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:
What excites you about the University of Notre Dame that makes it stand out from other institutions?
Pretty straightforward. Although I like the use of the verb “excite” here—it’s a nice reminder that choosing a college isn’t just about boring data like U.S. News rankings and average salaries six months after graduation. What excites you about Notre Dame?
What excites you, but also what excites you? See the difference? Part of this question is about Notre Dame, but part of it is about you and your excitement. You need to show Notre Dame that you know a great deal about the school, and have good reasons for applying there (rather than just anywhere), 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:
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);
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);
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);
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);
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:
The founder of the University of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., was only 28 when he established the University with the vision that it would become a “powerful means of doing good.” We have always known that young people can be catalysts for change. What is one way that you have made an impact in your community?
As always, the danger inherent in such prompts is appearing to be making yourself out to be some kind of hero. Remember that sparking a national movement (or founding a university) isn’t a prerequisite for getting into Notre Dame or any other great school.
And in fact, this question asks explicitly what you have done in your community. You’re welcome to think small and close to home.
I would encourage you to spend some time thinking about what “community” means to you. When I suggest that you think small and close to home, I don’t mean you necessarily have to talk about your neighborhood, or school, although you can. You may have a strong connection to an online community, for example. The important thing here is making a strong case for a specific community that is meaningful to you, and what you’ve done to make an impact there.
If you were to bring a new friend to your hometown and give them a personal tour, what is a meaningful place you would show them?
This is a great opportunity for you to link a place to a value or quality that is very important to you. I’m a big fan of connecting objects and places to core values, mostly because values (freedom, curiosity, etc.) tend to sound like empty platitudes until they become personal. Places and objects are a great way to make values personal in an essay.
I would highly recommend responding to this question, and I’d begin by asking yourself: which of my core values don’t yet come across in my application materials? Maybe your Common App essay makes it really clear that you prize autonomy, empathy, and adaptability, and that you have a unique relationship to these values. But maybe you’re also a really competitive and funny person, and you haven’t yet had a chance to show that.
Now ask yourself: is there a place in my hometown that represents competition or humor? Your mind may immediately go to the baseball field at your high school where you play, or the movie theater where you enjoy watching funny films. Ideally, I’d love to see less predictable places. Ideally, your place should relate to the value you want to show in a highly personal way—the connection doesn’t need to be obvious to anyone other than you. The point of the essay is to explore that connection. Maybe there’s a bridge over a stream where you and your sister used to play Poohsticks, and this place represents competition for you. (Google “Poohsticks” if you’re not an A.A. Milne fan.) This example says far more about you and far more about your hometown than if you were to talk about your baseball field. (If you’ve ever flown in a plane you know these are all over the place. So are high school baseball players.) Instead of a movie theater, maybe there’s a cafe where you regularly attend comedy open mics. Or maybe there's an even less common, more personal place that represents humor for you.
Defend an unpopular opinion you hold.
Let me first say that this is a very easy one to mess up. Sometimes there is a reason that our opinions are unpopular, for one. Whether we’re in the right or in the wrong, feeling like we’re in the minority can lead us to rant and rave about everyone who misunderstands us. That is not what this essay is for. Don’t disparage anyone else.
I generally recommend against writing about political and religious opinions. They’re divisive, for one. More importantly, however, they’re almost never original.
My recommendation for this one is to write about a quirky, unexpected opinion. Write about a truly unusual hill you’d die on. If you can demonstrate something really meaningful about yourself by writing a short piece on how the thing you like most about air travel is the food, about how the best Starbursts are the yellow ones, or about how Jar Jar Binks is the best character in any Star Wars film, go for it. Keep in mind that this unpopular opinion should say something meaningful about the core values you have not yet had a chance to share with your admissions officers.
Many high schools have books that are required reading. Thinking beyond the common examples, what book do you believe should be on your school's reading list and why?
I love that first sentence. If you are not from one of these many high schools that require that you read specific books, that could be very interesting to talk about.
What’s a little tricky about this question is that, unless you’re a pretty serious reader, you risk falling into certain traps. Just because a book wasn’t required reading for you doesn’t mean it’s a highly original choice. (For example, no one ever made me read 1984 in high school—I read it on my own. But it’s still one of the most typical examples of high school reading.)
Keep in mind that this is still a 200-word response—you need to answer the “why” question here. So whatever you choose should be highly personal, but you should also be able to make a case for why your entire high school would benefit from reading the book. In other words, “it’s my favorite novel/collection of poems/self-help book” isn’t a good enough reason. Your choice should reveal one of your core values—something you think is worth sharing with others.
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