For seven years running, the number of applicants to Duke has increased with more than 32,000 having fought for a place in the current freshman class. The Class of 2019 hopefuls will have the option of presenting themselves through a new supplement question. The 250-word optional essay prompt asks applicants to “share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had,” including experiences related to home communities, sexual orientation or gender identities and family or cultural backgrounds. Duke is the first university to explicitly mention sexual orientation and gender identity on the Common Application.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag has said the question emphasizes that “diversity is really broadly defined and not just in terms of a box you can check.” We agree with Guttentag, finding the short essay format gives a more intimate window than does a checkbox into how a student’s background has shaped her worldview. Whereas a checkbox is a one-dimensional identifier—emphasizing what someone is rather than who they are—an essay presents a more holistic sense of how an applicant thinks. Most importantly, an essay allows applicants to draw from the range of their life experiences in describing the perspective they wish to bring to Duke.
Though the new diversity question is an undeniable plus, we harbor some reservations about how applicants might respond to the question and how admissions officers might incorporate these responses into the admissions decision. First, we are concerned for applicants who are still arriving at conclusions about their backgrounds and identities, or who are not comfortable with where they are in the process. For example, a student who is working through issues of cultural background or sexual orientation may have unresolved or unexplored thoughts about their identity—which, rather than show weakness, can in fact be desirable. College, after all, is a place for self-discovery. And while we recognize that this essay is optional, we believe many may feel compelled to pre-maturely write about an unformed conclusion in the interests of having a more “complete” application or appearing as a certain person to an admissions committee.
Another concern is how admissions officers will incorporate responses into the admissions decision. Admissions officers should take a subject-blind, process-oriented approach to assessing applicant responses. While diversity of experience is essential to enriching students’ growth at Duke, a mission trip to Kenya can contribute just as much as a summer spent in Seattle. Additionally, we expect that our admissions officers will not let the content of an applicant’s background, particularly more controversial categories of identity, affect a student’s admission decision positively or negatively. A student can often not help the circumstances of their childhood, and so what should be more important to the Duke community is how students have processed those experiences and how they will continue to do so at Duke.
Every year, our admissions officers speed date thousands of applicants who want to join our Duke community. This supplement’s addition to Duke’s application is certainly a step towards focusing on the holistic identities of prospective students to better evaluate how they will contribute to the vibrant atmosphere of diversity at Duke. And while we recognize that some students are better than others at expressing this self-reflection of experiences, we hope that every applicant takes this supplement as an opportunity to introspect and learn something about themselves.