Duke University Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

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Not sure how to approach the Duke essay prompts? With tips from an Ivy League graduate, CollegeAdvisor.com’s guide to the Duke supplemental essays will show you exactly how to write engaging Duke essays and maximize your chances of admission.

If you need help crafting your Duke supplemental essays, visit CollegeAdvisor.com to create your free account or schedule a free consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

Duke Supplemental Essays — Quick Facts:

  • Duke has an acceptance rate of 7.6%—U.S. News ranks Duke as a highly competitive school.
  • We recommend answering each of the Duke University Supplemental Essays thoughtfully and thoroughly to maximize your admissions odds.

Does Duke have supplemental essays?

Yes. In addition to the Personal Statement that you’ll encounter in the Common App or Coalition App, you’ll also answer school-specific Duke essay prompts.

Need some help writing your Common App essay? Check out our Common App essay guide.

How to Approach the Duke Supplemental Essays:

To start, begin thinking about your Duke supplemental essays as soon as possible! As you research colleges and write other essays, keep the Duke essay prompts at the back of your mind. The Duke supplemental essays 2021-2022 are on the Common App site, but you can also visit the main Duke site for a full list of application requirements.

Begin by outlining your Duke essays. First, take a look at the word counts for the Duke supplemental essays. Use them to dictate the structure of your response. For short Duke essays, you'll want to answer the prompt in the first sentence and then expand. For longer Duke supplemental essays, you can open with a related anecdote and add more description.

Remember your word counts

Since none of the Duke essay prompts have particularly high word counts, you'll want to make your responses as concise as possible. However, this doesn't mean you need to limit yourself as you brainstorm and draft! Try this exercise: for each Duke essay prompt, start a timer and free-write for ten minutes, paying no attention to the word count. Though you may not use all (or any!) of the content you generate, these free-writes can help you find engaging topics for your final Duke University essays.

To read more on reflection exercises and choosing a great essay topic, check out our blog article.

Once you have drafts of your Duke supplemental essays, it's time to revise your Duke supplements. Remember, given the short word counts on every Duke essay prompt, every word matters. Eliminate any filler text—every word should help admissions officers understand new information about who you are and why you should attend Duke. You might also ask trusted counselors, family members, or teachers to take a look at your Duke supplemental essays to see how they read to an outsider. This will help you write the strongest Duke University essay possible.

Keep reading for a full breakdown of each Duke essay prompt.

Should I answer the optional Duke essay prompt?

As you approach the Duke supplements, you'll notice that some are listed as optional. Ordinarily, we encourage students to answer all supplemental essays. However, the Duke essay prompts are a bit different: you don't necessarily need to answer all of them.

In general, we recommend that all students respond to the second Duke essay prompt, which asks about identity and background. The first Duke essay question, however, is a bit more complicated, as it relates directly to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Now, if your gender and sexuality are important to your identity, you should discuss them in your first Duke essay. Also, you can use this Duke University essay to discuss allyship and community care in relation to marginalized genders. However, whatever you discuss, speak from your personal experience. And, of course, you should avoid any prejudice or bigotry. We'll detail these nuances more when we discuss the first Duke essay as a whole.

Overall, every part of your college applications matter, and you should use every available space Duke gives you to tell the admissions committee who you are—but only if it's appropriate to your identity and experiences.

For most applicants, you should plan to answer at least the second and third Duke essay prompts. Be as honest, thoughtful, and authentic as you can be on each Duke University essay.

How many essays are required for Duke?

There are three school-specific Duke essays on the 2021-2022 Common App. Two of the Duke University essay prompts are listed as optional. Depending on your background, you should plan to complete at least one of the two optional Duke supplemental essays in addition to the required Duke essay.

How do I answer a Duke essay?

Above all else, your Duke essays should be honest. Duke supplemental essay prompts are designed to help admissions officers learn who you are as a person beyond your grades and test scores. Your Duke essays, therefore, should reveal what makes you unique.

Many of the Duke supplemental essay prompts focus on your identity. Your Duke supplemental essays should reflect the reality of this identity in all of its complexities. Be authentic, be yourself, and use your Duke essays to explain who you are as a person rather than just as a student.

What does Duke look for in essays?

Above all, your Duke essays should make Admissions Officers say, "I want to meet this student." They should be authentic to your identity and experiences, and they should convey how valuable you will be as a member of the Duke community. Every Duke University essay should reveal what makes you unique.

On a pragmatic level, your Duke essays should show your writing and communication skills. The best Duke essays will use powerful language, tone, and diction to tell a story that only you can tell. In your Duke supplemental essays, try to use your writing chops to accurately and engagingly represent your identity. And of course, your Duke essays should be free from any spelling or grammatical errors.

We have provided the prompts for the Duke supplemental essays 2021-2022 below. You’ll find a breakdown of how to approach each Duke University essay, as well as tips for creating an application narrative that will stand out in admissions.

Duke Supplemental Essays – Question 1 (Optional):

Duke's commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. If you would like to share with us more about your identity in these areas, you can do so here, or use any previous essay prompt you feel is appropriate. (250 word limit)

The first Duke supplement asks you to discuss sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression insofar as it relates to your background and identity. For trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQ+ students, this Duke essay can offer a chance to share an important part of yourself with your application readers.

If you are not comfortable discussing this element of your identity with the admissions committee, you do not need to complete this Duke essay. You do not need to disclose your gender or sexuality to Duke admissions, whether you're proudly out as trans or if you're only starting to question your identity. However, if your sexual orientation or gender identity forms an important part of the story you want to tell, this Duke essay is for you.

Defining “allyship”

Additionally, if you're not LGBTQ+, but have personal experience related to allyship, you might use this Duke essay to discuss how LGBTQ+ issues inform your own self-perception. This can be particularly useful if you're the child of a same-sex couple or have family or close friends who have faced marginalization due to who they are or who they love. However, you should only speak from your own experience. Do not co-opt the stories of others, and don't feel obligated to submit a half-baked response to this Duke essay just to affirm your ally status. If your response to this Duke University essay does not ultimately relate to your own background and identity, it may be best to exclude it. Just because you care about the issues in and around the LGBTQ+ community does not mean that you need to write about them in your Duke supplements.

If you choose to complete this Duke University essay, start by thinking about exactly how you want to present your identity. What language and labels do you want to use? What method of expressing yourself feels most comfortable and appropriate?

How to structure your response

With only 250 words, the Duke supplements offer you little space to expand on the nuances of your identity. Accordingly, don't feel pressured to make this Duke essay fit a narrative structure. State who you are, why it matters, and how your set of identities influence your daily life. You should also use this Duke essay to discuss how your identity will inform who you are on Duke's campus.

Finally, it's not always easy to talk about these parts of your identity! As you complete this Duke University essay, don't feel pressured to dig into parts of your life that are traumatic or overly personal. Present who you are proudly and on your own terms. Preserving your boundaries as you answer the Duke essay prompts will ease your stress as well as that of the admissions team.

Duke Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does my essay communicate my identity clearly?
  • Do I describe how my identity affects my life in concrete terms?
  • Am I comfortable with the level of openness and vulnerability that I’ve expressed?
  • Am I telling my own story?
  • Have I expressed myself on my own terms?

Duke Supplemental Essays – Question 2 (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 that would help us understand you better, perhaps a community you belong to or your family or cultural background, we encourage you to do so here. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 word limit)

Every student has a story. In the Duke essay prompts, the admissions team wants to learn yours.

This Duke University essay gives you the chance to talk about your identity and culture, whatever that might mean to you. Maybe you're a first-generation college student whose family background strongly influenced your desire to apply to college. Maybe you're an international student from Russia interested in expanding your understanding of the world by attending Duke. Whoever you are, this Duke essay is your chance to express your full self to your readers—in 250 words or less, at least.

To begin this Duke essay, consider the key parts of your identity and heritage. This can manifest in your culture, values, or experiences. This Duke University essay asks you to discuss a "perspective you bring or experiences you've had"; essentially, your readers want to know what makes you you. Moreover, they also want to see how your identity will help shape the community at Duke. A strong Duke University essay will fulfill both of these requirements.

Brainstorm

Begin brainstorming for your Duke essay by writing down 3-5 characteristics or experiences that shape you as a person. Set a timer and write for ten minutes about each of them. Which one feels most natural to write about? That's your essay.

With only 250 words on each of the optional Duke supplements, you don't have much space. Stick to one primary characteristic, experience, or value, and use it to discuss how you relate to the world around you. Be as concrete as possible, referencing specific ways in which your identity will influence your interactions with the Duke community.

Duke Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Do I communicate clearly what’s most important to me about my identity?
  • Do I tell my story authentically?
  • Have I shown how I use my unique experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds to engage with those around me?
  • Do I reference specific ways in which my identity or experience will influence my contributions to the Duke community?

Duke Supplemental Essays – Question 3 (Required):

Please share with us why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular about Duke’s academic or other offerings that attracts you? (200 word limit)

Unlike the other Duke essay prompts, this one is required for all students. This Duke essay is the classic "Why School" prompt, and you should take it seriously if you hope to gain admission.

In reading this Duke University essay, the admissions team wants to know why you belong at Duke. They also want to see that you've done your research and that, if admitted, you would be excited to attend.

This Duke essay gives you the opportunity to show off your research skills. Go to Duke's website and look around for interesting extracurriculars, exciting classes, or engaging professors. If you’ve already visited the campus, now is the time to think about highlights—conversations that you’ve had, places that you saw that made a positive impression. Think about what truly interests you about Duke, and find one to three specific things to discuss that align with your candidate profile.

Be specific!

Additionally, as you approach the last of the Duke supplements, don't be afraid to mix specific details with broader statements about Duke's offerings and campus culture. However, if you go this route, be careful not to over-generalize. For example, in your Duke supplements, you can discuss how Duke is one of the foremost research institutions in the nation, but you should also be clear about why you would like to attend Duke over a similarly prestigious school. After all, your readers don't want to hear that you're applying primarily due to prestige.

Make sure your Duke essay remains true to you. For instance, don't make up a desire to write for The Chronicle if you have no interest in journalism. Instead, discuss specific classes, clubs, and cultures that make Duke right for you based on your passions and aspirations.

Duke Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Do I know why I’m interested in Duke specifically?
  • Do I honestly and earnestly express that interest?
  • Where possible, have I talked about concrete and specific offerings Duke provides that I’m interested in?
  • Have I described how I hope to connect to Duke's community?

Additional Tips for Writing your Duke Supplemental Essays:

Check out these final tips as you approach the Duke essay prompts:

First, start your Duke supplements early: Duke has a few admissions options. Your application may be due in November or January. Begin gathering application materials early—at least 5 or 6 months in advance. You should write your first Duke essay drafts the summer before you apply.

Additionally, create an essay checklist for each Duke essay prompt. Review your initial draft against the checklist: do you answer every part of the prompt? Are your answers authentic to who you are? Do your Duke essays tell a story?

It’s always good to have a second (and sometimes third) set of eyes reading your Duke essay prompts for grammatical errors, as well as clarity and tone.

Need a little more inspiration on your Duke essay? Check out this video from a few years ago, when a Duke student asked her fellow sophomores, “Why Duke?” The answers may surprise you, and/or help you think about how to approach this Duke essay beyond the obvious answers.

Duke Supplemental Essays: Final Thoughts

Completing the Duke supplemental essays can seem daunting. However, think about the Duke essays as an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions team. A well-written set of Duke essay prompts can work in your favor.

Use this guide to help you approach each Duke application essay with a solid strategy and a timeline that gives you a few months to draft and revise each of your answers. Good luck!


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This 2021-2022 essay guide on Duke University was written by Jeremiah Fernandez, Georgetown ‘16. For more CollegeAdvisor.com resources on Duke, click here. You can also view our webinar on Duke which features a Q&A with current Duke students and alumni.

Want help crafting your Duke supplemental essays? Create your free account or schedule a free consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

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