Write Your Best Essay: Tips from A Notre Dame Admissions Counselor (Part 2)

Author: Klonsinski, Zach

Essay Writing

Welcome to our second blog post on Understanding the College Essay. 

As part of Notre Dame’s Virtual Preview Days, my fellow admissions counselor Maria Finan and I offered advice on how to write your essays.

You had so many great questions that we wanted to take some time to answer a few more. I would encourage you to watch our presentation first, then read Maria’s blog post, before digging into our final pieces of advice in this post.

You may also find it helpful to make a copy of the Understanding the College Essay handout we created for our presentation so you can work through the prompts and suggested activities at your own pace.

On to the questions!

Question #1: If I wanted to discuss why my faith and/or beliefs are important to me, do you know if universities that do not necessarily share these beliefs would judge my essay in a negative light?

Let me first start by saying that colleges and universities around the country, and the world, are places that want to welcome students, faculty, and staff of different backgrounds, who share diverse beliefs and life experiences.

You are unlikely to find that a college won't admit you if your beliefs differ unless you are espousing harmful or hateful ideas.

As a non-religious student at Notre Dame, I always felt that my voice and opinions mattered, and some of my best memories from college were late night philosophical discussions with my closest friends, almost all of whom have very different views than I do!

The bigger potential essay pitfall is that you demonstrate to an institution you are not someone who is open to having your beliefs challenged. Colleges want students who will engage meaningfully with others who share different opinions.

At Notre Dame, we also value students who will be involved members of our campus community.

If you are sure that a college you are applying to holds beliefs or values that conflict with yours, you should ask yourself whether this college is truly a good fit for you. 

Question #2: Do you like to see more unique, fun, and interesting essays or more serious essays?

Maria already touched on this idea in her post, but any style of essay can be an engaging, interesting, and effective way to communicate who you are to your readers! The tone is ultimately up to you and will be guided by the topic you have chosen to write about.

When students ask me: “What do colleges want me to write about?,” I always flip the question: “I don’t know. What do you want to tell us?”

This can be a hard thought exercise because often the college application process is the first time students have really had to write about themselves or think about what they want others to know about them.

The college discernment and application process can be an opportunity for you to learn more about yourself—as much as, or even more than, an opportunity to learn about the colleges to which you are applying.

Question #3: What is a common attribute you've seen in outstanding application essays?

The most memorable (I think that’s a better adjective than “outstanding”) essays always help me get to know the applicant: what they believe, what interests them, and/or what they are super passionate about. Who is this person potentially coming to our campus and what can I imagine them doing here?

I’ve read essays where I know the applicant is going to be a potential residence hall president one day, for example, or that they will bring an incredible passion for research to a lab.

This often means the applicant did an excellent job of making sure the essay was written in their voice.

Sometimes students will over-edit their college essays, edit themselves out, and those essays often read very similarly to one another almost regardless of topic.

Question #4: What is the biggest pitfall that you see students falling into on essays and how do you recommend avoiding this error?

I have read really, really great essays about an applicant’s grandmother or an applicant’s dog.

By the time we get to the end of the essay, I’m really, really excited to admit the applicant’s grandmother or their yellow labrador retriever, but we didn’t actually learn anything about the person who is applying to Notre Dame.

We can try to draw conclusions from the essay (are they loyal because they love their dog?), but the best essays we see do that work for us by revealing themselves through their topic, not in writing about their topic.

In a similar vein, sometimes students feel they need to include more background information about their topic than is really necessary. That eats word count and can sometimes hinder your reader, who then has to try to sift through details that might not have been truly necessary.

We have also read essays that were definitely written for a history or English class in high school. That’s not to say some high school essays cannot also be a good foundation for your college essay, but the college essay has a completely different purpose than showing what information you know. It needs to show who you are.

Question #5: For the supplemental essays, is it better to choose an essay that focuses on the applicant as a person or the applicant’s views or ideas?

Your readers will receive plenty of personal information from the rest of the application, but the college essays are the first time on the application that your readers get to hear about you in your own words. 

You want to help your reader get to know what makes you...well, you!

Whether that’s showing off your personality, your academic or extracurricular passions, or grand plans you may have for building a time machine, this is where you get to tell your story.

Question #6: For the applicants who are not amazing writers, any recommendations to improve writing skills prior to submitting our essays?

I am a HUGE outliner.

When I wrote my thesis in college, I actually submitted my first and second drafts as an in-depth, bulleted outline. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about what verb to use in a sentence or what transition was needed to connect two paragraphs while my piece was still in its very early stages.

It helped me see the key pieces I was trying to highlight and how they could potentially fit together to convey and support my larger narrative.

Bulleting also makes it really easy to shift content around. 

One of the most helpful things for me in the writing process is to simply start by reading what you have out loud. If something doesn’t sound right when you say it out loud, how would you say it if instead you were speaking with your friends or a trusted teacher?

Not only is this a great way to help your ideas flow more naturally, but it can also really ensure that you are keeping your voice and personality in your essay!

Keep in mind that different techniques work for different people. Try out various outlining and planning methods to see what works for you.

Question #7: What is some advice on who should peer edit your essay?

I think there are three important qualities in a good peer editor. 

First, they should know you well enough to recognize your writing if they picked up a random essay at school with no name on it.

Second, they should be someone you trust and someone with whom you are comfortable enough with that they can provide critical feedback.

It’s important to remember “critical” has two definitions (according to the Oxford University Press): 

  1. Expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments 
  2. Expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art

It’s this second piece that you should keep in mind whenever someone is editing something you wrote. They are not trying to demean or tell you how bad your essay is—they are genuinely trying to tell you what your essay does well and how it could be better! 

Finally—and this may sound obvious—your peer editor should be a good editor.

One of the greatest things about coming to a university like Notre Dame is that you will never be the smartest person in the room, even if you were an academic standout at your high school. And that’s okay! Understanding your peers, and their individual strengths, will be important for the rest of your life. Start by finding someone who meets the first two criteria AND is also a writer and editor that you really admire. Your essay will be better for it.

Oh, and one last thing: please do not forget to thank your peer editors, along with your other editors: parents, teachers, and whoever else has helped you!

Share your college admission decisions with them and make sure they know how much you value their efforts to help you throughout your college discernment process. Your journey is important to them, too!


Zach Klonsinski is is an admissions counselor with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. He is the regional counselor for Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, parts of Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Read Zach's profile.