How to Write the University of Notre Dame Supplemental Essays: Examples + Guide 2021/2022

“During the spring semester, Notre Dame faculty gave 3-Minute Lightning Talks on exciting topics within their fields of expertise. While you don’t have a Ph.D. yet, we bet you’re developing an expertise in something. If you were giving a Lightning Talk, what topic (academic or not) would you choose? (200 words)”

This is a kinda-but-not-too common prompt that asks you to put your student scholar hat on and envision teaching on an engaging topic. We have a full guide to this type of prompt here,  but unlike other course topics, which may have more expansive sample lectures and reading materials, this prompt asks you to spend just three minutes on one of your areas of expertise.  Here are some tips to get your started in brainstorming a topic:

Step 1: Read about the 3-Minute Lightning Talks linked in the prompt to 1) get a fuller understanding of the program and its purpose, and 2) maybe draw some inspiration from past talks.

Step 2: Check out this fun list of actual college courses. Any inspire some ideas?

Step 3: Look at your Notre Dame application as a whole. What strong interest or core value do you have that’s not coming through yet in a strong way? Note that Notre Dame isn’t requiring you to choose an academic topic (though that could also be a cool way for you to flex your mastery of computer science or philosophy). Been crushing it at the mandolin since 5th grade and haven’t found an opportunity to talk about it? Or maybe you want to share your love of parkour or beekeeping. Here’s your chance!

Step 4: As you go to write, realize that what’s not explicitly asked in the prompt but will be expected from your response is not just what topic you’d teach, but what you hope students would get from it. So think of this prompt as an opportunity to showcase 1) your expertise and 2) the “why” behind your love of the topic.

This is a new prompt for Notre Dame this year, so we don’t have any examples to share specific to its 3-Minute Lightning Talks. But here’s an example written for another teach-a-course prompt that may help guide you as you write your essay.

Example 2:

My dream HSA class is “The Art of Nomenclature: Who Am I?” I have always loved naming things, from my stuffed toys to my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Fudge.

I want to learn the origin of names. Mine is easy: Grace means mercy, peace, elegance. But what about more complex names, such as Constantine, Genevieve, and Imogen? What are the meanings of those names? And why did Beyoncé name her daughter Blue Ivy?

At HMC,  I would love to explore the cultural significance behind our names. This class would allow students to delve deeper into their own identity. (98 words)

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Tips + Analysis:

  1. Start with a memorable name. You have a very small word count and a very specific question to work with here, which means clarity is key. Notice how this student comes right out of the gate with the name of the class she wants to teach. The title of the class is catchy and makes you want to keep reading. It also answers the prompt directly and makes the student’s response clearly focused. This is a nice rubric that can help you guide your reader.

  2. Ask questions (even if you don’t know the answer!). Remember, this is just your elevator pitch for a talk you might want to give on a topic you’d like to dive deeper into if you had the chance. Does that mean you have to be an expert in it? Absolutely not. You don’t even have enough words here to demonstrate significant expertise, so don’t get bogged down in the details. The key here is to paint a picture of a topic in broad strokes, with a couple nice specifics that your reader can remember you by. In fact, asking great questions like this author did (Why did Beyonce name her daughter Blue Ivy? What are the meanings of names like Constantine and Imogen?) is a great way to demonstrate your curiosity and your ability to think deeply about a topic of interest.

  3. Highlight the “why.” Even with just 200 words, it’s important to spend at least a sentence or two going beyond what you’re going to talk about and thinking about why you want to talk about it. For this student, the “why” comes at the end, when she explains her interest in the cultural significance of names and her desire to create space for others to dig deeper into their own identity. 

  4. Use structure to enhance clarity. Just because you have a short word count doesn’t mean you can’t break your essay up into multiple paragraphs or have a little fun with sentence structure/length. This student does an excellent job of breaking up different aspects of her answer into fun-sized paragraphs. The first mini-paragraph names the class and hints at where the author’s general interest in the topic comes from. The second expands on her interest, emphasizing her inquisitive spirit. The third brings things home, briefly answering why she’d like to share some insights on the origins of names. These clear breaks also serve to add emphasis to the message behind each mini-paragraph, while giving the essay a pacing that makes it easy, even fun, to follow.

“There is a story or meaning behind every name or nickname—both those we’re given and those that we choose. What is meaningful to you about your name? (200 words)”

This is another new prompt for Notre Dame, so our example won’t be at the same word limit, but you can still glean some insights for how this student wrote about his name, and the meaning it held for him.

Example 3:

Born to a Turkish father and a Bahraini mother, I was named Yusuf, a name with deep roots in both countries. That decision marked the beginning of my parents’ quest to connect me to Bahrain and Turkey. Looking back, I can see how each country shaped my personal development and character in distinct ways.

Bahrain gives me a sense of belonging; it represents home. It’s where my family, friends, and school are. Fridays are particularly special—they are family days. Almost every Bahraini will tell you that. From noon until evening, my extended family meets at my grandparents’ house over lunch. But our gatherings are unique. My grandfather, who served as Bahrain’s first minister of commerce and agriculture, will discuss current domestic and regional events—from the viability of a value-added tax in Bahrain to the Qatar diplomatic crisis. Many conversations turn into an engaging debate between my family members, all Western-educated, offering different opinions. As one of my uncles advocates for cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar, my mother will argue for restoring them. This exposure to varying views on social changes and political rifts ingrained in me a thirst for political and historical insights.

My inquisitiveness fueled a strong interest in politics, something else I owe to my Bahraini roots. I enjoyed asking my grandfather about our region’s contemporary events, such as the Arab Israeli wars and the Gulf Cooperation Council formation. As I got older, I took the initiative to educate myself about regional issues to form my own opinion. I would research a variety of news outlets, from our regional Alarabiya station to the international BBC channel, using VPN to read blocked news websites, such as Al Jazeera, watch documentaries, and read history books in an attempt to understand both sides of each issue. I started thinking more freely and learned to acknowledge and respect other people’s stances, even if I disagree.

While my Bahraini side helped shape my beliefs, my Turkish side has pushed me to stand up for them. I like telling people I am half Turkish, even if I’m not asked. It gives me a sense of pride. The political rift between Bahrain and Turkey has made politics personal, making me feel more Turkish than ever. I’ve watched my parents debate Erdogan’s expansionary policies and my friends bash Turkey because of the Bahraini government’s opposition to Turkey’s involvement in the Arab region. I give Bahrain credit if I agree with the stance, but I also defend Turkey in a society where the majority endorses the government’s views. I gained a sense of independence by standing up for Turkey and sticking with my convictions, knowing the risks of being alienated.

Bahrain and Turkey have played different roles in my growth, but they have also combined to influence my benevolent side with their Islamic culture’s strong emphasis on compassion. I once read that cockroaches cannot survive laying on their back, so if I find one in that position, I flip it. I made bead bracelets and sold them for charity. As I matured, my contributions to my community did too. From teaching English to underserved kids to arranging Iftar meals for expatriated laborers during the COVID-19 pandemic, my efforts to give back not only gave me a new perspective on my community, but they also proved to me that the humanitarian nature of my culture is stronger than temporary political feuds.

My dual heritage is reflective of the diversity of my community—a trading hub founded by the influx of Arabs, Persians, and Indians, a region where Muslim Sunnis and Shias, Christians, Jews, and Hindus have coexisted for centuries. It has shaped my natural diplomatic tendencies, from negotiating disagreements between friends to learning four languages to respecting that each position has multiple stances, many of them valid. I am eager to further develop my diplomacy skills so I can one day return to Bahrain, serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and be able to do my part to influence the direction of an ever-changing, complex world. (669 words)

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Tips + Analysis

  1. Connect to the communities you’re a part of. One of the best ways to approach this prompt is to first start by brainstorming different communities that are important to you. If you’re not sure where to start or what exactly a “community” is, check out the first step in this blog. Once you’ve identified some of these communities, you can start to think about how they connect back to your name. For instance, this student shared that he belongs to both the Bahraini and Turkish communities, which are the cultural roots of his name, Yusuf. His Bahraini side has influenced his love for family and interest in politics. His Turkish side taught him to stand up for what he believes in. He clearly articulates the meaning his name has for him in a broad sense (i.e., home/family), then uses different examples (the political rift between Bahrain and Turkey or watching his parents debate Erdogan’s expansionary policies) to take his response a step further, by showing how those influences shaped who he is today. With just 200 words, you may not have the space to do that in great detail, but even one or two such examples will help you show, rather than just tell, the meaning behind your name.

  2. Embed your values. The great thing about this essay is that the student makes it clear as to what drives him. Each paragraph emphasizes a specific value that’s connected to his cultural background, and thereby, his name. The first paragraph is about family, the second inquisitiveness, the third advocacy, the fourth humanitarianism/kindness. Ideally, you’ll want your reader to walk away from your essay having clearly identified 3-5 core values that make you who you are (check out our Values Exercise to brainstorm your core values if you don’t know them already). Before you write, ask yourself which core values aren’t coming through as strongly as you’d like in the rest of your essay. This prompt may offer a great chance for you to show those missing core values in a personal and memorable way.

  3. Think expansively. Although this student chose to approach the concept of a “name” in a straightforward way by talking about his official birth name, you can think about a name in lots of different ways. You could write about a nickname, a pseudonym, or even a name you’ve never been called but one you’ve always been drawn to. Anything here is fair game as long as you can meaningfully connect it back to yourself and your values.

  4. Leave room for the future, if it fits. You don’t have a lot of words at your disposal, and this author had a bit more wiggle room than you will. But it’s worth noting that he did something important at the end of his piece: The last paragraph discusses his aspirations for the future and how that relates to the cultural values and lessons he’s connected to his name. The nice thing about this approach is that it answers the question, “so what,” allowing the reader to see how the meaning behind his name has not only shaped who he is but who he hopes to be. This isn’t a must-do, but if you can look to the future, it could give the essay a forward momentum and your reader deeper insight into how you see yourself and your place in the world.

What would you fight for? (200 words)

This prompt is wide open. That may make it feel more intimidating, but one way to narrow it down is to look at your Activities List and ask: Is there anything here that shows me championing a cause? Or advocating for change? Maybe it’s the recycling program you started in your school cafeteria. Or the BLM protest you participated in last summer. Look for something that, instead of a one-time effort, shows an enduring interest/belief/mission. The key will be talking about it in a way that shows it’s important enough to “fight for.”

It’s time to dig into an example to see what that might look like. This is also a new prompt for Notre Dame (they’ve been busy in the admission office this spring!), but this essay, written for a slightly longer prompt, would work well here.

Example 4:

The last sliver of the sun disappears over a perfect wave as I ride toward shore.

My beautiful home should have made me an idealist, but no… 

I’m a pessimist.

I was raised on science, not faith, and pessimism is a possible side effect.

I brush my teeth, climb into bed, and think about our future rising sea levels and supervolcano eruptions. I can’t ignore the fish migrations caused by climate change that will ultimately doom my home and, eventually, our world. But, though I know the world is doomed, I love this world, and I’d do anything to prevent it from utter destruction.

I joined forces with my sworn enemies, the optimists, with Heal the Bay’s Pier Aquarium and MPA watch, spreading messages of environmental protection while teaching the community about ocean creatures and monitoring wrongdoing at local beaches.

I intensified my battle by interning with UCLA’s LCC Civil and Environmental engineering lab, which designs sustainable building materials. My project focused on the dissolution kinetics of calcite with organic ligands at high pH to simulate cementitious environments, and my results have applications for sequestering CO2.

Knowing the future doesn’t make me want to give up, instead it makes me want to test the limits of what I can accomplish. Unlike my optimistic counterparts, I have accepted what’s coming, so I’ll be ready, at least more ready than anyone else, to stop the unstoppable.

And if I fail, what does it matter? That asteroid was totally coming anyway!

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Tips + Analysis

  1. Give a glimpse into your world. Using the 21 Details exercise, this particular student took a few carefully chosen details about his life and centered them around an unexpected reveal: “I’m a pessimist.” Wielding dark humor, the author lightens his subject matter with references to his “sworn enemies, the optimists,” and thoughts about super volcano eruptions at bedtime. If humor isn’t your strong suit (we can’t all be funny), pick an interesting detail and tell the story around it in a way that spotlights a different part of the portrait you present of yourself in the personal statement. On an application packed to the brim with serious experiences and accomplishments, this essay can be a breath of fresh air. 

  2. Show a side of yourself that’s not already apparent in your application. Since pessimism is generally not considered to be a positive trait, we’re willing to bet this student didn’t mention it anywhere else. By taking that calculated risk and explaining how his world view connects with why he fights for the world he loves, however, he reveals a vulnerability that’ll make him a valuable peer beyond his academic acumen and work ethic. Is your application full of focused long-term research? Share something spontaneous and creative. Is there another important value that’s not coming through elsewhere in your activities list or personal statement? Make sure it’s coming through in a supplemental essay. In short, what else could you show?

  3. End with a clear “so what?” After showing he values humor, this author makes sure the reader leaves with a takeaway: “I have accepted what’s coming, so I’ll be ready, at least more ready than anyone else, to stop the unstoppable.” These supplementals are short, but don’t be afraid to show first, then tell the reader what’s important to understanding you and why.

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