How to Write the Duke University Supplemental Essays 2019-2020

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Duke University is home to over 6,500 undergraduate students pursuing degrees across its 10 schools and colleges. As one of the nation’s foremost universities in research funding, Duke provides ample opportunities for students to pursue their academic interests across a wide variety of disciplines. Students truly own their education as they are expected to plan their programs of study and enrich their learning experience by seeking interdisciplinary projects and opportunities. Consequently, US News ranked Duke University #10 in National Universities in the 2020 edition of Best Colleges.


Duke’s 2018-2019 admissions cycle saw both record highs and record lows. With almost 38,000 applicants vying for admission in the regular decision cycle alone, the Class of 2023 saw a record low for both regular and early decision acceptance rates, at 5.7% and 18% respectively. With increasingly more competitive application cycles each year, admission to Duke is highly competitive, and students hoping to secure their seat in the class of 2024 should do their best to set their application apart from the crowd. 


Students looking to apply to Duke University can submit the Common App or Coalition App by either the binding Early Decision deadline or one of two Regular Decision deadlines. The Early Decision deadline is November 1st. The Regular Decision is January 1, though students hoping to receive an alumni interview should submit their application by the December 20th priority deadline. 


While Duke University doesn’t currently have any required supplements for all students, there are two optional supplemental essays, as well as a required short response for  students interested in taking a gap year. It’s always a good idea to write any optional supplements, as going the extra step to draft an optional response will allow you a better chance to leave a lasting impression on your admissions readers and signal your interest. Besides, apart from your Common App or Coalition App essay, your college application is generally told from the perspective of others, hence leveraging every opportunity to lend your own voice is paramount to ensuring that your story is being told the way you’d want it to be told.


Keep reading for a breakdown of how to approach each prompt and what to keep in mind when drafting your responses! Want to know your chances at Duke? Calculate your chances for free right now.


Want to learn what Duke University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Duke University needs to know.


Duke University Supplemental Essay Prompts


Prompt #1: Perspective and Experience (Optional)

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better — perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background — we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words)

As mentioned above, we strongly encourage students to respond to any and all prompts which apply to them. Broader prompts like this one are quite flexible, allowing students to draw upon a multitude of experiences and interests to address the question. Don’t be intimidated by the word “diversity” here. Diversity covers a broad spectrum of identities and experiences, whether they be related to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, health and disability, or anything else.  Furthermore, it’s important to remember with prompts like these, everyone isn’t going to have a dramatic, high stakes anecdote that will move their audience to tears. That doesn’t make your story any less important than the next. The key to executing this prompt successfully is, well executing it. 

Prompts like this one invite you to discuss your interests and experiences and how they have shaped you as an individual. The implied question here for admissions counselors is, how will you fit into the Duke campus community. By asking you to reflect on your own perspective and experiences, Duke hopes to learn about how your unique personal experiences have shaped you as an individual and how you’ll fit into the larger campus community as a result. 


In responding to prompts like this one, it’s important to keep in mind the unique culture and values of the institution to which you’re applying. Duke is a large research university with a top-notch athletics program, a vibrant social scene and a wide variety of opportunities for civic engagement. In fact, Duke emphasizes the importance of students pursuing their academic and professional interests fervently not only as a means of personal development, but as a way to actively contribute to the communities around them. While your essay needn’t directly address any of the above characteristics, it should reflect the spirit of Duke’s unique campus community, and demonstrate the unique perspective and experiences you bring to it.


So start by honing in on exactly what you want admissions counselors to learn about you. What one thing do you think is paramount to an admissions’ counselor understanding of who you are, how you think, and how you’ll function as a member of the campus community? What will you bring to the table?


As an exercise, try sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and writing detailed, specific answers to some of the following questions:


  • What life experiences have been fundamental to my development? Which have shaped my worldview?
  • What do I care about? What do I want to change about or bring to the world?
  • What “steps” in my journey have brought me to where I am today?


When you’re finished with this exercise, ask yourself if the responses encapsulate your identity or whether you’re missing any important details.Then think about specific stories which demonstrate the answers to the questions you’ve just reflected on. Perhaps you volunteered with a healthcare non-profit and it complicated your understanding of healthcare policy or women’s health. Or maybe you are a long-time robotics competitor and your successes (or failures) have spurred your desire to pursue new applications of technology at the college and graduate level. Whatever your experience, show your reader why this experience was important to you, how its impacted you, and how you will carry it with you into the campus community and beyond.


250 words isn’t the most generous amount of space when it comes to reflecting on substantive experiences like the prompt is asking you to do. However, you can accomplish a great deal in 250 if you focus on communicating your response clearly and concisely. Don’t be afraid to be creative, but don’t now experiment with strategies that you haven’t mastered yet. Focus on telling your story genuinely and efficiently. At the end of the day, the personal reflective aspect of this essay is far more important than the anecdote you tell, and while an entertaining story can go a long way, the “so what” of your essay is the most important part. Use your anecdotes and experiences to drive your reader to the exact perspective or values that you want your reader to be aware of. 


Prompt #2: Sexual Orientation (Optional)

If you would like the opportunity, we invite you to share more about your sexual orientation either below or in the Duke optional essay. (250 words)

You might be noticing a pattern in the prompts here. Duke places a particular emphasis on creating an inclusive environment in which its students feel empowered to embrace their identities. If you identify as LGBTQIA+, consider responding to this optional prompt, and your sexuality is an important or defining facet of your life, then be confident and explain why. Perhaps your sexuality has only recently caused you to question how you perceive the world, and you would like to expound upon the nature of that development. This essay is your space to do so.


Your approach to this prompt should be similar to that of the prompt above, but specific to the perspectives you have and experiences you’ve had relate to your sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Think about specific moments in life where your identities were most salient to you. Perhaps you’ve developed a deeper sense of empathy as part of your journey with your sexual or gender identity. Perhaps your academic interests have been influenced by your experiences. Regardless of how you approach the topic, your essay should incorporate deep, thorough reflections. Discuss how your sexual orientation folds into your specific, overall identity, how it complements your passions, influences your perspective, and impacts your values. 


Maybe you’re just beginning to explore your identities. You may still be processing what these identities mean for you and how you approach the world around you. Perhaps you have more questions than answers. Feel free to explain reflect on these questions you have asked yourself and why. This approach is an excellent way to demonstrate curiosity, maturity, and self-evaluation. Be careful not to incorporate too many rhetorical questions though if you choose to take this approach. Ultimately, you’ll want to end this response in a way that feels conclusive, even if that conclusion is that you simply have so much learning left to you about yourself and others. 


For Applicants Considering a Gap Year

Please explain your gap year plans. (250 words)

Taking a gap year is becoming an increasingly popular decision for high schoolers looking toward their college education. Duke provides students with a number of resources for finding established gap year programs, and students are invited to develop independent plans as well. Since many established gap year programs require applications to be submitted well in advance, students can share their proposed gap year plans as part of the initial application process.


While students are invited to respond to this question as part of the initial admissions process, a student must already have been admitted to Duke to actually apply for the Gap Year Program. Applications can be found on the Gap Year Program site, and they’re normally due in the beginning of May. Students admitted to the program are eligible to receive between $5,000 and $15,000 from the university to support their plans. However, students choosing to take a gap year need not participate in this program and may choose to take their gap year independently of the program and its funding.


As Duke emphasizes the importance of students taking ownership over their academic pursuits and ambitions, it comes as no surprise that Duke empowers students to take a gap year with university funding. Consequently, a thoughtful gap-year plan can demonstrate a student’s alignment with Duke’s academic philosophy as well as its culture of civic engagement and immersion, making for a successful response here. In many ways, applying to take a gap year through the formal Gap Year program is more like writing a brief proposal than a personal response, which means that your response to this prompt will need to take a different structure and accomplish different goals than those of the previous supplements. 


First and foremost, your plan should be thought out, particularly if you’re hoping to secure funding through the program. Of course, “thought out” doesn’t have to mean academic in nature. Perhaps you’re taking a year to volunteer or intern with a nonprofit organization that means a lot to you. Maybe you’re planning to immerse yourself in a foreign country to develop your language skills. Whatever your plan, be clear and thorough in your discussion of the what and the why. Please note that depending on the nature of your gap year plans, you may not be eligible to apply for funding and that your intentions should be processed as deferments outside of the Gap Year program.


There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to explaining your college plans, whether you expect to take time off or enroll right in the fall. That said, as with any other prompt 250 word prompt, clearly and concisely conveying your intentions and the thought process behind them is key to a successful execution. Furthermore, specificity is crucial to successfully executing this prompt, especially since successful applicants with eligible plans can receive funding for their gap year. Duke asks that applicants discuss their plans for the entire gap year, not just the period during which they’ll be utilizing their Gap Year funding, so think deeply about what you hope to gain over the course of your gap year, and the steps you’ll take to accomplish your goals for the year from start to finish.


Whether you plan on pursuing an established program or developing an independent one, consider looking at some of the projects and programs that current Gap Year students are working on for some inspiration on how to use your gap year.

Some Final Thoughts


If you choose to respond to the optional Duke supplements, you’ll need to keep a few key strategies in mind. As you draft and revise your responses, remember the following tips, which will help you to optimize your application efforts to Duke as well as any other schools to which you might apply. 


Give yourself time. Writing a short essay can often seem like a straightforward and deceptively quick process. Remember, however, that even though the Duke only wants 250 words per prompt, you’ll need to achieve the same level of impact in this response as you would with a 650 word essay. Clumsily jumbling together broad and lofty ideas won’t get you far with a 250 word prompt, so leave yourself enough time to plan, draft and redraft your response until it’s ready for submission.


Be Specific. Specificity is the not-so-secret ingredient when it comes to writing a successful response. Include anecdotes and examples that tie directly to what you know and value about the Duke campus community. Don’t simply say that you love research or that you want to change the world. Think about the specific experiences you have which exemplify your interests and your academic and professional aspirations. 


Be true to yourself. It’s counterproductive to spend hours and hours writing about things that don’t truly matter to you. With Duke, you needn’t write any supplemental responses. While we certainly wouldn’t recommend doing so, if a particular prompt doesn’t apply to or speak to you personally, don’t try to force and response. Be honest! Highlight the things that you care about most and reflect on why they matter to you. 


Ultimately, the purpose of any supplemental essay is to give you the opportunity to present yourself, your experiences and achievements from your own perspective using your own words. So have fun with this process. After all, no one could ever be better equipped to showcase you than you.


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