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Applying to Duke? Here's what the dean of undergraduate admissions wants to see

Reporters spoke with Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, and Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support, at a question and answer session Thursday morning. Guttentag and Rabil answered questions ranging from the admissions process to scholarships. This article has been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: How many applications does Duke receive and then approve?

Christopher Guttentag: Last year, we received about 37,300 applications, and we admitted about 3,200 of them for a class of 1,726. That was a little bit big, as we were looking for a class of 1,720.

Q: If I’m a high school senior, what can I do to stand out?

CG: There are a few things a student can do as a senior and others as a freshman or sophomore. We will typically see a senior’s first semester’s grades, so those marks need to be as strong as possible. Some things are set by senior year, like the recommendations, extracurriculars and test scores. 

However, the Common Application essay can be edited up until the application is submitted. The best thing a student can do is to imagine the reader and how to present themself in the best possible light. The craft and quality of writing is already there across the board, so it matters less than the message the student tries to connote. For freshman and sophomores, the important thing is to find what matters to them and to think about potential commitments along with achieving academic success. I think those two things are the best students can do to be strong candidates at any school.

Q: Once you get to know a candidate, what are the qualities you want to see?

CG: We want to see talent and the inclination to use it. While I wasn’t an athlete in high school, I do know that coaches are frustrated when a player doesn’t use their talent. So, talent matters, especially academically. 

There also should be a sense of academic engagement. Colleges like students who love to learn and possess an enthusiasm toward intellectual engagement. While we understand that no student wants to be in the classroom for twenty-four hours, we expect that students will contribute to school life. 

The third is a sense of engagement outside of the classroom. It could be any number of things, but we look for students who make a difference. We also strive to put together a class diverse in a whole host of ways, as I believe students learn best when surrounded by different perspectives. 

Q: What’s the process when you’re breaking down an application?

CG: Our commitment is that every application is read through completely. A full-time, professional admissions officer will read the entire portfolio from their region’s students. For me, I start with the part of the application which the student submits: the essay and extracurriculars. 

Only then do I view grades, recommendations, and test scores. We pay especially close attention when admission is not clear-cut, which applies to many students. In those cases, other officers read the application. Thus, most students’ applications are touched a minimum of four times. 

Alison Rabil: From a financial aid perspective, we base merit aid from specific criteria, especially in terms of building the class. The essay plays a large role in some areas, while test scores can also determine certain awards. The admissions criteria should be outlined on websites for every school, so it’s worth doing the research. 

Q: How much money goes unclaimed?

AR: We give out all of the funding we have. Some students think Duke is too expensive and don’t apply even though they’re academically competitive, but Duke seeks to help as much as possible. We encourage everyone to apply, regardless of financial situation. Outside scholarship also goes unclaimed. Students should search out every potential source, from churches and synagogues to local youth groups. While these packages may seem small, they can add up quickly. Outside companies also offer essay contests for funds, which can be time-consuming but well worth it. Even younger students can start to consider these essay competitions. 

Q: What is the ideal class?

CG: There’s no one ideal class. I’ll never be done in the sense that one class is exactly perfect, because there’s no model. My feeling is that we have to have the right number of students first and foremost. For many colleges, making sure that the income from tuition is adequate would be the responsibility of someone in my position, but Duke is need-blind, so that doesn’t affect us, thankfully. 

The balance in the class takes shape in all forms, from recruited athletes to geographic distribution, while keeping an eye toward the Carolinas particularly. Ultimately, we want Duke to be the school for the best students in the world from all backgrounds and countries. We’re lucky that the nuances of the class are left to us; as we make decisions on each of the 37,000 applicants, each admissions officer brings a unique perspective to the table, which builds a stronger class. 

Q: As far as providing access to students who might not have the means to pay for school, how do you ensure their ability to enroll?

AR: We provide a consistent set of rules for each situation so that we aren’t biased. We assume that anyone’s who been admitted is someone that we want and won’t give preference to certain applicants. We want to give work-study opportunities and loans so that everyone has a chance to consider Duke feasibly. Furthermore, a financial aid student should be able to enjoy the same opportunities and experiences as a full-pay student, so we seek to level the playing field as much as possible. 

CG: Many colleges do much recruiting, so there’s often an understandable focus on the admission process. Every year, there’s a new group of high school seniors, so there’s a responsibility to talk about the institution. Part of that recruiting is talking about affordability, so that students don’t take themselves out of the running before reaching out. We try to inform as many students as possible that Duke is a realistic option despite the nominal sticker price. 

Q: You mentioned the term “need-blind admissions” in passing, but could you elaborate on why Duke prides itself on this aspect?

CG: The admissions process is blind to what students’ financial situation may be. We make our decisions independently of the student’s personal background and solely on the application’s criteria. It’s completely approved for families to ask financial aid questions to clarify. Parents should never hesitate to contact us.

AR: Depending on how much merit aid there is, the need-based aid is not contingent on academic achievement. My job is to read the submitted financial aid forms and then determine how much financial need is apparent. Duke is straightforward about its need-blind policy.

Q: What scholarships exist specifically for North Carolina students?

CG: The Benjamin Duke scholarship is not need-based but instead focuses on leadership qualities. There are great colleges in the Carolinas, and we want to make Duke as enticing as possible for students from the Tar Heel State and Palmetto State. 

Q: What message do you have for high school students?

CG: The admissions and financial aid departments want to make the process as clear as possible. Students go through this only once, so there’s much uncertainty, especially for students and parents going through it for the first time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there’s nothing more important than a willingness to be assertive. Also, look and think broadly about the types of colleges which will be a great fit. 

Finally, don’t hesitate to be yourself on the application. Admissions officers want to understand the students behind the application authentically. 


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