With a 5.8% acceptance rate, getting into Duke in 2022-23 is now as daunting a challenge as gaining acceptance into just about any Ivy League school. While Duke University may immediately conjure up images of the “Cameron Crazies” decked out in devil masks and blue face paint, make no mistake—those rowdy-looking students are really as studious as they come. In fact, just about every single one of the individuals you see in those stands on television scored a 1500+ on the SAT or a 35+ on the ACT and earned a parade of A’s throughout a high school schedule overflowing with AP/IB/dual enrollment courses. This brings us to the topic of this blog – how to write the Duke supplemental essays.

(Want to learn more about How to Get Into Duke University? Visit our blog entitled: How to Get Into Duke for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.)

Given that almost 19 of every 20 applicants to Duke University are ultimately unsuccessful, you need to do everything you can to stand out amidst a sea of uber-qualified teens from around the globe. Through its one mandatory essay prompt and two optional offerings, the Duke University supplemental section still affords applicants an opportunity to highlight what makes them uniquely qualified for admission. Below are Duke’s supplemental prompts for the 2022-23 admissions cycle along with tips about how to address each one.

Required Duke Supplemental Essays – #1

1) 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 word limit)*

This is your quintessential “Why Us?” essay which comes with the typical pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. We don’t want to label these as “mistakes” (there is nothing inherently wrong with them); they just don’t add any needle-moving value, which is, of course, the only goal when you are applying to a school as selective as Duke.

Common components of a generic “Why Duke?” essay

  • Talking about the Blue Devils basketball team.
  • Fawning over the beautiful campus (it is quite beautiful, but they already know that).
  • Duke is top-ranked, prestigious, and has a great reputation. Again, they know!
  • Too many generic expressions of feeling (e.g. It has been my dream since I was five to attend Duke…).
  • Recycled statements from your other “Why Us?” essays that come across as stale, impersonal, or worst of all–irrelevant/inaccurate.

How to write a winning “Why Duke?” essay

  • Cite specific academic programs, professors, research opportunities, internship/externship programs, study abroad programs, student-run organizations, etc.
  • Make sure to address why Duke is the perfect fit for you and why you are the perfect fit for Duke.
  • Show evidence of how your past/current endeavors will carry over onto Duke’s campus.
  • What special talents and passions will you bring to Duke?
  • How will you take advantage of Duke’s immense resources both inside and outside of the classroom?

Big-picture thoughts on the “Why Duke?” essay

In any “Why Us?” composition, you need to show that you’ve done your homework on a given school, but you don’t want it to read like a rote list of items that you Googled five minutes before writing the essay (even if the timing of the Google search is roughly accurate).

In addition to the pure research element, a lot of the time and skill required in creating a stellar Duke essay will involve connecting the classes, professors, opportunities, etc. of interest that you have uncovered to your distinct values, talents, aims, proficiencies, and future goals.

Optional Essays – Select 0-2 from the following list (250 word limit each)

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.

While this one is technically “optional”, we advise every single applicant to Duke to opt-in on this essay. Remember, Duke is one of those rare schools that rejects students with near perfect (or even perfect) academic credentials. It is essential that you showcase the characteristics and skills that make you one-of-a-kind.

Take note of the wide-open nature of this prompt. You are essentially invited to talk about any of the following topics:

  1. A perspective you hold
  2. An experience you had
  3. A community you belong to
  4. Your cultural background
  5. Your family background

The admissions officer looking at your essay is hoping to connect with you through your written words, so be open, humble, thoughtful, inquisitive, emotionally honest, mature, and insightful. No matter what type of story you tell, the goal is to have the reader come away saying, “I can definitely see this applicant as a contributing member of our talented and engaged student community.”

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?

The U.S. presently finds itself in an extreme state of polarization. There seems to be little agreement even as to what constitutes “truth” or “facts”. Within this divided world, it can be hard for individuals with competing viewpoints to engage in civil and productive dialogue. Here, Duke is giving you the chance to show that you are an open-minded, intellectually curious, truth-seeking young person. Illustrate how you are willing to engage in conversations/debates with people who hold opposing positions on topics of great importance to you. One key thing to remember when addressing this prompt is that you don’t have to be the hero of the anecdote. In fact, you may be one who learned to expand their thinking.

Of course, you are also invited to share about a person you agree with. However, without any friction, this may be less interesting of the two choices.

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

Duke is narrowing the scope of this prompt down to the second half of sophomore year through present. Some things to keep in mind while brainstorming:

  • “Academic” does not have to mean classroom-based.
  • By what method did you learn? What does this say about you?
  • Feel free to highlight a great teacher you had. Why did you find them particularly engaging?
  • What was the most meaningful hands-on experience you’ve had that relates to your area of academic interest?
  • Did the experience force you to grow and stretch outside of your comfort zone? These types of stories often make for the most meaningful essays.

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.

There is absolutely no need to force an answer to this question unless you have a burning desire to do so. Of course, if you do feel that an element of your sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is an important component of who you are, this is an ideal place to discuss that part of yourself.

How important are the Duke supplemental essays?

There are eight factors that Duke University considers as “very important” in evaluating a candidate and the essays are among them. In addition to the essays, Duke gives the greatest consideration to the rigor of an applicant’s secondary school record, GPA, standardized test scores, recommendations, extracurricular activities, talent/ability, and character/personal qualities.

Want Personalized Essay Assistance?

If you are interested in working with one of College Transitions’ experienced and knowledgeable essay coaches as you craft your Duke supplemental essays, we encourage you to get a quote today.

Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans two decades. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.