Duke University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 10 min read
Photo courtesy of Duke University

In this Duke University Essay Guide, Bullseye advisors Anya (Duke ‘17) and Gagan (Duke ‘13) will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Duke supplementary essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


Applying to Duke University

Established in 1838, Duke University is one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning in both the United States and the world. A private university located within the heart of the Research Triangle Park in Durham, North Carolina, the schools boasts a student body of approximately 7000 undergraduate students and an overall acceptance rate of 7.6% (6% for regular decisions and 21% for early decision).

The undergraduate experience is split across two schools: ‎Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and ‎Pratt School of Engineering. The University also has ten graduate and professional schools, many of which allow undergraduates to either take classes, engage in the community, and conduct research.

If you’ve decided to apply to Duke, you know that it’s a powerhouse research university best known for its decorated men’s basketball team. However, there are two aspects of the university’s culture that are essential to consider when approaching Duke’s supplemental essays:

First, Duke values the concept of “knowledge in the service of society.” Accordingly, admissions officers gravitate towards applicants that demonstrate that they will contribute to the campus community and use their education for real world impact.

Additionally, the university values self-awareness, opting for students who understand how the multifaceted aspects of their experience have informed their personality, values, and aspirations. This essay guide provides aspiring Blue Devils the tips and guidance needed to integrate these two themes and craft the best, most nuanced personal statements.

Essay Questions

Photo courtesy of Duke University

As part of the Duke admissions process, you are asked to complete a series of short and long essay prompts. When applying via either the Common Application or the Coalition Application, you must answer either of the essay prompts noted in the respective application systems. In addition to this long essay, Duke has one required supplemental essay and two optional essays, the prompts of which are discussed below.

Prompt 1 (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 attract you?  (200 words)

Anya: This is a classic “Why X School?” prompt, and the admissions committee has done you a favor by signaling how to structure your essay. In the first sentence, the prompt asks you to share why Duke is a good “match” for you. That word choice is intentional, suggesting that you need to speak to how attending Duke will provide a springboard to achieve your aspirations.

The best responses to this prompt will establish your goals early and argue that Duke’s academic, extracurricular, and cultural offerings will help you explore a topic of interest, positioning you to make real world impact. For example, you might start your response by noting that you aspire to get PhD in neuroscience to explore myelin development in neurons, contributing to a new body of work developing medical interventions for multiple sclerosis.

The best goal statements are specific. Rather than stating a passion for “environmental science,” hone in on a narrow interest, like “developing affordable technology to reduce farm level food waste in developing economies.” Also, aim for one that’s unique — try to pinpoint an interest that no one else in the application pool will discuss.

Next, you want assert that Duke’s resources will position you to achieve this ambition and provide ample evidence to support your claim. For example, when I applied to Duke, I expressed an interest in exploring how social conditioning shapes gender norms. I cited that Duke’s “Program II” would allow me to create my own major synthesizing coursework from the neuroscience, psychology, and gender studies departments. Additionally, I noted an interest in conducting research with Dr. Sarah Gaither, whose work explores how identity markers impact social behavior.

I recommend including 4 - 6 specific examples across academics, extracurriculars, special programs, and unique aspects of Duke’s culture to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. Style wise, craft your sentences to highlight the unique value of Duke’s offerings. You never want to say something like “Duke has an excellent economics department,” as you could say that same about any of its peer schools. Instead, pinpoint the specific courses, programs, and resources that align with your goals.

Two hundred words isn’t a lot, but if you use tight prose, you can also provide the admissions committee insight on how you can contribute to the Duke community. Let’s say that your goal statement showcases your passion for multimedia storytelling to reduce stigma on mental illness. You might highlight your enthusiasm to discuss historical portrayals of bipolar disorder in the class “Medical Stories on Stage,” and note that you can add value to discussions by sharing about your experience starring in a production of the musical Next to Normal in high school.

Gagan: Duke places great emphasis on fit, and this essay aims to (1) ensure that you have done your due diligence and researched what Duke has to offer, and (2) get an understanding of how you will engage with what the school offers. This is not an essay for broad brush strokes, but rather one where specificity will set you apart. An understanding of Duke’s niche offerings is essential. Don’t make generalized comments about “xyz” major or broadly mention sports or service. Instead, show in detail how each offering is unique to Duke.

The university has two “sub-colleges” for undergraduate studies — Trinity and Pratt —so show off your knowledge of whichever school you’re applying to. Strong examples include mentions of specific professors, research labs, or opportunities (ex. Bass Connections) that you would both take advantage of at Duke and, more importantly, how this opportunity is essential to your learning and career aspirations. Although there a million and one topics you can choose from, refrain from the heavily used ones such as sports/Duke basketball, fraternity/sorority life, or even Duke Engage, unless you can make a specific and unique argument.

Remember, you only have 200 words for this, so there is no way to list off all the things that make Duke awesome. Be concise and direct with what you love about the university and how no other university is the perfect match for you.

Prompt 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 words)

Anya: The purpose of this prompt is not only to discuss a formative aspect of your identity, perspective, or experience, but also to highlight how this attribute will add value to the Duke community.

“Diversity” encompasses a broad spectrum of attributes and experiences, including but not limited to:

  • Gender Identity
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Racial / ethnic identity
  • Country of origin
  • Disability
  • Family history
  • A unique hobby
  • A formative extracurricular or experience
  • A challenge you’ve overcame
  • A personality trait central to your identity

To tackle this essay, think about the life experiences that have made the largest impact on your worldview. What matters to you, and why? Then, pinpoint concrete examples highlighting how your experience has shaped your values, personality, and goals. Finally, allude to how your chosen experience will strengthen the Duke community.

The key to writing a memorable response is tracing a clear link between your unique experiences and your personality, goals and passions. For example, you might explain that working on your family’s farm every summer has helped you develop a passion for strengthening local food systems, which you hope to continue pursuing at Duke by taking on a role with the Duke Student Dining Advisory Committee. Or perhaps facing discrimination as a child of Pakistani immigrants in Sweden has attuned you to the emotional impact of identity-based bullying at school, and you see yourself working with Duke Student Government to craft a hate speech policy on campus.

I talked about how my experience dealing with a traumatic brain injury gave me a personal perspective on the relationship between brain and behavior, driving my interest in pursuing clinical neuroscience research. Ultimately, your goal is to show the reader how the unique components of your identity will inform your participation in the Duke community.

Gagan: While this essay is optional, it is worth the time and effort to show Duke how your background and perspectives are unique, and how your presence on campus would enrich the lives of those around you. The university recognizes that diversity comes in many forms, so now is your chance to show the distinct values and ideas you would bring. If you come from a marginalized group, use this essay to highlight your lived experiences and why they are essential at Duke. As with the previous essay, do not speak in generalized statements, but go in-depth on one or two core aspects of your background and highlight those.

If your background is considered to be more “typical,” focus on what makes your community, culture, or values unique. Maybe your family has certain traditions that you carry with you, or perhaps you have a set of values that you bring to all your engagements — whatever the case may be, show Duke that you are unique.

The one thing to note: this essay should cover your diversity beyond sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, as Duke has a separate essay for this (see below).

Prompt 3 (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, you can do so here, or use any previous essay prompt you feel is appropriate. (250 words)

Anya: Duke University’s admissions team added this supplemental essay after student advocates emphasized the importance of sending a clear message to LGBTQIA+ applicants that the Duke community is a place where they can be their authentic selves. If you identify as a member of the queer community, consider using this prompt as a space to discuss your experiences. If you don’t belong to the queer community, sit this one out!

To make the most impact, shy away from talking about the general political climate on LGBT+ rights, and focus on your individual story. Strong responses will avoid platitudes and highlight the intersection of your identity and other aspects of your experience. Perhaps you’re a first-generation Indian American, and a conversation with a lawyer relative taught you that the penal codes prohibiting homosexuality in India were introduced by the British, attuning you to how colonialism perpetuated discrimination in your ethnic community. Or perhaps you haven’t shared your identity with anyone yet, but draw inspiration from Vita Sackville West, a 20th Century English author who flouted the strict gender conventions of her aristocratic upbringing.

Like in any other prompt, your goal is to showcase the factors that have shaped your perspective and tell a story that no other applicant can tell.

Gagan: Similar to the essay above on diversity, this essay has a similar aim, but with a narrower focus. If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this is your chance to share about how your experiences have defined you, your perspectives, and your ambitions.

In some rare cases, you might consider answering this prompt even though your background is adequately represented. However, only answer this prompt if you can write about a real, legitimate, identity-shaping part of your experience. Avoid answering it just to showcase how open-minded you are — if you do not identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, only write this essay if sexual orientation or gender identity is deeply personal to you and a crucial part of your experience.

If this question is truly not applicable to you, this is one of the few “optional” essays that is truly optional. Regardless of where you stand and the narrative you take, as you reflect on the past, be sure to also address how each aspect of your life will influence your future ambitions.


This Duke University essay guide was written by Anya Ranganathan (Duke University ‘17) and Gagan Vaseer (Duke University ‘13). If you want to get help writing your Duke application essays from Anya, Gagan, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

essay guide essays duke university duke
College admissions insights you won't want to miss. Delivered to your inbox weekly.
Sign up for our newsletter