How to Write the Duke University Application Essays 2018-2019
Duke is a selective, private university located in Durham, “Bull City,” North Carolina. Founded by Methodists and Quakers in the present-day town of Trinity in 1838, the school moved to Durham in 1892 and has since risen to consideration as one of the top academic institutions in the world. For the Class of 2022, Duke admitted 6.4% of applicants, and it currently sits at #8 in the U.S. News National University Rankings.
A medium-sized university, Duke’s undergraduate population totals at roughly 6,600 students. The institution utilizes a semester-based calendar and is organized into the two schools: the Trinity School of Arts and Sciences, and the Pratt School of Engineering. Duke boasts a diverse, global student body, cutting-edge research opportunities, and top-tier athletics programs.
Duke students are often distinguished by their entrepreneurial, energetic, and driven personalities. A collaborative and social environment, Duke offers many extracurricular opportunities, including its annual tradition of “Tenting” for the UNC basketball rivalry game. In addition, incoming first-year students are housed together on East Campus, building a tight-knit sense of community early on in the undergraduate experience.
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Duke University Application Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: 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)
This prompt allows you to elaborate on your sexual orientation, if you so choose. On campus, Duke strives to create an inclusive environment in which everyone is empowered and able to express themselves. When writing this essay, be as truthful and authentic as possible. If 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.
A misconception about the LGBTQ community is that its experience is a completely collective one. All over the world, there are countless individuals — athletes, musicians, scientists, professors, politicians — who identify with the LGBTQ community. The point is, sexual orientation isn’t an all-encompassing way of characterizing any single individual, and everyone’s experience is different.
In line with this idea, you can approach this essay by describing how your sexual orientation folds into your specific, overall identity, how it compliments your passions, influences your perspective, and impacts your values.
To convey your clear and distinct message for this 250-word prompt, here are a few strategies to consider employing:
- Analyze a Specific Detail – Perhaps your sexual orientation became increasingly prominent, not only to yourself, but also to your peers as you grew up, to the point that they may have begun to treat you differently over time. You could use a compare-and-contrast essay to juxtapose the difference between your experiences growing up (i.e., elementary school) vs. high school. In an analysis, you can focus on the specific ways people’s attitudes began to change or remained the same.
- Explain How You Value Sexual Orientation – If your sexual orientation has helped you develop into a stronger, more understanding person, explain how and why. Use evidence to impart on the reader what you are proud of and what you value. At the same time, you could explain how your sexual orientation is important, but only one small aspect of your identify. In this way, you can show the reader your own variable experience.
- Discuss and Raise Questions – So many experiences are ambiguous, so feel free to explain what questions you have asked yourself and why. How has your sexual orientation shaped your goals? What is different about your personal experience? Do you align with a certain community sometimes or all the time? Consider writing an essay that reads like a conversation, as you ruminate on your questions and conclusions. An essay such as this doesn’t have to be overly structured because the topics and ideas may, inherently, not be fully formed (just make sure you don’t confuse the reader). This approach is an excellent way to demonstrate curiosity, maturity, and self-evaluation.
Prompt #2: 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)
While optional, we at CollegeVine highly recommend that you respond to this prompt. At first glance, the prompt can seem complex and intimidating, but it ultimately boils down to one question: What is your personal perspective and experience?
Before writing, let’s take a look at recent developments at Duke. Newly-minted president Vince Price has made it the institution’s initiative to foster a diversity of views and knowledge within its student body. Diversity is not relegated solely to student body demographics or race; it is characterized by the variety of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives embodied by individuals. Duke wants to better understand how your background, ideas, etc., will contribute to its increasingly diverse community.
Duke’s most recent book selections for its first-year student summer reading program reflect what the institution values about diversity. These texts encompass a range of divergent authorial experiences and often spur readers to think more critically about how backgrounds shape and mold individuals’ perspectives. Consider reading or researching Duke’s past selected texts to gain a better understanding of how you can share your own experiences.
The following have been Duke’s selected texts:
- “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel
- “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
- “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” by Richard Blanco
As an exercise for brainstorming, try sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and writing detailed, specific answers to these following questions:
- What is definitive about my background? Family? Community? Friends?
- What life experiences have been important in my development?
- What do I care about? What do I want to change about 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. You can also talk to friends and family who, in some capacities, might know you better than you know yourself.
Here are a few strategies to execute and write this 250-word essay:
- Write What You Know – Contrary to what many may tell you about being “unique” for admissions, you shouldn’t try hard to come across as such. Just be yourself and write candidly about your upbringing and background, and by doing so, your voice will come across as more real, which is ultimately what Duke wants to gain a better sense of. For example, you could write about how technically half of your family is Filipino, but at reunions, you don’t actually like the authentic food or resonate with the traditions because you grew up in a predominantly multi-cultural community. After opening the essay like this, you could go a step further about how you have adopted some traditions from your family, but you have also formed completely new ones with your friends.
- Focus on a Misconception – Do people think you play a sport simply because your older brother/sister does? You could discuss how your upbringing introduced you to a sport or hobby but expand upon how the activity has actually taken on a different meaning over time. For example, as a track runner, you could write about how, on the surface, you enjoy winning races and team competitions, but your favorite part of the experience is actually the bus ride home when you’re sore, tired, but in the company of all your friends. Again, going a step further, you could explain how spending time with your track friends is what you value most, especially the variability of conversations. Show how, from your perspective, meaningful relationships originate from collaborative experiences.
- Analyze Your Journey – You can explain how your perspectives in life have changed along with your journey, growing up, physically moving locations, or traveling. You can break the 250 words into sections in which you write about a certain step in life and how it shaped your perspective. For instance, if you grew up in India, you could discuss how the hustle and bustle of city life outside your window represented people’s ambition to attain their goals. But once you moved to the United States, you could discuss how that perspective motivated you to pursue your own interests in a particularly driven manner.
Prompt #3: Pratt School of Engineering
If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as a first-year applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words)
This is a combination of traditional “Why this Major?” and “Why X School?” prompts. Note that 150 words is not a lot of space, so you will need to be both articulate and comprehensive in your approach. For this reason, you must be very careful to avoid sweeping generalizations. Generalized sentences like “studying engineering will allow me to be creative, collaborate on real inventions, and impact the world” may seem okay upon first inspection; but to be quite frank, almost every single Pratt applicant will be saying something along these lines, so don’t fall into that trap.
What Duke, and the Pratt School of Engineering, really wants to understand is your motivations, inventive personality, and interest in problem-solving. The best way to deliver this message isn’t to tell them that you’re a problem-solver but to prove it.
Here are a few strategies that can help you write this essay:
- Analyze a Problem-Solving Methodology – Engineers often care more about how a problem is solved more than the end result. Emphasize that you enjoy the process of grinding through a problem. If you’re into coding, demonstrate to admissions how you go about organizing segments of your script. Answer why you prefer to use FOR or WHILE loops in certain situations. Explain how you go about troubleshooting when a problem arises. Be specific in explaining why you perform certain steps before others. Using this approach to writing this essay, by default, conveys your diligence and attention to detail, which are valuable traits admissions looks for in engineers.
- Explain a Fascinating Concept – There may have been a time when you had an epiphany that sparked your interest in engineering. By focusing on a singular moment, you effectively narrow the scope of the essay and simplify the process of writing (since you only have 150 words). For example, you can explain how your mind was blown when you first saw the law of energy conservation in action. Write about how, during an experiment, you realized that the energy required to push an iron nail against a magnetic force is equivalent to the cellular energy from respiration that allows you to move your hand and thus displace the nail a certain distance from its starting point.
- Include Duke Example(s) (Mandatory) – Start by checking out the Pratt website and researching opportunities. For any response to this prompt, you need to include something specific about Pratt that makes you want to study there. A great way to do this is to align one or more specific resources or opportunities that you find with a “problem-solving methodology” or “fascinating concept” previously discussed. For example, you can explain how your methodology for designing civil or mechanical blueprints can help you contribute to programs like Engineering World Health (EWH) or Duke Engineers for International Development (DEID), programs in which students are able to design high-impact projects in developing countries.
Prompt #4: Trinity School of Arts and Sciences
Arts and Sciences Only: If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences as a first-year applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words)
This prompt is slightly more general than the engineering supplement, but don’t be fooled — you still have to be very direct with only 150 words. Again, avoid sweeping generalizations and hone in on a few compelling examples about why you are not only a match for Duke but a person who will make actual contributions.
Here are strategies to consider for this prompt:
- Emphasize Personality – Duke’s student body has a distinct personality characterized by collaboration, sociability, drive, and activity. By demonstrating your unbridled excitement to spend cold nights “tenting,” scream alongside painted Blue Devil fans, support your peers at the AWAAZ dance show, or try out for Duke University Improv (DUI) even though you’re not that funny, you can show that you’ll fit right into the culture. For Duke supplements, it’s very important to demonstrate this type of excitement and desire to be a part of the culture.
- Hone in on an Interest – If you are a “specialist” at something or are particularly interested in an academic subject/major, you can elaborate in depth about why Duke’s offerings match your goals. For example, if you are interested in studying marine biology for conservation, researching at Duke’s Marine Lab during the summer can give you hands-on opportunity to conduct field work. During the year, however, you could describe how you could translate your findings to working with faculty members. Make sure to directly write about how such a plan could work and why you care about the issue at hand.
- Link Opportunities to Your Skills – Make sure to continue expressing information about yourself along with your interests in certain opportunities. If you simply rattle off a list of things you want to get involved with at Duke, admissions won’t learn anything about you as a person. Try to touch on aspects of your character that have not been addressed in other supplements. For example, if you wrote your Common App essay about playing a sport and your perspective supplement about growing up in New York City, then consider using this supplement to expand upon your commitment to debate. Express how you would like to learn from top debaters on Duke’s Mock Trial team, as well as how you could contribute tactics you’ve learned from your state competition run in high school.
If you would like more inspiration for ideas or opportunities at Duke, we recommend that you check out this list of resources. The following are excellent clubs, programs, and projects at Duke that can be used as examples throughout your all of your essays:
As you work on your Duke supplement essays, remember to consider how they work in tandem to reflect your identity. Read through the essays and ask yourself if they convey what you want them to about yourself. Be your own skeptic. If you get stuck, we at CollegeVine recommend that you review the previously mentioned strategies and examples in this guide in order to reaffirm what Duke is looking for.
Be creative, expressive, confident, and authentic! Don’t be afraid to challenge perceptions and explain your ideas.
Best of luck and happy writing!
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