This December, the admissions department of Duke University surprised the admissions world by taking their insider knowledge to household screens everywhere by participating in an increasingly-popular platform: an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.com. Opening up to the public on such an informal platform allowed students to receive clarity on the method behind one of the most selective admissions departments in the country, and catch a glimpse behind the curtain into life inside Duke’s illustrious halls.
The session was led by Senior Admissions Officer Ilana Weisman, who was joined by Dean Christoph Guttentag, Associate Dean Kathy Phillips, Senior Admissions Officer Jacqui Geerdes and Admissions Officer Cole Wicker. This panel of Duke’s admissions professionals covered everything prospective students had been dying to ask, answering questions on everything from what to avoid in your Why Duke essay to how much of an advantage legacy applicants have in the admissions process.
This was a new direction for outreach and connection for Duke, with Senior Admissions Officer Ilana Weisman stating that the purpose behind the session was to “seek new ways to connect with and inform prospective students.” This informal education session follows on the heels of record lows in acceptance rates as well as substantial increases in submitted applications for the past few admissions cycles, for both early and regular decision rounds.
Read on to discover the insights the Duke admissions office shared with students last week. Questions and answers were edited for clarity.
Reddit Question: What are some elements of a great Why Duke essay?
Ilana Weisman: We don’t love seeing formulaic “Why Duke?” responses – it’s pretty clear that students sometimes just Google a professor, club, lab, or building name and copy it into a generic message. But writing about a professor whose class you’d love to take or whose research is genuinely fascinating to you? Awesome.
My favorite “Why Duke?” responses capture what campus feels like – the energy and spirit of the student body – and are personal. The “Why Duke?” essay should help us picture you at Duke, and it’s on you to help us do that.
Kathy Phillips: My favorite “Why Duke” responses are those in which the student envisions themselves at Duke, giving specific examples of what they hope to take advantage of and how they will contribute to the community.
Reddit Question: What are your pet peeves when reading an application?
Weisman: I don’t *love* reading extra letters of recommendation that don’t add anything to the application.
Reddit Question: How do you approach the diversity essay if you are not the standard definition of “diverse?”
Christoph Guttentag: What makes you interesting is when you spend time and energy on something (or things) that matters to you. It’s making a commitment to something that moves you. I wouldn’t try to force that into an answer of the “diversity” question if it doesn’t work. If you like what you’re telling us and feel like it’ll honestly help us to know you better, go for it. We’ll sort it all out when we read the application. (And yes we read every application. From beginning to end.)
Reddit Question: Can stellar extracurriculars coupled with strong academics outweigh essays that are lukewarm?
Guttentag: Honestly I think the essay is in some ways the toughest part of the application, because it’s so hard for students to know how we read them. It’s ok if you’re not an amazing writer! We read essays as if you’re speaking to us, so something that helps us understand you better is what counts. Don’t worry if it’s not beautiful writing. What happens more often than you think is someone writes a beautifully crafted essay with lots of fancy adjectives and adverbs but all the language gets in the way of our really understanding them. If I had to choose, I’d rather see average good writing and a great rest of the application than vice-versa.
Reddit Question: Is a strong theme throughout your extracurriculars important?
Weisman: We like students who are well-rounded and students who are well-lopsided. It’s always interesting to see a theme emerge from an application, but also you’re probably seventeen and maybe don’t have a “passion” or “life goal” quite yet. That’s normal, and absolutely fine. We want to see you engage in communities, and we want to see you leaving an impact on them. We want to see what matters to you, and what sort of commitment you are making to that.
Reddit Question: If I’m deferred during Early Decision, what can I do to keep myself “in the running” for Regular Decision?
Weisman: The number one thing you should do if you receive a defer decision is to focus on keeping your senior year grades stellar. Beyond that, you can send us any significant updates/awards, additional standardized testing, or an additional letter of recommendation – it’s tough to generalize what might make a student stand out in the RD round because we defer students for a variety of reasons, and our pool changes every year.
Another important thing for deferred applicants to do? Concentrate on their applications to other universities. While we absolutely admit deferred students in the RD round, it’s still competitive, and we want them to have great options to choose from.
Reddit Question: I’d like to know how many students are part of Program II at Duke. Do a lot of students drop out of the program or do you usually see students succeed and create a meaningful program?
Weisman: About 40 students have recently taken part in Program II, which offers students the opportunity to create their own interdisciplinary course of study outside of the traditional majors, minors, and certificates offered. Students who apply to Program II don’t do so lightly – they find faculty advisors, enumerate courses they plan to take, create a long-range plan and senior capstone project. A student might have to submit and resubmit their proposal to best tailor it to their intellectual needs, but Program II supports you in the application process and through your undergrad career. We’ve seen some really incredible projects come through – about costume design and aesthetics over history, conflict resolution and negotiation, artificial intelligence…one of our colleagues, Leslie Niiro, did her Program II in “Community Development & Social Action: A Public Narrative Approach.”
Reddit Question: Does the priority interview deadline guarantee an interview? If you don’t get an interview is that bad for your application?
Cole Wicker: The interview is a wonderful chance for applicants to get to know Duke through the experience of an alum. I like to say that at its core, an interview lets the Admissions Committee know that you can have a conversation with another human being. Afterall, we are building a community and want to get a sense of you as a part of the greater Duke community. Much like every other part of the application, the interview is just one piece of the puzzle – a piece not every student has access to. All of that is to say: take the time to get to know your alumni interviewer – prepare to talk about why Duke, ask questions, and stay engaged. At the end of the day, there is not a percentage piece we place on particular parts of the application. If you apply by the priority deadline and are not offered an interview, it simply means we did not have someone available. Interviews are not assigned based on likelihood of admission, but rather regional alumni availability.
Reddit Question: What is your opinion on standardized tests? Are they accurate representations of a person’s abilities?
Guttentag: Standardized tests absolutely have limitations, and I agree with you that they are unrelated to a person’s worth. I think for some colleges they are useful in helping understand someone’s academic preparation. We find them useful but only when considered in the larger context of the whole application. It’s why at Duke we read every application from beginning to end, so we can consider the applicant as a whole.
Reddit Question: Does the amount of financial need an international student has influence their decision?
Phillips: Every applicant is considered in the context of their schools, their homes, and their circumstances. Duke is very open that our financial aid for international students is limited. As a result, we are “need aware” for international students applying for aid, which means that the process is even more competitive for those students. It’s also true that if we admit an international student with financial need we are committed to meeting that student’s full need.
Reddit Question: Are there instances where you reject applicants simply because of a single bad essay?
Phillips: In a process as selective as Duke’s every part of the application matters. That said, it’s rare for an essay to be weak enough to hold back a student who is compelling in every other area, but a great essay can be the tipping factor for a student who is otherwise on the bubble. We recognize that with over 40,000 applications from 17 and 18 year-old students we’re likely to read essays about similar topics. An essay about even the most repeated topics can be written in a unique way.
Reddit Question: How much of a role does legacy play in the admissions process?
Guttentag: Another great question. Like most private colleges, we care about the lifelong ties we have with our alumni, who are an enthusiastic and engaged group. When a student applies who has a family tie to Duke it’s something we like to be aware of, but when it’s a factor we consider it tends to help us distinguish among applicants who are well qualified and already appealing candidates. (And by the way different colleges define “legacy” differently for admissions purposes; it’s ok to ask that question specifically of the colleges you’re considering.)