay tips?

We'll send them straight to your inbox.


Short bio
Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.