Write Your Best Essay: Tips from A Notre Dame Admissions Counselor (Part 1)

Author: Maria Finan

Essay Graphic

Why is it so hard to write your college essays?

I asked myself that question a lot when I was in high school, and even after teaching high school English, and reading thousands of application essays, I still think they are hard essays to write.

It may be the first time you’re trying to tell your life story, and you don’t necessarily have very many words to convey who you are. Establishing the right tone, and picking something that’s both interesting and revealing can be a tough process. Depending on who you ask, you may even receive conflicting advice.

My fellow admissions counselor Zach Klonsinski and I recently gave a whole presentation on Understanding the College Essay and did our best to offer advice to tackle them.

We outlined steps and activities that will help with selecting the topic for your personal statement, brainstorming, writing, and even editing your essays.

You may find it helpful to make a copy of the Understanding the College Essay handout we created so you can work through the prompts and activities yourself.

We received more questions than we could answer during our live session, so we’ve decided to tackle some of them in a two-part blog post.

We hope this helps you as you write your personal statement and supplemental essays. 

Let's get started!

Question #1: What makes a story interesting enough to tell?

When I’m reading applications, I find that the most interesting stories are the ones that leave me feeling like I really know the applicant. The topic is often less important than how the story is told. If a story reveals something about who you are, what you value, where you’re from, or an event or person who has shaped you, that’s often a story worth telling. 

One of my favorite essays was about a student’s hair color. Zach loved an essay about shrimp.

Without reading these essays, the topics may not sound that interesting, but they were! The applicants were able to convey who they were through things that defined them, and they picked things that made them unique.

Question #2 How do you decide the core story that you want to tell?

When you’re trying to decide what story you want to tell, you should spend some time brainstorming or talking with someone who knows you well.

Ask yourself: What makes you unique? What are you passionate about? What experiences have defined you? What are your values? Who are you?

You probably don’t have complete answers to all of these questions, but hopefully one or two of them have answers that you think get at who you are.

When I wrote my personal statement on my college essay, I brainstormed a lot of topics. I eventually settled on an experience that had shifted my worldview. It was a good topic for me, because I knew no one else had experienced the exact same thing I had. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my personal statement revealed a lot of the values that are still important to me today. 

Take the time to think, brainstorm, and talk over your topic before you write. If the essay doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to start again or even pick a new topic.

Question #3: Are there topics we should avoid?

The answer to this question is yes and no.

We said this in our presentation, but it bears repeating: Any topic can be a good topic if done well; any topic can be a bad topic if done poorly.

Students often wonder if it’s okay to write about controversial issues. My take on it is yes! If you’re passionate about something, and you believe in it, you shouldn’t be afraid to write about it. You should avoid being hateful, but you shouldn’t avoid a topic simply because you think someone might not agree with you.

On a different note, we do tend to see some topics repeated more often than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about something that someone else may write about, but you should really focus on making sure you talk about why it was significant to you. 

For example, if given the opportunity to pick an essay topic, it might not be the best to argue why pineapple belongs on pizza. It’s not telling us much about you, and other students will also pick the same topic. If you’re confident that you can write THE best essay on the topic, then it may be a good fit for you, but if you think someone else could write a better essay on a certain topic, you might want to choose something else.

Question #4: Can you write about deaths of friends and family, how you overcame them, and what you learned from them—or is that too dark?

If a death or loss in your life was a defining experience for you, you can write about it.

One of the great privileges of working in admissions is reading the stories that students share with us. I always feel honored when a student is willing to share a difficult experience. It takes a lot of courage and reflection to be able to write about hard moments. If you feel like an event or experience has defined you, it’s definitely something you can write about. 

Alternatively, if you aren’t ready or willing to share about a loss or difficult experience, you can write about something else. A student does not have to write about overcoming a difficult situation to write a great college essay. If you would prefer to write about a lighter topic, then please pick the topic that’s right for you!

Question #5: How should students from a low-income background approach the personal statement? Should they focus on the challenge aspect or the passion aspect?

Regardless of your background, you should write about something that best reveals who you are. If your family’s financial circumstances, and the perspectives you’ve gained from those experiences, best show who you are, then you can certainly write about challenges you’ve faced.

That being said, if you come from a low-income background, and your passion for science (or another subject) is what you want to share with us, go for it! 

Your life experiences may have shaped your worldview, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the focus of your personal statement.

For example, sometimes students are passionate about history because of some event or experience in their family’s own history.

A student could focus more on the academic aspect, or on the personal aspect, or weave the two together. There’s no one right way to write about something. The more important question is: What story are you trying to tell?

Question #6: I’ve heard that you should not write your essay about something already listed in your application. Does that mean, for example, that I can’t write about my experiences volunteering because my application already lists my hours?

I both agree and disagree with this advice. On one hand, you want your application to tell us as much about you as possible. On the other hand, the Activities Section doesn’t give you much space to tell us a lot about your specific activities.

If one of your activities really captures what you’re passionate about, and your values, it might be a great topic to write about. 

You may want to spend some time looking at colleges’ supplemental essays to see if your activity is a good fit for your personal statement, or to illustrate something in a shorter supplemental essay. If you simply feel you need to explain an activity in more detail, that’s not a good essay topic.

You could ask your counselor to write about it in their letter or you could briefly explain it in the Additional Information section.

You should not use the Additional Information section to copy and paste your resume or an expanded resume. 

Question #7: Would it be alright if a student applying for a specific major wrote about a different passion in their application? Should applicants be worried about shaping their entire application around a central idea or interest?

You can definitely write about something that is not what you intend to major in! Many of our applicants have diverse interests and passions, and they demonstrate that through their application.

If you’re an engineering intent with a passion for music, tell us about that!

Fun fact: Engineering is the most represented college in our marching band! We live in an interdisciplinary world—your application can definitely reflect that dynamic.

If you are someone who is more focused, that’s okay, too. 

Some students are passionate about STEM and that’s evident in every part of their application. You shouldn’t leave something out because it doesn’t “match” with your other interests.

Include what’s important to you—we want to get to know the real you. You should spend less time focusing on what you think we want to see and more time discerning who you are and what you love.

If you’re a theater kid with a passion for mock trial, astronomy, and soccer, that’s great! If you spend your time conducting research, hiking, volunteering at hospitals, that’s awesome, too! Be yourself. 

More Questions?

You may still be looking for more advice, which is completely understandable!

Zach answers additional questions in his blog post, and if you need more help, you can refer back to the handout we created. Your high school counselor is another great resource.

Best of luck on your essays! Go Irish!

Maria Finan is an admissions counselor with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She is the regional counselor for Colorado and parts of California. Read Maria's profile.