Choosing a Topic

If you read this prompt and think, “Oh, I can totally write about _____________!” jump right down to “Example # 1: Top-of-mind Identity.” 

If nothing immediately comes to mind (as a straight, white cis male, I get that), don’t despair! The prompt invites you to talk about a “community you belong to,” which leaves the door open for you to write about almost anything. Two general approaches that might work:

  1. Go broad, with an identity that lets you highlight a few different activities/experiences.

    Brainstorm some shared values you have with your family (“I come from a community/family of _____________.”)

    Consider if any of these shared values have connections to activities you do. 

    For example:

    Creators  → Film makers club, stage crew, knitting

    Storytellers → Theater, young historians, Sunday school teacher

    Educators → Tutoring, student council, babysitting

    Skeptics → Debate team, student representative in local government

    Optimists → Environmental club, neuroscience research 

  2. Go super specific and make it a more focused extracurricular essay.

Make a list of clubs or activities you’re involved in that have a sense of purpose. Spoiler alert: Almost any club or activity can fit this description. 

Identify one or two that have a strong sense of community (Stereotypically: theater kids. But we’ve also heard of close-knit Science Olympiad teams, political clubs, etc.) 

Some examples (but again, almost any can work): 

Still struggling to come up with different communities you’re a part of? Check out this longer post on How to Write the Community Essay.

Duke Supplemental Essay Example 1: Top-of-Mind Identity

I look around my room, dimly lit by an orange light. On my desk, a framed picture of an Asian family beaming their smiles, buried among US history textbooks and The Great Gatsby. A Korean ballad streams from two tiny computer speakers. Pamphlets of American colleges scattered on the floor. A cold December wind wafts a strange infusion of ramen and leftover pizza. On the wall in the far back, a Korean flag hangs beside a Led Zeppelin poster.

Do I consider myself Korean or American?

A few years back, I would have replied: “Neither.” The frustrating moments of miscommunication, the stifling homesickness, and the impossible dilemma of deciding between the Korean or American table in the dining hall, all fueled my identity crisis.

Standing in the “Foreign Passports” section at JFK, I have always felt out of place. Sure, I held a Korean passport in my hands, and I loved kimchi and Yuna Kim and knew the Korean Anthem by heart. But I also loved macaroni and cheese and LeBron. Deep inside, I feared I’d labeled by my airport customs category: a foreigner everywhere.

This ambiguity, however, has granted me the opportunity to absorb the best of both worlds. Look at my dorm room. This mélange of cultures in my East-meets-West room embodies the diversity that characterizes my international student life.

I’ve learned to accept my “ambiguity” as “diversity,” as a third-culture student embracing both identities.

Do I consider myself Korean or American?

Now, I can proudly answer: “Both.”

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Share your identity by setting the scenes with rich details. The prompt says it all—Duke wants to know “the real person” applying to Duke. An engaging description will help set the scene for your lived experience of your identity. It also helps preempt any possible stereotypes that might unconsciously exist in a reader’s mind. Instead of opening her piece with “I am Korean-American,” this student brings us right into her room and shows us what her Korean and American identities look—and even smell—like. 

  2. Share challenges you’ve faced due to your identity. Duke wants to hear about a variety of ways your identity affects your experience (and what you will in turn bring to Duke). Sharing challenges (for this student: a lack of belonging) will help your reader empathize with you and can set you up to share some learning or growth that’s been an outcome of living with this identity. If you haven’t experienced challenges, no worries! You can use your 250 words to:

  3. Share the positive ways you experience your identity. What have the benefits of holding this identity been? Are there values you’ve learned from others with the same identity? Are there unique experiences your identity has opened up? Are there lessons you’ve learned through any adversity related to your identity? 

Bonus Points: How might you engage with this identity at Duke? There’s a chance for a mini “Why us?” Essay with this prompt. Research a club, class, space, or speaker that will help you further engage with this identity at Duke. Can’t find one? Write about wanting to create that space, class, or club.

Duke Supplemental Essay Example 2: No Top-of-Mind Identity

I belong to a community of storytellers. Throughout my childhood, my mother and I spent countless hours immersed in the magical land of bedtime stories. We took daring adventures and explored far away lands. Imagination ran wild, characters came to life, and I became acquainted with heroes and lessons that continue to inspire me today. It was a ritual that I will never forget.

In school I met many other storytellers­­­­—teachers, coaches, and fellow students whose stories taught me valuable lessons and enabled me to share stories of my own. My stories took shape through my involvement with theatre. I have learned that telling stories can be just as powerful as hearing them.

When I tell a story, I can shape the world I live in and share my deepest emotions with the audience. This is exactly why I love theatre so much. The audience can relate to the story in many of the same powerful ways that I do.

I love to perform with my theatre class to entertain and educate young audiences throughout my community. To tell our stories, we travel to elementary and middle schools performing plays that help educate younger students of the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and bullying. As storytellers, we aim to touch lives and better the world around us through our stories.  

— — —

Tips + Analysis:

  1. Name the community you belong to and how/why you got involved. If you’re writing about a shared family value, describe how that value has shown up for the generations that came before you. Don’t spend too many words on this—Duke wants to hear mostly about you!—but spending a few early words detailing where you inherited a value or identity from will help the reader “understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.” 

    This student names the community (storytellers) and how he became a part of it (bedtime stories). If you’re writing about a club or group you’re a part of, share a descriptive anecdote that captures the kind of work you do with that group, and follow it up by naming the group and its purpose: “As a member of (insert group), I belong to a community of people who (insert amazing activities and values).”  

  2. From there, you can write a straightforward extracurricular essay! Our full guide for that kind of essay can be found here. The best extracurricular essays are grounded in values, but that will be doubly important for this prompt to make sure your writing stays on-prompt (i.e. addressing identity and community). 

Bonus Points: How might you engage with this identity at Duke? This approach also gives you a chance for a mini “Why us?” essay. Research a club, class, space, or speaker that will help you continue your work at Duke. Can’t find one? Write about wanting to create that space, class, or club.