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How To Write The University of Notre Dame Supplemental Essays (2020-2021)

You’ve got three essays to write for Notre Dame. Everyone must answer the first question (“Why This College?”). Then you get to choose two prompts from a list of four. For each essay, Notre Dame recommends a 200-word limit.

Here’s how Notre Dame phrases the “Why Us?” prompt:

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?

Although it’s confusingly phrased, the idea is pretty straightforward. They want you to discuss why you want to go to Notre Dame from both an academic angle and a more personal perspective. Ask yourself what type of person you want to become and how you’re going to achieve that through your college education. Are there hobbies you want to pursue or skills you want to develop? How would aspects of the Notre Dame community and extracurricular offerings foster those?

You need to show Notre Dame that you know a great deal about the school, and have good reasons for applying there, but you also need to provide them with enough information about yourself and your achievements to show that you’re a good fit.

Your task here is to show Notre Dame that:

  1. You know what you want to study (make a major up if you’re actually undecided—just choose what makes most sense based on your past experiences);

  2. You can talk about some upper-level classes you’d like to take at Notre Dame (in line with your academic direction. Don’t mention anything that’s readily available at other universities—pick something interesting and unusual);

  3. You can mention a few professors you’d be interested in working with (again, who teach in a subject related to your academic path. These should be tenured professors, or at least professors you suspect will be around for the next four years. Not sure how the vicious academic hierarchy works? Ask us);

  4. You have a sense of which extracurricular clubs and organizations you’d like to be a part of (do your research—the clubs you choose to discuss should be a logical extension of your past academic and extracurricular achievements);

  5. You have identified any other academic or extracurricular opportunities that Notre Dame and the area will provide you with.

Again, this essay isn’t just about Notre Dame. It’s also about you. Make sure you’re relating what you want to do at Notre Dame to your past experiences—that the professors and courses that interest you will help you build on your most impressive achievements.

Please provide responses to TWO (2) of the following questions:

  • 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?

This is a curious way of asking you essentially what you’re going to go after graduation, with particular focus on your impact and specifically the people for whom you’re going to make a difference. You don’t need to have a perfect idea of what career you’ll pursue, but for an effective response to this prompt you will want a clear idea of the problem in the world that motivates you the most, whether it be homelessness, inequalities in healthcare, or something else entirely. Then, discuss your plan to tackle it through your college education and future as a leader of some sort in society.

Pay particular attention to the people affected by the problem you identify, as implied by the question’s focus on “who.” Why are these people in need of help? How has the world been unfair to them, or what have they done to deserve help. For example, describe the average homeless person in the United States. Having a meaningful impact on others means understanding their perspectives. Showing you have a clear understanding of who you want to help and why will demonstrate your dedication to making a difference, and hopefully convince the admissions committee that they want Notre Dame to support you in that endeavor.

  • 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?”

This reads, to me, as a version of the first prompt for people who are uncertain on what their future holds. In lieu of a plan for what you’re doing in the future, the natural question is what you’re doing right now that demonstrates your commitment to others. This one is fairly straightforward–pick your most impressive service activity and describe your motivations, your role in it, and your impact.

  • 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?

This is another way of trying to get at your principles and plans for your future. It feels like the first prompt, but with a lot more space for you to decide what to discuss. You don’t have to talk about the future, but the implication is that the principles you have now about living a good life and regarding religion are ones that you will carry forward.

One easy way to trip up here is not to include stories and examples to ground your discussion. It’s easy to start discussing your faith, transition into a general idea of what living a good life involves, and end up with a very vague essay. Make sure to ground your essay with examples of what you’ve done already that you’ve found meaningful, and show how they connect to the picture you paint of a good life. As much as the admissions officer wants to know about your plans for the future, it’s hard to believe you’ll be an extremely dedicated, altruistic, and religiously motivated person for the rest of your life if you cannot show how you’ve been working towards that already.

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

I love this prompt because it offers a very unique challenge for students: consider what “tradition” means and how it has played into your life. Start by recognizing that nearly everything you do is shaped by tradition in some sense, from the clothes you wear and the food you eat to how you make friends and go to school. Here though, they seem to be asking about more personal traditions. Maybe your family goes to the same place every summer or you wear mismatched socks for important exams. You might consider a tradition any habit that has meaning to it (not like breathing or drinking water after a workout).

Take this opportunity to reflect and think about both why you have these traditions and how they have changed your life. A great choice for this essay will have something interesting for both, although it’s alright to only have the latter (as with a recurring family vacation spot perhaps). Identify the most significant impact, and evaluate whether it reflects a quality you want to highlight for the reader. Learning to fish is fun, but it isn’t a qualification for college unless you discuss transferable skills and/or a mindset. Once you’ve picked a suitable tradition, all that’s left is to tell the story!

  • What brings you joy?

College is stressful–there’s no doubt about it. Not only do they want to see that you’re going to be able to deal with the stress by having fun hobbies to turn to, they also want you to bring something to the social fabric of Notre Dame. At college, you spend more time outside of class than in high school, and almost all of that time is spent on the campus. How do you have fun, and are you going to bring joy to other students? Are you going to help others discover new passions by sharing your pastime? Beyond that, do you find joy in helping others? What do you find meaningful?

To make this essay stand out, you want to do more than just describing what brings you joy. You need to analyze why. Give the reader insight into what drives you, and you’ll be one step closer to convincing them you’ll be similarly driven in college.

As always, college admissions consultants are here to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

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