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MAR 13, 2020 • 7 min read
Located in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University is ranked 26th in the world according to QS World University Rankings.
One of Duke’s most renowned aspects of their application is the (in)famous optional essays with ‘Why Duke’ essay prompts. In 2018, more than 37,000 students applied for Duke University, so understanding how to ace Duke's essay is crucial to standing out on your application.
[same] 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)
[same] 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 or fewer)
[same] 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 or fewer)
Despite its lengthy appearance, this Duke optional essay prompt is merely attempting to provide an opportunity to convey your personal uniqueness, your personal qualities that aren't entirely captured elsewhere in your application. Application readers are aware that despite many shared experiences, everyone is different. It's each person's unique circumstances, upbringing, personality, education, and more that shape them into the person they are, and it's impossible to capture all of these aspects in one application template. Word limits certainly don't help either. So how should you go about tackling this essay?
Start by identifying what Duke wants. Luckily, it's not hard to find: "Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience." Thus, in writing your essay, you should make a compelling case for your talent, engagement, and uniqueness. That said, it's simply short-sighted to assume this essay is another opportunity to brag. You'll need to tie your accomplishment to your engagement with a community. After all, Duke would like these talents to be shared amongst the students. Regarding uniqueness, you ideally don't need to convince the reader that your situation is unique – the combination of your accomplishment, community, and personal context should be all the evidence necessary.
Now, with an understanding of what Duke is looking for, you are finally ready to put pen to paper—time to brainstorm. I highly recommend thinking first and foremost about life experiences that are most meaningful, not what is most impressive. Again, this essay exists to help convey your personality to an application reader. If you choose a topic you're not passionate about, it will undoubtedly show. The most reliable way to identify ideal topics is reflection. Simply ask yourself, "Why am I who I am?" "What is important to me, and why?" Indeed, you'll be able to identify some fundamental forces that have shaped you into your present self. With these options in mind, recall what Duke is looking for: talented, engaged, and unique. Choose a topic that demonstrates one of your talents. It doesn't need to be as academic as competition math or debate; it can also be an often overlooked ordinary skill like conflict resolution. Then, demonstrate how you engage with one of your important communities via this talent. You'll want to clearly indicate that you're able to use your talent to embellish the lives of those around you. If you've taken the time to choose a talent and community meaningful to you and integral to your personal development, the uniqueness of your situation will likely already be evident. However, if you're afraid your situation sounds too typical, you can make it more unique by adding more personal elements. Were there any risks involved in the development of your talent? Were there any obstacles to connecting with the community? What's the history of your relationship with this community?
Lastly, remind Duke more directly that both you and Duke will benefit from your engagement in their community. Take a couple sentences to indicate your excitement to continue developing your talent and improving your ability to engage with the community through it. Reassure Duke that you look forward to learning from other students similarly passionate about sharing their talents with others.
It's no secret that both of these prompts boil down to "Why Duke?", and just like every other "Why [insert school]" prompt, there are three vital components to writing this essay.
Before looking at the school's qualities, you'll first want to identify your strongest passions – experiences, hobbies, interests, academic pursuits, anything you consider relevant to you and integral to your development into the person you are today. Then, you'll need to learn about the school and identify an aspect, a program, professor, research, community, etc., that is unique to that school and relates to one of your passions. Lastly, you'll need to clearly draw the connection between the two and convince the reader that attending the school will contribute to the growth of both you and the school.
When it comes to identifying one's passions, I suggest starting with reflection. Why am I who I am? What led to me being this person? What is important to me, and why? If having difficulty with this, it's always helpful to ask someone who knows you well what they think is important to you. You may realize something was far more important than you'd ever noticed, or you may realize that something currently appears more important than you want it to be. Either way, I suggest starting with reflection and then consulting other people. It's also important to choose a passion you can support with evidence, essentially an activity, event, etc. you can point to and claim "I did this, which clearly demonstrates the degree of passion I have for [insert passion]." While there's nothing wrong with conjecturing about a potential new passion, it's simply less convincing to the school that you'll actually be able to realize your ideas.
Next comes researching the school, and the most obvious resource is Duke's website. On Duke's website, you'll be able to find plenty of information about majors, academic programs, social life, clubs, and more. Prior to picking a topic to tie to your passion, however, you'll want to understand Duke's values. Under the "Educational Philosophy" tab, you'll find that Duke indicates "Self-defined Academic Pursuits," "Interdisciplinary Education," "Civic and Global Engagement," and "Undergraduate Research" as key principles of its educational philosophy. Thus, it probably isn't surprising that you'll want to choose an aspect of Duke that you can clearly correlate to one of these core components of its educational philosophy.
Lastly, it's essential to tie your passion to the chosen activity and demonstrate how both components, your passion and the aspect of Duke, will grow as a result of your attending the university. When doing so, be concrete. It's okay to make claims regarding goals and general changes, but be sure to include concrete changes you'd make. What events would you like to run? Which competition would you want to compete in? Which types of students would you want to connect with? Duke wants to accept students who are excitedly hoping for the opportunity to effect the change they've already thought about and committed to.