written by
Zoë Edington

University of Notre Dame Essay Guide 2019-2020

Essay Guides 12 min read
University of Notre Dame campus

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic private research university founded by the Congregation of the Holy Cross (not Jesuits). Known for its powerhouse athletic programs, Notre Dame is nevertheless consistently ranked as a top 20 University for its academics (US News put it at #15 for 2020). The total undergraduate enrollment is 8,617 students. The school is located in its own municipality and zip code in Notre Dame, Indiana, which sits just outside a reinvigorated South Bend, Indiana close to the Michigan border and is near the city of Chicago (1h 45 min driving and similar time by train).

*For the 2020-2021 University of Notre Dame Essay Guide, click here.

For the Class of 2023, Notre Dame had a 15.8% admissions rate (a record low for ND). Students who were admitted and enrolled from this applicant pool had the middle fifty ranges for SAT scores of 1410-1540 and for ACT scores of 33-35.

Three other statistics about the Class of 2023 that shed light on Notre Dame were:

  1. 29% Students of Color — this is reflective of an effort to diversify the student body which has historically lacked racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity despite strong geographic diversity
  2. 44% Captains of a Varsity Sport — Notre Dame has not only numerous successful Division 1 teams but also attracts very sporty students in general with a robust club and intramural (interhall) athletics programs
  3. 81.5% Catholic with 34% from Catholic high schools — Notre Dame is consistently around 80% Catholic and the school’s Catholic identity is evident on campus.

Notre Dame has a unique approach to student residence halls. In line with its Catholic identity, Notre Dame’s 32 undergraduate residence halls are divided by gender into 17 men’s dorms and 15 women’s dorms. The residence halls are not divided by year, so freshman through senior students live alongside each other. Students are assigned a hall upon enrollment and must live there at the end of their junior year at minimum (junior year recently added to existing freshman and sophomore year requirement). There are also no fraternities or sororities at Notre Dame. This approach creates a strong sense of hall community, which includes interhall (intramural) sports teams, hall-sponsored dances, and each hall’s signature event (often supporting a charitable cause).

Notre Dame is divided into eight schools and colleges (six undergraduate). The largest is the College of Arts and Letters. The Mendoza College of Business is well-regarded both for its undergraduate and MBA programs. The School of Architecture is also a respected program and offers a unique five-year structure in which students spend their entire third year in Rome.

Notre Dame also has fairly robust ROTC programs, especially its strong Navy ROTC program, which is reflective of strong ties between the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Notre Dame that date back to World War II. This history and continued affinity is also the reason Notre Dame’s storied football team plays a game against the Navy Midshipmen every season.

While Notre Dame has many international and study abroad programs and many language programs, the Fighting Irish nickname for the school’s athletic teams and the Irish-American identity that it reflects and has perpetuated have led to uniquely close ties between the University and the Republic of Ireland. Notre Dame has the only Department of Irish Language and Literature in North America, which allows students to minor in the language. Notre Dame also has a strong Dublin Program based in the historic home of Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell. The Dublin Program facilitates study abroad opportunities at Irish universities, organizes summer internships for select Notre Dame students, and offers its own faculty and courses.

Notre Dame is a school steeped in traditions, which goes hand-in-hand with its Catholic identity. There is still room for innovation and creativity on campus, but it is important to know that the school has an overriding ethos of both observing and building upon traditions that extends even beyond the football stadium and the many chapels.

Prompt 1 [Required]: What excites you about the University of Notre Dame that makes it stand out from other institutions? (200 words)

This prompt is straightforward and one you expect from any school, but Notre Dame has a lot of unique features so the opportunity to show that you are aware of and attracted to one or more of them is valuable.

First, be honest. If you are only pretending to be excited about football or the school’s Catholic identity, it will come across clearly to admissions staff (especially since so many people are going to write about those topics that only truly passionate AND exceptionally written versions could possibly stand out).

Second, be original. To the extent that you can without forgetting the first rule, try to highlight something about Notre Dame which the admissions officers won’t see in hundreds of similar essays. Even if the thing you’re honestly most excited about is something typical of the average prospective Notre Dame student, think about how you might emphasize a certain aspect of or perspective on that thing that is somehow personal to you.

Third, be informed. It helps immensely to show a genuine passion for a particular academic or even extracurricular program, so putting in the research time to find one that really does speak to you is worth the effort. For example, if you are seriously interested in international relations or another aspect of global affairs, then highlighting an interest in the Keough School of Global Affairs, and even a particular Institute or degree program within the School would be a great approach. Notre Dame’s Director of Admissions stated in an interview with the campus newspaper that the admissions department was looking out for students who would take advantage of the School of Global Affairs, which was created in 2014 when admitting students for the Class of 2023. Also, showing that you have a strong sense of your interests as an incoming student shows a certain level of maturity.

Fourth, be succinct. Once you have your perfect topic based on the advice listed above, consider that you only have 200 words into which to channel all of your sincere passion for some obscure-but-personal-for-you feature of Notre Dame. This should mean investing more time than a 1,000-word essay because you will need to write something much longer to fully express your excitement and then carefully cut it down to a polished and precise 200 words or fewer. There shouldn’t be a single word left that you could delete without the respective sentence falling apart. This goes for all of your Notre Dame essays, which all have a 200-word limit.

Prompt 2-5 [Required to Choose 2]:

2. 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?

This prompt is a great chance to show off community involvement, especially if it doesn’t show up in your Common Application essay. It is a good option for those who are less involved in student activities at school and, helpful for those who are more introverted, it need not involve an official leadership role as with student teams, clubs, and activities.

As you write about all you have done in your community, remember that, while you are being asked to discuss what you have done and the impact you have made, this essay like any other college essay, must still be about you. This is important because your focus should be less on what you see as the most impactful for the community and more on your motivations, what you learned from the experience, and how you might build on it in the future.

Spontaneously helping one neighbor with groceries might be a better story to tell than putting in 100 hours with Meals on Wheels if it tells the admissions staff more about you, your values, and your perspective. This is especially possible because organized volunteering, especially if prompted by some school (or NHS) requirement or scout team organization may or may not be personally motivated and admissions officers don’t have time to debate which is true in your case. On that note, you should also consider that volunteering is not the only way to have a community impact. Everything from working to political/social activism to music to coaching/officiating sports could potentially have a meaningful community impact and be a story worth telling.

3. 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 prompt for those of us who either have a lot of hometown pride or put a lot of value on places, whether it be undisturbed spaces to commune with nature, bustling urban environments in which to see and be seen, or something in between.

A great aspect of this prompt that is rare, even if not unique, is the fact that you could actually fairly easily carry it out. You could actually take the opportunity to invite a friend, friend of a friend, or family member to visit and offer to show them around. If you do take on this experiment, rather than picking the one location and going (because you could do that with a thought experiment), make the effort to show them a few different places that you have in mind. Then afterward, with an unavoidable degree of awkwardness, ask them which place(s) they like best AND which place(s) they thought you seemed to like best. This can give you a lot of insight, especially if the answers to the two questions line up, into what you are conveying to others about the places in your hometown that are meaningful to you. The result may not line up with what you thought was your first choice, but it is very likely to have led you to the place that you can most authentically and enthusiastically describe to the admissions committee — just as you did to your guinea pig visitor.

Whether or not you conduct the experiment, another thing to consider is that you should endeavor to keep the background detail of a visiting friend present in your essay — Notre Dame could have just asked you to describe a meaningful place but instead chose to couch it in a visit from a new friend. It will be tempting to treat the bit about the visit as a throw-away set up and purely an excuse to start talking about every detail of the park where you hit your first home run, but you can bring your essay to another level by finding a way to really recognize that you are showing this special place to another person and the reality of visits from friends allowing us to see our surroundings with fresh eyes. As you talk about the place, try to also discuss how you might show it off to someone actually present (not just someone reading the essay) and what you would want them to take away from the experience.

4. Defend an unpopular opinion you hold.

This is a great chance to reveal something unique about yourself and show off your persuasive writing abilities. It also naturally opens up opportunities for humor if that is a strength in your writing.

There are infinite directions to take this prompt, but be careful not to let that fact drive you too far afield from the goal of relating something meaningful about you personally and your perspective. You may have an opinion that you hold against the world and/or everyone around you, but if it’s on something trivial (and you can’t spin it to make something profound or hilarious out of the triviality) then it isn’t worth using up one of your three essays.

You should also think about the opportunity to show emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills with this essay. The natural inclination is likely to get on your soapbox and make either an over-the-top, overly dramatic, or obsessively thorough and polished case for why you are right and everyone else is wrong. But think about how you would argue not just against "the world" or "society" but how you might actually argue against a friend or loved one. What could you say to show or invite a real understanding of where the other side is coming from while still ultimately making the case that your opinion is for one reason or another correct, or at least correct to you? When there are no facts to go on and the question truly is a matter of opinion, a mature person is going to recognize that getting to the “right” answer is about understanding each other’s perspectives.

5. 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?

This is a great question for those who are literarily-inclined, especially those who are tired of the “old dead white men” canon of books for students. As long as you remember to make the essay about you and repeatedly connect back to the personal, choosing one of your favorite books and exploring what it reveals about yourself and your perspective on the world can allow you to be very creative and show off insightfulness.

The only thing to be cautious about with this essay is being too cliché in the direction that the prompt warns against. Avoid picking a classic "banned book" or cool rebel book unless it really does speak to you personally and does so better than any other option, because it will look as if you wasted this wonderfully open-ended prompt that allows you to choose from all of human literature on a stereotypical anti-establishment book just because you know it isn’t a “common example” of required high school reading.

Don’t be afraid to choose an obscure book, as long as it is one you truly enjoy and for which you can convey that passion in 200 words. If you do choose an obscure book, don’t worry about summarizing the content, just focus on connecting the book to yourself and illustrating its value to other high school students. If you can get an admissions counselor interested in picking up a book they hadn’t read yet, you’re well on your way.

Additional Considerations:

  • We highly recommend reading the daily student newspaper, The Observer, for insight into Notre Dame and its student body dynamics. It is also a good way to find features of the University that interest you but may not get attention in official university materials.
  • Interested female applicants should also look at Norte Dame's sister institution, Saint Mary’s College, which is a women's college located across the street from ND. Saint Mary's offers its students the chance to take classes, join extracurricular activities, attend sports games and other events, and socialize alongside Notre Dame students. It is also a fine institution in its own right, ranked by US News at #102 among National Liberal Arts Colleges and at #54 for Best Value Schools.

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This essay guide was written by Christian Myers, ND Class of 2014. If you want to get help writing your application essays from Christian or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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