Duke University Identity Essay Prompt

Identity. How do you define it, describe it, put it down on paper? And for seniors applying to colleges and universities, what does a school want to see when they ask about your identity on a college application?

Take Duke’s optional essay prompt, for example. I’ve met many a student who’s hit a mental snag when trying to tackle it:

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 to help us understand you better-perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background-we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.

Some students think they’ve got nothing to add here or that their answer might seem cliché; so rather than tackle the prompt directly, or even forego it entirely, they dance around it. Sometimes they write about their activities, sometimes they write about their prospective intellectual interests. But while there are ways to contort an interest or activity to fit this particular prompt, in so doing an opportunity is lost to tell Duke something they might otherwise not learn from an activities list or a “Why this college?” essay.

While there are some not so subtle hints within Duke’s prompt, does that mean all straight 4th generation Americans who have no connection to a “motherland” should skip answering it? Not so fast. Identity is something we all have, even when it makes itself known only in whispers. One person’s clichéd existence could be someone else’s unique perspective—you never know who is going to read your application.

So give the prompt some thought. What has shaped your humanity? What tugs at you, makes you who you are? What ignites your soul? Who’s your tribe?

The human experience is vast and varied. Just think outside the unidentified box: Are you a Californian? A Southerner? A farmer? A rancher? A suburbanite? A multi-linguist? A Houstonian? A global nomad? A military brat? A vegetarian? A survivor? A refugee? A middle child? A pacifist? A child of immigrants? A child of divorce? A Buddhist? A Christian? An agnostic? An advocate? A healer? A nerd? A goth? An environmentalist?

What makes you feel human? What gives you perspective? What makes you real? Most importantly, what are you bringing to the Duke roundtable?

Essay-Pitfalls-CTA

Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.