October 10, 2019

Duke University Optional Essays

Duke University

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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