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How to Write the Duke University Essays 2022-2023

Duke University has one required essay and one optional essay that allows you to choose between multiple prompts. Since Duke is such a selective school, writing strong essays is essential to standing out as an applicant. Not sure where to start? Here’s our expert advice for all of Duke’s prompts.

 

Read this Duke University essay example to inspire your own writing.

 

Duke University Supplemental Essay Prompts

Prompt 1 (required): What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well. (250 words).

 

Prompt 2 (optional): We want to emphasize that the following questions are optional. Feel free to answer them if you believe that doing so will add something meaningful that is not already shared elsewhere in your application. Four optional questions are available – a maximum of 2 can be selected. Please select 0 – 2 optional essay topics. (0-250 words).

 

  • Option 1: We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself.

 

  • Option 2: We believe there is benefit in sharing and sometimes questioning our beliefs or values; who do you agree with on the big important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about?

 

  • Option 3: What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?

 

  • Option 4: Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. If you’d like to share with us more about your identity in this context, feel free to do so here.

 

Prompt 1 (Required)

What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well. (250 words).

In other words, this is a standard “Why This College” essay, and gives you a chance to share your knowledge of what Duke is all about and how Duke would suit your academic and extracurricular interests. The most important part of any “Why This College” essay is to avoid sweeping generalizations like “I love the architecture.” 

 

A good rule of thumb is that, if in your essay, you can interchange the school name with any other, you need to dig deeper. For example, don’t simply state that you like Duke’s athletics, as countless schools have great athletic programs.

 

In order to write a standout response, you’ll need to thoroughly think about what your college goals are and then research how Duke can help you achieve those goals. Here are some questions you may ask yourself to get started:

 

  • What about my department at Duke is unique? Are there any classes that interest me specifically? Why?
  • Are there any student organizations that I want to be involved with?
  • What Duke-specific student programs exist that I may want to consider?
  • What can I do at Duke that not everyone else can? Basically, what do I bring to the table?

 

Remember that college isn’t only about academics, so you should try to incorporate some extracurricular elements as well. We recommend that around 75% of your essay be focused on academics, and the remaining 25% on extracurriculars.

 

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 all of your essays:

 

  1. On-Campus Organizations
  2. DukeEngage
  3. BassConnections
  4. Duke Engineers for International Development
  5. FOCUS
  6. Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  7. Dance Program
  8. The Duke Chronicle
  9. Duke Arts
  10. Smart Home Project
  11. Duke Immerse

 

You don’t want to list a handful of resources just to throw them into your response. Instead, pick 2-4 to focus on and explain why these resources would help you achieve your goals. 

 

For example, maybe you’re a student interested in Computer Science and Entrepreneurship and have a goal to help make social media healthier for the general public. You could write about Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, specifically the Open Design Studio that offers courses that cross-sector human cognition with machine learning, specifically placing emphasis on the ethos of design.

 

Or, maybe you’re a student interested in Philosophy and Global Policy since you want to become an international lawyer focused on human rights. You might mention the Ethics, Leadership & Global Citizenship cluster in your essay, as the Human Rights & World Politics course would help you understand how to best advocate for your future clients.

 

While these questions and resources are a good starting point, your primary goal with this prompt is to convince the admissions reader that Duke is your number one choice. If an admissions counselor feels that you are disinterested or disingenuous, your application will have a much harder time being accepted. However, if you can show your knowledge and genuine interest in Duke, it can really push your essay to the next level.

 

Prompt 2 (Optional)

“We want to emphasize that the following questions are optional. Feel free to answer them if you believe that doing so will add something meaningful that is not already shared elsewhere in your application. Four optional questions are available – a maximum of 2 can be selected. Please select 0 – 2 optional essay topics. ” (250 words)

Before getting started with the optional prompts, be sure to carefully read the instructions. You can respond to none of these, one prompt, or a maximum of two prompts.

 

While it may be tempting to only complete the one required essay, we always recommend completing all the prompts available to you, as it only gives you another chance to make a lasting impression on your application. It also shows admissions counselors that you are truly invested in Duke, and may even be the deciding factor of your application.

 

Since these prompts are optional though, you want to take special care to not repeat anything in your application, especially since Duke said so themselves. For example, if you already talked about Model UN in your Common App essay, there’s no need to write another essay about it. If only one of the optional prompts speaks to you, that’s fine as well. 

 

Prompt 2, Option A (optional)

We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself. (250 words)

If you feel as though you have a part of yourself that you were unable to express anywhere else in your application, this is a great prompt for you to choose. Whether that’s part of your identity, religion, community, family, beliefs, or something else entirely, this is a great chance for the admissions counselor to get to know the real you. Remember that diversity covers a broad spectrum of identities and experiences, whether they be related to:

 

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Ethnicity and culture
  • Health and disability
  • Interests, hobbies, and talents
  • Perspectives, values, and opinions
  • Experiences
  • Personality traits

 

We recommend that you check out our post on the Diversity Essay for more tips!

 

Regardless of how you choose to present your diverse identity, the main goal here is to show the admissions reader how you may fit into the Duke campus community. This will also require you to do a bit of research into the kind of community that calls Duke home. 

 

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.

 

As such, you should think about your identity in the context of Duke’s community, and once again work to show why you would be a good fit. Think about what would be the one thing you would want a Duke admissions counselor to know about you above all else. Whether that be a personal anecdote, personality trait, life goal, or a community you belong to already, represent yourself how you wish to one day be represented at Duke.

 

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 it’s impacted you, and how you will carry it with you into the campus community and beyond.

 

Remember, sometimes the simpler the answer is the better. Don’t feel the need to concoct an elaborate story or pitch that will convince an admissions reader to grant you admission, simply speak openly, genuinely, and honestly. 

 

Your essay topic can be as simple as having a nightly family dinner or tradition. Using that example, maybe you’re vegetarian and decided to start cooking for your family once per week to show them the value of meatless meals, both for the environment and in the taste itself. This opened their minds to plant-based meals, even though you hadn’t been able to persuade them to consider veggie meals in previous (heated) conversations. This experience taught you that sometimes it’s better to inspire change in a more hands-on or experiential way rather than using logic or arguments. 

 

You want the admissions representative to feel as though they’re reading something that reveals a true part of yourself, and that genuineness can be more transparent than you may think.

 

Prompt 2, Option B (optional)

We believe there is benefit in sharing and sometimes questioning our beliefs or values; who do you agree with on the big important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about? (250 words)

This can be an intimidating question at first glance. Questions like these can be tricky as you never know who will be reading your application. However, read the prompt carefully and you will see that it’s not meant to stump you. In fact, you are not being asked to focus on your exact beliefs or values, rather you are being asked who you debate those beliefs and values with and how you agree or disagree. 

 

The distinction between the “what” and “who” is essential here. As a prestigious institution, Duke places a lot of value in argumentation and debate, and they do want to see that you stand by your beliefs, even with those in your life you cherish who may disagree with you. There are a few different ways to approach this question, and we’ll cover a few different angles you may look at.

 

The Political Angle: This is the riskiest angle, and also likely the most common. And those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. Going down this route will require you to detail a unique perspective or story, or it will get lost in the countless other essays about popular political topics. Keep in mind that Duke is a pretty liberal university, so you want to make sure you don’t alienate your audience with extremely contrasting views.

 

In such a politically turbulent time, there are so many different topics to write about, as so many students have experiences with political argumentation. Don’t let that discourage you if you genuinely feel as though this is the way you want to go! 

 

The most important part of any college essay is to write what feels true to you, and this prompt is no different. Particularly at a time when issues such as abortion, COVID-19, and the economy continue to be heavily contested, this can be your chance to elaborate on some of your own personal interactions with politics you may have had.

 

For example, maybe you have a family member who you feel has a contrasting viewpoint on a key issue such as those listed above. If you feel like your uncle is out of touch on the topic of women’s rights, how has that impacted your relationship and how do you engage with him? On the other hand, maybe you feel really validated by a friend similarly passionate about politics who agrees that gun rights need to be challenged in our country. You could write about how having that friend to lean on encourages you both to take action together.

 

The Relationship Angle: This is the route that you should take if you feel as though there is a person or people in your life you may constantly be at odds with, or a person or people whom you feel have shaped your perspectives. You can cover a variety of topics, big or small, but the primary focus should stay on the relationship between you and the people you are discussing your beliefs and values with. Detailing these relationships will give the admissions representative insight into how you work with others, take in varying perspectives, and even your empathy.

 

As an example, maybe your parents are immigrants and you often get frustrated as their perspectives differ from yours – you can talk about how you’ve tried to break down that barrier. Or perhaps the opposite – maybe you found a friend in your gardening club with whom you share sustainability tips and ways to advocate for the environment at your school. Think about what beliefs or values you cherish and reflect on when those have been challenged or validated.

 

The Independent/Personal Angle: This one may require some creativity, but may be best suited for people who feel as though they have a belief they truly feel is a core part of their personal identity. Whether that belief is political, moral, or even lighthearted, this angle allows you to express how you personally interact with that belief and either contest it yourself or build on it. 

 

For example, if you feel as though science holds a lot of value in your life, explain the why and how. In other words, talk about what books you’re reading, who you’re listening to, speaking with, spending time with, etc. This will give the admissions reader an impression of not only what belief you hold, but what you do with that belief and how that can contribute to the overall campus community.

 

Of course, that’s not every way to tackle this prompt. Feel free to go about it in whatever way feels the most comfortable for you. Remember, the most important part about every college essay is that you’re expressing your authentic self. The admissions reader doesn’t want to see you argue your beliefs to them, rather they want to see that you’re a critical thinker who can create your opinions and defend them, while still being open to change your mind.

 

Prompt 2, Option C (optional)

What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good? (250 words)

One of the things that you may be worried about when applying to colleges is how your transcript will stack up against other applicants who may go to schools with different course loads and opportunities. 

 

Other schools may offer more AP-level courses or have formats entirely different to yours like IB, which means you may be up against students who take more “upper-level” courses than you by default. However, admissions representatives will understand that not only is each school different, but each student is different. And this prompt is just another chance to showcase that.

 

No matter how you may look back on your high school experience, everyone will have something that made it a little better. Whether that’s:

 

  • a teacher who helped you through a troublesome exam
  • an educational field trip that aided your hands-on learning
  • a class or subject that you looked forward to every day
  • an elective that gave you the ability to explore your passion
  • friends you were able to build into a study group

 

Think back over the past two years and pick that one thing that keeps popping into your mind when you try to remember your favorite parts about high school academics. 

 

Remember that this is a time where you can let your personality shine through, and even a sense of humor if you can get creative enough. If your best academic experience is one that includes failure (such as a science experiment gone wrong), that’s a great lane to showcase some of that! Just also remember to describe how you overcame that failure and what you learned in the long run. 

 

One thing to avoid, however, is to tell the story of how you were struggling in a class, worked hard, and then got a better grade. This is a cliche topic, and you’ve probably already demonstrated elsewhere in your application that you’re capable of working hard. Remember, it’s not just about the grade, it’s about what you personally take away from the class. And that goes for high school and for college.

 

Just remember that they’re looking for you to write about an academic experience, not an extracurricular or personal one. While your best memories from high school may be from one of the latter, make sure you’re writing about something that you were able to grow from in or around the classroom.

 

Prompt 2, Option D (optional)

Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. If you’d like to share with us more about your identity in this context, feel free to do so here. (250 words)

This prompt is a great opportunity to share a part of your identity that you otherwise may not have the chance to in a college application, and it will ultimately be your call on how much you’re comfortable sharing or if you want to share at all. By including this question, Duke University is showcasing their commitment to making sure all identities are welcomed and celebrated, so if you identify as LGBTQIA+ this may be a prompt to consider answering. But of course, do not feel obligated to choose this question even if it may be a large part of your identity. As mentioned earlier, it’s entirely up to you!

 

In a similar fashion, how you choose to respond to this question largely depends on your perspective and your stories. It will definitely be a far more personal and introspective prompt than any of the others, which may be unnerving for some. The prompt is very open-ended, which leaves room for you to share anything you choose. You could write about how you came to understand or define your identity, how your identity has impacted or influenced your life thus far, how you envision your identity in relation to a college, and so on and so forth.

 

There are so many avenues to explore, and everyone may be at a different point in their own journey, so don’t feel like you need to express anything you may not yet be comfortable discussing. If you feel like you’re still exploring your identity, feel free to write about that too. You may feel overwhelmed or confused and may feel like you’re not ready to make conclusions about your sexual orientation or gender identity. Reflecting on this process can also lead to a strong response that can showcase your growth, empathy, and understanding of yourself and the world around you.

 

Remember this is simply meant to be a safe space for you to share more about yourself and paint a picture for the admissions reader, and you shouldn’t feel pressured in any way. Think of it as the last question on an information form asking if there’s anything else you wish to share about yourself. In the end, it’s all up to you, and your well-being is most important!

 

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, 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. 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.

 

Where to Get Your Duke Essays Edited

 

Do you want feedback on your Duke essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

 


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