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October 10, 2019

Duke University Optional Essays

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 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 maximum)

Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes gender identity and sexual orientation. If you would like to share with us more about either, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here.

Most applicants are gonna approach this one incorrectly. How? They’re gonna focus on the SURFACE-Y thing, and not the UNDERNEATH thing. It’s all about the stuff you CAN’T see, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

What do we mean by “SURFACE-Y” things? Well, it’s the labels. Stuff that can be used to classify, segment, identify. Race is an example. I’m a “Caucasian American” or “African-American” or “Latino” or whatever. Religion is another obvious example. I’m “Greek Orthodox” or “Jewish” or “Muslim” or whatever. Sexual orientation, geographic origin or Nationality, lots and lots of ways people can define themselves. Guess what? (And this is gonna sound weird) … those labels aren’t what’s important. Yah, that’s right. None of that – BY ITSELF – should mean ANYTHING.

The REAL key here is the celebration of a diversity in PERSPECTIVES and EXPERIENCES. Consider a room with 100 people. Handful of Asians, handful of African Americans, handful of people from the south, north, east, west, handful of LGBTQ, handful of rich, handful of poor, you get the idea. Seemingly (seemingly) diverse bunch of people right? Now, what if they all agreed… on everything? Imagine that, on the topic of gun control, for example, 100 people agreed on the exact same stuff, 100% of the time. On the topic of affirmative action, imagine they all did a blind test and arrived at the EXACT same positions on the issue. Imagine that this occurred time and again on every topic. Is this diversity?  Some might argue yes. We would not.

Now imagine a room with 100 LGBTQ. Or 100 African Americans. Or 100 Caucasian Atheists. Imagine that on these same issues, there was a WIDE VARIETY of perspectives and opinions and angles? For each and every topic, very little obvious consensus on anything. Or, perhaps there’s a general consensus, but the consensus is the aggregate of many unique perspectives. Is that not diversity because everyone looks the same? Or is it an even BETTER VERSION of diversity because of the diversity in perspectives?

These are two exaggerated (and unrealistic) examples to illustrate a point: In reality, the best way to achieve the RESULTS from “Room #2” above is to INCLUDE the people in “Room #1”, who are LIKELY TO HAVE EXPERIENCED life in different ways… such that… their perspectives can’t all be the exact same. Now, a good shorthand for this MIGHT BE to use those “identifiers” for efficiency sake. Hey listen, if we grab some from this group, and some from that group, and some from that other group, we are MORE LIKELY to achieve this MIX of perspectives, than if were to select from just one group.

The point here is that, while you may have no control over your demographic background/labels, the PERSPECTIVE that you bring is the thing that makes you “diverse” – and you have 100% control over that. Now, if that “label” aspect is INEXTRICABLY LINKED TO the development OF that perspective, then it becomes vital to an essay like this. But, it’s possible that as a member of the LGBTQ community, the thing that gave birth to your unique perspective was NOT your sexual orientation, BUT, the fact that you lost your parents tragically and were forced to raise your siblings by yourself starting at age 11. See how that works? Or, just because you’re Jewish or Muslim or an Atheist, doesn’t mean that that is THE ONLY THING that informs your world view (right?).

The key thing to identify FIRST is ––– what’s your unique perspective? Where does YOUR lens on things diverge from the typical applicant’s? Once you’ve identified perhaps a few of these things which start to round out to paint a picture of “how you process things in life” … NOW you can start to get into HOW THIS EVOLVED.

It’s possible that being gay, or the child of bi-racial parents, or whatever IS THE LEAD ACTOR in your story, the main driver of why your perspectives are what they are. But it’s also possible that it is only PARTIALLY responsible, or not at all. The coolest responses here (in our experience) demonstrate a clear, thoughtful engagement with what it means to have a unique perspective on things, and the ability to accurately trace where that might come from.

It’s too easy to pin on those labels. And often it doesn’t make for as good of a story.

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October 10, 2019


If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words maximum)

When a high school student announces a potential major (career path, even), it is often the case that “things will change once college starts.” In fact, it’s generally assumed. Kinda like “Hey six-year-old, cool that you wanna be an astronaut, but I won’t hold it against you if somehow, things should go a different way.” The one exception to this might be the kid who knows he’s gonna pursue engineering. Why? Because you kinda can’t decide to pursue this one late in the game. Engineering is such that if you’ve wandered this way and that for two years into a wide variety of liberal arts courses, you will find it difficult if not impossible to decide at THAT stage to begin a focus in engineering. Why? Because the requirements are so… many, that you need to focus from the very beginning. Day 1, pile it on, let’s go. And you need to stay on that train all the way through.

So, the question then becomes… how could you possibly be so sure of this at such an early age?

  • Scenario 1 – The typical (real) reason is that your parents have given you no other choice. If this feels like you, you may not wanna hide from it. You may wanna declare it outright that this is exactly how it STARTED. But, you’ll wanna prove that somehow along the way, you flirted with the idea of other things, or hated it initially and now love it–something, anything, to suggest that now this passion is YOUR OWN.
  • Scenario 2 – Or, it’s the opposite. Your parents had zero influence, and you came to this realization on your own. That’s easier. Simply, walk us through it.

(If you’re a transfer student, you might have a cool “Hey I started here, but whoa Nelly have I had a change in heart, and engineering is now what I wanna do, and boy is Duke’s version of this the ONLY thing that attracts me for XY and Z reasons.” A turn like that can make for a great story.)

In either case, the most helpful way to FRAME an interest in Engineering is to project into the future a bit, and sell us a vision you have for yourself, either accomplishing something very specific (building electric self-driving flying cars!), OR, being involved in a very specific PROCESS that might not have a narrowly defined outcome. Either way, describe what aspects motivate you, and why. Then, you can link it back to why ENGINEERING feels like the smartest and best way for you to engage with that goal. (A neat twist is to engage with the idea that there might be OTHER avenues to pursue that could tickle that itch, whether through entrepreneurship, or some other way, but that ENGINEERING is something you connect with more. Explain why.)

Now, the harder part. You can study engineering just about anywhere. What is it about Duke’s program (or Duke itself) that you feel will bring out a BETTER VERSION of you as an engineer? Or will lead to an improved likelihood of your future success, given the specific goals you’ve identified? Assume you’re gonna be able to succeed anywhere, at any school’s engineering program, some way, somehow. (We hope that’s true.) Now, imagine the version that passes through DUKE’S program in particular. What does this version have that others don’t? Or what aspects connect better with specific aspects of your learning style, or skills, or future plans? If your reasoning can be applied to a different program at a different school, you haven’t dug deep enough. This is hard, folks. You need to have researched Duke closely to be able to answer this credibly.


If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words maximum)

This used to be a fairly standard question in supplements, but less so in recent years – adcoms get bored too! So, the “why are you attracted to ME” question. It seems like two questions (why is Duke a good match, and also, what about Duke attracts you), but really it’s one question: Why will the combo of YOU + DUKE be better than the combo of YOU + ANYWHERE ELSE? That’s it.

Here’s a cool trick. Imagine you get accepted to Stanford, and Harvard, and Yale, and Princeton, and Duke. Try to come up with reasons why you might REJECT all those admits, in favor of Duke. What would be your reasoning for saying no to schools that are not only in Duke’s peer group, but arguably higher up on the totem pole? This approach forces you to assume SOME version of success through those other programs. But, is there a chance that the version that passes through Duke has something positive that the others don’t? Something unique to Duke that connects with YOU in particular? Why might the combo of You + Duke lead to sparks that no other combo could produce? In order to make this argument, you need to find examples of things that can’t be applied equally to another program. Imagine saying “I choose Duke because there I’ll be able to take college courses!” Um, awesome? Except, you can do that anywhere and that’s therefore not a compelling reason, right?

Think about “matches,” not the pyro kind, the connection-between-two-things kind. Usually, a good match is mutually beneficial. Owning a bird is GREAT for the owner, great match! But… awful for the bird, who now lives in a cage? You wouldn’t necessarily call this a great match. If both needed EACH OTHER, however, and both provided the things needed BY each other, now we’re getting somewhere…

What is it you think Duke needs? What seems to be characteristic of their students? What direction does the school seem to be going in? What do they seem to be all about? And why, therefore, do you feel like you would be able to build on aspects of that in a way that’s beneficial to Duke? Are you prepared to ARGUE this convincingly? You’ll need specificity.

Now flip it. What is it that YOU NEED from a school? Lay this out in a general sense. Here’s what I’m looking for in an IDEAL PROGRAM. Now explain WHY you’re looking for those things. What’s gonna happen when you GET all that? What’s the “chemical reaction”? What results from it? Cool, sold.

Now connect the two, and explain how you both benefit, making it a good match. This is not easy folks. Most applicants (undergrad, MBA, you name it) get this wrong on the first attempt. In 150 words, you don’t have too much room, so you’ll need to cut to the chase VERY quickly. Here’s one way to approach it:

  1. What is it you need from a school? Explain WHY these things will help you flourish. Prove it. Sell us. [50-75 words]
  2. Explain how Duke fulfills this better than anyone. Specific things about Duke that either no other school has, or are better versions than another program’s. Connect each thing to something specific about you (and how will flourish, precisely). [50-75 words]
  3. Finally, take a crack at what you believe Duke is looking for, what will benefit DUKE the most, and make a case for why YOU (better than others, or in a way no one else can fulfill) are the ideal guy. [A few sentences only.] [25-50 words]

You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Duke’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Duke’s undergraduate application process here.

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