Writing essays can be a tricky business, especially if you can’t see samples, which is why reading over some Duke supplemental essay examples will be just the ticket for your own essay writing process. This should give you a good idea of how to proceed, whether you need help with how to start a college essay, or are trying to edit and refine your first draft. Following the examples laid out below is a great way to make your college application stand out.
In this article, we cover all six possible short essays required by Duke for their supplemental section. Some of the essays are optional, but we provide examples for all of them; carefully read the prompts to find the examples relevant to your application. These are the essays that are truly unique to Duke. Then, we provide some notes on essay writing in general, and some expert college essay tips for Duke, in particular.
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Duke Supplemental Essay Examples
For all Duke applicants: “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.”
Word limit: 250 words, max.
Numbers never lie, and with Duke’s commitment to intellectual honesty, I know that I will feel at home in your institution. My interest in mathematics has been life-long, and from the time I was little and played with number-based toys, through my developing years applying math to music and music to math, I have allowed numbers to permeate my very way of life. Math is beautiful. It describes our universe and fills me with awe and wonder. It is because of this that I seek out unique experiences and understandings of mathematics, and novel approaches to the subject. Consequently, I have several reasons for wanting to study math at Duke.
The Lyceum is a concept that fascinates me. The idea of approaching the exploration of advanced mathematics through social interaction is strangely unique. I would think that more people would want this, but Duke has it. This forum would allow me to engage with my peers, my mentors, and those who have gone before and, when I am an older student, with first-year students as well – all of us learning together, from each other. What could be better than that?
Numbers don’t lie, as I said, and Duke’s high academic standard also means that my admission would truly mean something; acceptance from a discerning institution is valuable, indeed, and would provide a wonderful sense of accomplishment, while imbuing a sense of responsibility.
The Lyceum is one of my favorite concepts as a learning tool, and I itch to participate; I hope you will allow me that opportunity.
Duke emphasizes that these questions are optional for all 2023 applicants and notes the following:
“Feel free to answer them if you believe that doing so will add something meaningful that is not already shared elsewhere in your application. Four optional questions are available – a maximum of two can be selected. Please select 0–2 optional essay topics.”
Word limit: 250 words, max. per essay
Optional Essay No. 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.”
My parents got divorced, and I know that that’s the oldest story in the book at this point, but this family schism – at first traumatizing and upsetting for me and my siblings – became a very important aspect of my life and shaped my worldview into what I think is a unique perspective.
My family is biracial, with my Black mom and white dad starting a family together. Although they parted ways, both sides of my heritage have remained intact, and I feel like I get two perspectives. We live in a racially charged world, and my experiences and sympathies allow me to understand the many facets that go along with current conversations about race.
These divided perspectives are what has motivated me to study history; I hear the old saying, “History is written by the victors,” and I want to find the different forgotten branches of history. My essay, “Slipstream Archives: A Look into Past Perspectives,” won first prize in an essay competition, including a scholarship.
I believe that this success could not have come without a final puzzle piece in my family. When my mother remarried, it was to a rabbi and Talmudic scholar. This “third culture” made me interested in dialectic and challenging worldviews. My place as captain of the debate team and my essay’s multifaceted viewpoints are owed to my stepdad.
Divorce can be messy, but I have come to love my ever-branching family tree, for the love, support, and traditions it has granted me.
Check out this infographic for college essay writing tips:
Optional Essay No. 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?”
I was frustrated, and I was angry, and I was sure I was about to literally be excommunicated. My conversations with Fr. Donough could get heated, but they never resulted in an angry, critical rant, which was what I unleashed before treading out of the room.
My favorite debate partner is Fr. Donough. I came to him when I was younger, with many questions about the church. I was questioning everything, and I wanted somebody to give me answers. In a display of generosity, and faith – in me if not in the church – Fr. Donough didn’t give me answers – certainly not easy ones – but encouraged me to keep studying.
We had many talks over the years, but one instance, as I mentioned, led to my being very angry. I had heard about the church’s scandals, and I had confronted Fr. Donough about them. My anger was not with him, but with the whole gestalt of the bad situation. Nevertheless, I was frustrated by Fr. Donough’s adherence to what I perceived as an entirely corrupt organization.
Fortunately, it didn’t end there. Our next conversation was more civil, and we discussed these big issues at length. Fr. Donough encouraged me to be the change I wanted to see, and I started up a donation fund for victims, as well as a student lobby group to petition the Vatican for change. Fr. Donough supports us through it all.
I have no finer debate partner to agree and disagree with than Fr. Donough.
Optional Essay No. 3: “What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?”
Most teachers who taught me talked a big game about wanting students to engage in debate, or “dialectic” as they called it, and to challenge their ideas. In my experience, most of this was a fabrication. The best essay grades and participation marks were found through parroting what was dictated from on high. Did the teacher think such-and-such is the “correct” interpretation of a novel? You did, too, or you lost points.
None of that was true for Ms. Jackie Winters. The first essay I sent her came back with the note, “This doesn’t sound like you; it sounds like me.” I asked her about the note, and this initiated a marvelous learning environment, in which I grew faster than I ever have in any other class.
Discussions were lively, and the more I presented my authentic views, the more I was respected. My grades were dependent on being backed up by rhetoric, sources, and logic, not by compliance. Due to this engagement, this was the most enjoyable English literature class I had, and I feel like my viewpoints were challenged. I learned to question my ideas and dig into a text for the best results.
Best of all, I was putting in more and more effort to find good, quality sources to back up my arguments. I was held to a high standard and shown respect, and I believe that those qualities made for the best learning environment possible.
Optional Essay No. 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.”
I just don’t fit in, and I have gotten used to that now, but I have often felt like an outcast’s outcast, and I have sometimes wished things were different for me. At first, I thought I was gay. But I discovered the word “bisexual” and that idea resonated with me.
I was already part of the gay-straight alliance at my school, and I was involved in and organized several efforts to fundraise for anti-bullying campaigns. It took a while to come out to my family, and they had only just started to accept the label of “homosexual” when I dropped “bisexual” on them, and my world flipped again.
The problem was that, as much as I could be bullied for my sexuality, I at least had friends in the gay-straight alliance. Coming out as bisexual, however, I discovered that even in the GSA, many people aren’t sanguine about the idea of an “in-between place”; members of the LGBTQ community also reject bisexuals. This is uncomfortable, but true.
Losing support networks was a theme of my high school years, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I have learned the value of friendship and who my truest friends are, and I have campaigned and fought against bullying and made a difference at my high school. Not fitting in can be hard, but sometimes it is necessary for real, positive change, and I want to be an agent for positive change in my life and in the world.
COVID Impact Essay: “The Common and Coalition Applications* will also include a section for students to disclose if they were impacted by community disruptions such as natural disasters and COVID-19.”
The art on the wall hung without enjoyment, with nobody coming in to see it anymore. Passers-by glanced inside, but with no events and no hosting, the gallery space was empty, cold, and ineffective. It couldn’t bring together artists and appreciators, host classes, or provide a space for yoga or fundraising events. My mother’s job as curator – of art and community engagement – was gone because of the coronavirus.
Mom’s revenue was the largest part of my family’s income. We were never in danger of starving, but our budget was tighter. Mom’s gallery used to host community events and bring people together – this was not the “snobby” gallery that catered only to the rich – and our social lives and our ability to help our community were greatly diminished.
Mom tried to use online, virtual galleries but had trouble finding the right system. I helped her by taking extra computer courses in school, as well as an online marketing course, and increased web traffic and sales. I also organized online video forums to replace some community events. I got a part-time job to help with the household budget, which cut into studying hours.
This required sacrifice, discipline, and hard work, and although rewarding, it made my time during the lockdowns difficult and stressful. The re-opening of the gallery doors let fresh air into our lives in more ways than one. I’m glad we are through the worst, and I look forward to a bright future.
*The Common Application and Coalition Application are centralized systems for applying to schools. They allow students to create one application to send out to multiple schools, saving time and increasing efficiency.
Working on your Common App essay or personal statement too? Check out this video for tips:
General Essay Writing Tips and Tips for Duke’s Essays
You will be writing in a standard essay format: opening paragraph, body, conclusion. You will present a central idea, theme, or college essay topic, and work from there to deliver that idea quickly, and concisely.
Your opening paragraph should start off with a “hook” sentence that draws in the reader and makes it impossible for them to stop reading. The better the hook, the better the start, which will greatly help your readers enjoy your work. You also need to present your main focal point in the opening paragraph.
This is particularly important in Duke’s essays, as they have a 250-word limit; these essays are very short, and you don’t have a lot of space to include extra material. Check out some college essay introduction examples to boost your writing in this area, specifically.
In the body of your essay, you will have a few, short paragraphs to deal with your topic and answer the prompt. Get into as much detail as you can but stick to two or three main points. Again, you are constrained by the word limit, and you don’t have room to add a lot of detail.
Try to pack in some reflection on how you have grown as a person or student due to each event you discuss. The prompt can be answered, plus you can allude to academic achievements or some other accomplishments that the admissions committee will take a closer look at on your resume.
Your conclusion should focus on wrapping up the essay and summarizing anything set up in the opening paragraph. However, as noted, your conclusion should also make the committee want to hear more from you; give them someone they would want to meet in an interview. How to write a college essay can be tricky but following these steps will already get you headed in the right direction.
Remember to edit and refine! No essay is perfect from the start, so give yourself time to get feedback, do re-writes, and triple-check for spelling and grammar.
Please note that Duke also requires applicants to write other essays: one from a selection of Common App essays or Coalition Application essays, depending on which application you are using. Transfer students are required to write an additional essay as well. We have not written samples for these essays in this article.
In addition to the word limits, make sure you are as familiar as possible with Duke’s mission statement, classes, research, and specifics so that you can answer within any Duke-specific frameworks that they might have. For example, Duke’s values and culture statements say that they value innovation and sharing knowledge with one another. You might include a statement in your essays about your ambitions to contribute to your chosen field in innovative ways, or how you want to pass on knowledge and increase communication between those who work in your future profession. Show how you share values with Duke.
Perhaps the single best thing you can do is present your uniqueness and your individual voice. Your essays can show you off in ways that other aspects of your application cannot. Your individuality needs to come to the fore. Bringing yourself to your essays is, in fact, the crucial factor that will get you the best results and the best essays.
Essay writing is a lot less intimidating once you have seen it done by someone else. These essay examples should prove invaluable to you while you create your own essays for your application.
Read as much as you can, both in terms of example essays and general technique, and focus on answering the prompts directly and skillfully.
1. Should I write the optional essays?
Yes. Every option you have available to you should be exercised because each one is an additional opportunity to showcase your talents and abilities to the admissions committee.
2. Are these essays graded?
Not formally, but they are reviewed by the committee, so a quality essay makes a big difference. Make sure every part of your application is the best you can make it.
3. How long should I spend writing my essays?
About three weeks to write and refine your essays should be sufficient. This doesn’t mean 40 hours a week, but just that you’re setting aside time to ponder the prompts, brainstorm, write, and edit, which does take a lot of time if done well.
4. Are the word limits hard limits?
Yes. Never exceed any word counts, page counts, or character limits. Note that if you apply somewhere with a character limit, that limit probably includes spaces, so calculate carefully and err on the side of safety. Don’t let your essay or application fail because of an exceeded word count.
This goes double for deadlines: cutoff points are cutoff points, and you can’t exceed them.
5. Where do I get feedback for my essays’ re-writing processes?
You could ask teachers if they would look at your essays, but you can also check out college essay review services for assistance.
6. How do I know when my essay is finished?
You can confidently submit your essay when you know you have corrected all errors, fully explored the prompt, answered any questions, put yourself into your essay – so that your character and individuality shine through – and shown your potential.
7. What is the difference between the Common Application and the Coalition Application?
These are both application systems that streamline the application process to universities and colleges. The Common Application is more widely used, so you have access to more schools through it; the Coalition Application is intended for disadvantaged students, who might come from lower-income districts, or who have some other roadblock to higher education in their lives.
If your schools-of-choice are only available through the Common Application, you will probably use the Common App as your system. On the other hand, if you are from an underrepresented group, or need additional assistance, you might have a better overall experience with the Coalition App.
8. Does Duke accept international students?
Yes. In fact, they accept students from many backgrounds. From their website: “Whether you’re an international applicant, one that is undocumented, homeschooled, transferring, or one with a disability – we are here to help you navigate the application process.”
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