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How to Write the “Why Duke” Essay (and the rest of the Duke Supplements) for 2020-21


Although all applicants to Duke University must write a “Why Duke” essay matching their specific program, Duke also includes two “optional” prompts, asking about your background, community and sexual orientation or identity. We highly recommend writing at least the first of these optional Duke supplements, as it’s a great opportunity to showcase what makes you stand out, and what you have to offer the Duke campus.


Why Duke?

First, let’s look at the required “Why Duke” essay. Essentially, this is asking: who are you, and why do you belong at Duke?


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 word max)


Step 1: Define your interests and goals in 1-2 sentences. If you are in engineering, include some brief background information about your reasons for studying engineering. If you are applying to Arts & Sciences, you might not yet have such a single focus, but approximate and pick something you love. Either way, be as specific as possible in order to make your response more surprising and memorable to readers.

Step 2: Do plenty of research on what Duke offers so that you can discuss 2-3 specific Duke resources (classes, programs, clubs, faculty) that connect with your passions and academic interests. 

For example, an engineering student might begin with:

  • “I started building robots out of LEGOS when I was six; seeing Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand in The Empire Strikes Back spurred my interest in using robotics to help people with missing limbs.”

Then, they might go on to discuss the following specific opportunities at Duke:

  • Signal Processing, Communications, and Control Systems concentration and Robotics certificate program
  • Duke Robotics Club


The same approach works well for an Arts and Sciences student.

  • Self-defining sentence: “As a budding mycologist, I love foraging for edible mushrooms and hope to become a forest ecologist.”
    • Opportunity: Conduct research in Duke Forest
    • Opportunity: Study with mycologist and biology professor Rytas Vilgalys


Background Essays

Now let’s examine the “optional” background essays:

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 max)


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 maximum)


Last year, these two questions were asked in one prompt. (Here's how Prompt suggested you answer then.) 

Here's our updated advice for each of these prompts:

  • Diversity/community question: You should answer this. You have so much to contribute to campus. Share it for the Admissions officers now! Try brainstorming about experiences that have made you the person you are today. Whether you discuss a community, or your background, pick one or two meaningful moments or realizations that no one else but you could write about in quite the same way. Then, devote a couple of sentences to exploring how your unique experiences, cultural knowledge, or perspective will enrich the Duke community.
  • Sexual orientation question: We suggest that you only answer this if you feel you have something compelling and important to share on this exact topic. If you do, look at the directions directly above — they apply equally to this question. Feel free just to skip the first optional prompt and only write about your sexuality and identity if that feels right. 


Click here for our guide to writing the Common App Essay

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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