Becoming a Peer for You Facilitator

No matter where we are – even if it’s somewhere as special as Duke – part of being human is dealing with challenges. That’s why a group of students in one of the Hart Leadership Program’s courses decided to found Peer for You in 2011.

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Peer for You “is a student-run resource that provides the space for undergraduate students to reach out and seek feedback and referrals to overcome times of struggle.” Duke offers a wide variety of resources to care for students’ mental wellbeing, but Peer for You is unique in that it allows students to support each other; any Duke student can submit an online, anonymous message describing a struggle or challenge that they’re facing, and a trained Peer Responder will respond within 24 hours.

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This morning, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a Peer For You Facilitator Training. Peer for You is in the process of expanding to offer facilitated group-discussions, guided by those of us who attended the training. Gary Glass, who works in Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services department, shared his insightful outlook on mental health in a university setting: that students can do a great deal to contribute to the wellbeing of their peers, just by creating spaces for authentic conversation. He also taught us about a variety of clever tools that will help us jumpstart those conversations among our peers.

With these new resources in my toolkit, I can’t wait to get started!

Summer Spotlight: Sierra Smith

Duke students are doing amazing things all around the world this summer. I caught up with my friend Sierra Smith, a rising sophomore and fellow Baldwin Scholar, to find out what she has been up to the last couple months. Sierra had a lot to share about her experiences. Take a look!

1. You have been busy this summer! Can you tell us a little bit about what you have been doing?

This summer I participated in two Duke programs, Duke In Tuscany and Duke In Silicon Valley. Each program was four weeks long and both provided a unique learning environment that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten at Duke.

The course for the Duke In Tuscany program was called Envisioning Digital Landscapes and taught us about landscape archaeology, the study of how landscapes change over time and how people have used the landscapes for their own means. I probably would not have taken a traditional archaeology or history at Duke, but the program offered a way for me to combine my interest in tech, digital media, and travel.

The Duke In Silicon Valley program has multiple components to it, including a condensed second year Harvard Business School Class and site visits to companies in the Bay Area. The course is called Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, and teaches business concepts from Clay Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Solution, including disruption, modularity versus integration, and dividing the market by jobs that customers are trying to get done. The course is case study based, so we read one or two case studies each day, and discussed them during our two hour class block the following day. Some of the companies we visited include Survey Monkey, Tesla, Google, Apple, Palantir, and Netflix.

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2. What got you interested in this program?

I met with a global education officer to discuss summer study abroad opportunities, and she recommended this program to me because of my involvement in computer science and photography.

The Silicon Valley program captured my attention because I didn’t have much background in business, and the concepts taught in the class are applicable no matter what field you go into. The class was also a great networking opportunity, and gave us the chance to see the tech environment in the Silicon Valley.

3. What was your favorite part?

Being on a dig site in Italy was a very cool experience. In most museums and historical sites, visitors typically have to look at artifacts and architecture from a distance, but we were lucky to get a really hands on experience. We got to explore elaborate tombs that were built in the B.C. period that weren’t open to the public and climb on ancient Roman monuments. We also got to experience the discovery and excavation of an ancient Etruscan tomb.

One of my favorite parts of the Silicon Valley program was our class discussions. I learned so much from the case studies and from our discussions, and I feel much more prepared for getting internships and jobs in the future. A lot of the things we learned about businesses were also applicable in some way or another to our personal lives and were valuable lessons.

4. Did you face any challenges?

One challenge I faced during my trip to Italy was finding my way around in a foreign country. I’d been to Italy before with my family, but I’ve never traveled abroad by myself and I had to navigate the train system and the airport in a country where English speakers were not as common as I was expecting, and I only understand the bits and pieces of Italian that are similar to Spanish.

Another challenge during the Tuscany program was figuring out how to work together with a large group of people. We had a final project for the course for which we originally split into two groups of four, but later on we decided to merge together. The project turned out well, but there were definitely a lot of opinions and it sometimes hard to find a compromise. We found a way to put our heads together, but it was a good lesson in managing a large group.

5. Any takeaways from your awesome summer experiences?

One huge lesson I took out of this summer was to take as many opportunities as you can. I met so many wonderful people, learned a lot of valuable lessons, and had experiences that I would never have been able to have otherwise. In the Silicon Valley program, the value of networking and having a variety of experiences was really emphasized and demonstrated to us through guest speakers, and I’ll be sure to take as many opportunities as I can going forward.

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The Duke Application is Live: Here’s What’s New

It’s official; Duke is now accepting undergraduate applications for the Class of 2019! You may log onto the Common Application or Universal College Application website to begin your application for admission today. The final deadline doesn’t loom yet—it’s five months away—but you can save some senior year stress by getting a start on the application during the warm, slow days of summer.

The 2014-2015 Duke application features a few changes from last year that we’d like to highlight.

1. We are excited to offer a new optional short essay prompt on the Duke writing supplement.

·         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. (250 words maximum)

While the twenty undergraduate admissions officers at Duke are armed with guidelines, criteria, rubrics, and historical context to ensure consistency in our collective evaluations, we aren’t computers that crunch out admission decisions on the basis of statistics alone. As we read and discuss applications, we always consider the living, breathing person behind the paper (or rather, the digital document glowing on a screen). We want to understand the people who will be friends as well as scholars here, whose unique perspectives will add dimension to the conversations on campus and who will bring their particular experiences and reflections to the Duke community.

If you think this prompt sounds similar to the first of the five Common Application essay topics, you are right. That essay allows you to discuss something important to you, in your voice, and this additional prompt opens another opportunity. We want to understand you in whole to the best of our ability, and if you wish to share an important aspect of your identity with us, it shouldn’t feel like it’s the only part of you we recognize as important. We care most about the intellectual and personal qualities a student can bring to our community.

Please, make use of this space if you have something to share beyond what the application requires, but don’t feel compelled to do so if the rest of your application reflects you as you wish to be shown. In and of itself, the presence or absence of a response to this prompt will neither improve nor harm your odds of admission.

2. We will require a single supplemental writing response for all applicants, briefly answering a version of the question: “Why Duke?”

·         If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (150 words maximum)

·         If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (150 words maximum)

Formerly, we required the “Why Duke?” response for applicants to the Pratt School of Engineering and offered it as an optional choice for applicants to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Most students chose to answer the question, and we appreciated the responses. This question helps us understand how you envision yourself as a potential Duke student. Different facets of the university excite different students, and what piques your interest offers insight into you.

We appreciate students who are thoughtful in their choices, and a well-crafted response to this question shows your intentionality in applying to Duke. We don’t expect you to demonstrate purposefulness in other ways; we do not track campus visits, email contacts to our office, or other forms of demonstrated interest in our selection process. If you’re eager to express enthusiasm for Duke as your first choice college, specifically, you might consider applying Early Decision.

3. We will require a student’s full record of SAT or ACT testing.

Making the best admission decisions takes time, and Score Choice unfortunately slowed our ability to evaluate complete applications as many students waited until the last possible moment to see their final scores before sending any. We now require applicants to submit all existing scores by the application deadline to facilitate our review. If you test or retest after the deadline, we are always happy to update your application with any new and improved scores.

Our standardized testing requirements have not changed, and we will continue to treat test scores as we always have. We understand off-days happen, and we know it’s incredibly unlikely for lucky guessing to inflate a score in a meaningful way. We place most emphasis on the scores that most advantage an applicant, counting the highest scores as official if we receive more than one set.

To learn more about the application process and how we evaluate applications, check out our application overview page and my earlier post about Duke’s holistic review process. If you have further questions after reading these, you may also contact your regional admissions officer directly. We’re here and happy to help.

As we prepare to release admission decisions tomorrow evening, Duke’s admissions officers know that many deeply talented students are going to be crestfallen and perhaps mystified. Only 9% of Regular Decision applicants will receive the news they hope to see. For those we do not admit, an admissions officer’s words may not diminish disappointment, but I hope they can make the selection process less opaque.

Alongside mystery naturally lies skepticism for some, especially in an arena as complex and high-stakes as selective college admissions.  Earlier in the application season, The Atlantic tapped into the confusion many students experience and took a shot at holistic admissions as a lure, offering students the false promise of personal consideration. Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues: “From colleges’ perspective, “holistic” is just shorthand for, we make the decisions we make, and would rather not be asked to spell out each one.”

The decisions we make here in Duke Admissions are nuanced, subjective, and, yes, personal.  Though never arbitrary, they can be difficult to understand without having seen a large, representative sample of the applicant pool. However, “holistic admissions” is not an explanatory scapegoat; it is a practice that enables meaningful distinctions among a sea of candidates who are highly qualified to attend a school like Duke.

I’ve written before about the workings of reading season, but let me dig a little deeper into the underpinnings of holistic admissions.  Philosophically, it rests on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Each student is a person, not merely a catalog of accomplishments (though, of course, those are considered in our selections).  Remembering this benefits applicants by allowing identification of merits that do not lend themselves to quantitative measurements. It also benefits the university as we seek to create the most vibrant possible community of flesh-and-blood individuals.
  2. Context matters.  Each component of an application indicates more as part of a whole than on its own. Different pieces reflect back on one another to portray and reinforce characteristics, and accomplishments become more meaningful considered in the context of opportunities available and obstacles faced. Further, each application is necessarily considered in the context of the entire applicant pool and the potential context of a well-rounded incoming class.

As an intellectually demanding and fast-paced university, Duke is first and foremost concerned with our applicants’ academic qualifications.  When I read an application, I always start with the transcript.  Even the best essay of the year is unlikely to sustain an academically lackluster application. (By the way, to younger students reading—please don’t feel that you ought to write a confessional essay. The personal statement is already a tricky genre, and the confessional is even tougher to write well.  For essay tips from Duke Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag, check out this piece in the Raleigh News & Observer.)

Most students who apply to Duke display the intellectual chops and commitment to succeed here. With over 32,000 students vying for just 1,700 spots in the class, even absurdly fine grained distinctions along a numeric metric wouldn’t get the selection job done. To look at just one example: more than twice as many valedictorians applied as we had spaces in the class, and that’s a count contextualized by the fact that only half of schools sending us applicants provided a class rank. We have to look at other factors, and we want to consider all the other ways a student might contribute to the richness of Duke’s community.

Duke is very transparent about relevant characteristics we seek—things like engagement, impact, creativity, talent, and drive—and where in the application we look to find them.  There are six areas, both quantitative and qualitative: curricular rigor, academic grades, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, the quality of thought and expression in the application essays, and standardized test scores.

These components are equally important, and most of the time just one of them doesn’t “make or break” a decision, though different pieces may come to the fore in different discussions.  In making a case to admit a student, I have to articulate to the committee what stands out.  For decisions on the bubble, the factors that most differentiate a student from the norms of the applicant pool—positively, negatively, or simply uniquely—are likely to drive the committee conversation.

We do not rate or rank applicants’ personal qualities, but we do aim to identify those that emerge, and we care very much about them. A suite of recommendations, essays, extracurricular and academic choices, accomplishments, and an interview report, if available, can solidify a strong sense of kindness, grit, wit, or a particular flavor of intellectual fervor.

Evaluating a file is an art akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle without a box.  We aren’t starting with any preconceived pictures, and we don’t possess every piece of information that might be interesting or valuable.  We do not presume we know everything about all our applicants, but the application provides enough interlocking pieces, many of them very big, for us to identify a picture of each student as a person.

I take it very seriously that a real, hopeful human being devoted significant effort over many years to present each one of the 1,600 or so applications I read in a winter. I consider it a great privilege as well as my duty to give full, fair consideration to each applicant.  I am often saddened to recommend deny decisions, and I frequently experience excitement when someone’s unique blend of traits and talents comes to life on the pages of her application. Many times, disappointment and delight come hand-in-hand as the committee is forced to make tough calls.

Bovy is right on this count: a disappointing outcome does not imply any shortcoming.  The tough reality is that there is far more excellence of character and ability in our applicant pool than we can physically accommodate on campus. The selection process is personal, but don’t take it personally if you receive bad news from Duke or any other selective university.  If you are among the few to receive a letter that begins with the word “Congratulations” from us, know that it has been tremendously well-earned.

Thornton Wilder writes: “Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous.” As you wait these last few hours, keep your courage—and be sure to take it with you to college. It is the first step in all great things.

Postcard from: New Orleans, Lousiana

Greetings from the Big Easy! The summers are an exciting time for Duke students. From internships to international and domestic travel, research and summer classes, students are exploring their interests and pursuing their passions in a wide-variety of ways.

I am currently in New Orleans living with a group of 11 other Robertson Scholars from Duke and UNC, each of who have a different internship in the city. I am spending the summer teaching 6th grade English at Breakthrough New Orleans (BTNOLA), a nationally recognized program that prepares high potential middle school students, with limited resources, for rigorous academic experiences in high schools and colleges. Through this unique students teaching students model, I have had the opportunity to serve and grow as a mentor, teacher, and friend to middle school students in the area.

The BTNOLA 2014 faculty

It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience so far and it has given the opportunity to apply the skills I have developed throughout my first year at Duke to working with and teaching kids-something that I am incredibly passionate about but don’t necessarily get to do the during the school year.

A snapshot of my experience in NOLA would not be complete without a mention of the experiences exploring this city’s rich culture with my housemates and of course trying all the delicious food! (Jambalaya and pralines anyone??)

“Family Dinner” with my housemates

Wishing you all a wonderful summer wherever you may be!

Sofia

WISER: The Girl Effect in Action

This article by Sofia Stafford originally appeared in the HuffPost Impact Blog here.


“I was not born to be unseen.”

Meet Mercy. She is a spunky, determined 17-year-old with a twinkle in her eye. Mercy has many passions, goals and hopes for her future, just like most girls her age. She is an aspiring engineer, change maker in her community of Muhuru Bay, Kenya and most importantly, a future high school graduate at the WISER secondary school in rural Kenya, During her visit to Duke University in early April, she shared her ultimate dream with a classroom full of students; “I want to use my education to make a change in my community, to bring them up.”

However, graduation and a bright professional future were not always within the realm of possibility for Mercy and other girls in Muhuru Bay. In fact, despite the proven economic and societal benefits of educating a girl, completing high school is not the typical experience of many adolescent women in developing countries around the world. WISER is changing that.

WISER (the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research) is a community development organization focused on the social empowerment of underprivileged girls through education and health. Founded by Dr. Sherryl Broverman, Professor of Biology and Global Health at Duke University, and Andrew Cunningham Duke ’08, WISER works holistically to improve health, education and economic outcomes for girls, particularly those orphaned by AIDS. Through WISER’s education and health programs Mercy and her fellow students now harness the power of their voices and fulfill their dreams.

Girls looking to further their education in communities like Muhuru Bay face many obstacles that extend far beyond accessibility to school. They are confronted with challenges such as lack of access to clean drinking water, sexual and physical abuse, and HIV/AIDS. Combine this with a sociocultural environment that does not value the role of girls in society or believe they are worth educating, and you have a serious obstacle to overcome in providing education to young women. WISER is unique because it takes a comprehensive approach to girls’ education. The organization recognizes the interconnectivity of the environmental elements necessary for the successful delivery of education in developing countries and has a proven model. WISER provides its students with everything they need to attend school, from underwear and sanitary pads, to nutritional meals, health care, psychosocial support through counseling and school supplies. Most importantly it provides girls a safe and supportive community that lives and grows together. Furthermore, WISER has provided the first clean drinking water in the area, serving over 5,000 community members, including the Ministry of Health clinic, and is currently expanding its capacity to reach 20,000 members.

To date, the organization has increased the number of girls completing primary school in Muhuru Bay by 120 percent and improved their academic outcomes. The WISER secondary school has a zero percent attrition rate due to pregnancy and child marriage, as opposed to 30 percent attrition in neighboring schools On March 7, 2014, a celebration was held for the first graduating class. All 28 graduates passed the national exam and over half will attend universities with scholarships. To put this in perspective, in the last 30 years, only one girl has continued on to university from Muhuru Bay. The graduation ceremony attracted over 1,000 community members, including Kenyan dignitaries, to celebrate the graduates and WISER’s success in empowering underprivileged girls. In short, WISER works.

WISER’s achievements cannot solely be measured by numbers. During Mercy’s visit to Duke this month, she attended engineering classes and spoke eloquently to a room of 200 students. It is clear that WISER has given Mercy the tools to empower herself, and use her voice to bring awareness to the obstacles she has overcome, but many girls still face in rural Kenya.

WISER is changing the way Muhuru Bay and its surrounding communities view girls. By keeping girls in school and reducing young pregnancies, WISER is enabling girls to transform themselves into academic powerhouses that outcompete boys from well-established schools. Girls that were not considered worth educating are now the top students in the country in math and science. “This is what education is all about — not just the inputs, but also the dynamic, committed and intelligent processes of teaching and learning that is occurring within WISER’s walls,” says Andy Cunningham.

Mercy is the Girl Effect in action. Her peers are the Girl Effect in action. WISER is the Girl Effect in action.

To learn more and support WISER so that girls like Mercy have the opportunity to receive an education, stay healthy and safe, and become their generation’s leaders, visit http://www.wisergirls.org.

 

Students share their Faves

With LDOC (last day of classes) just behind us, I asked students about a favorite or interesting and awesome class they have taken so far during their time at Duke. Below are some responses and just a few examples of the diversity of classes and wide range of options offered. Get ready to start exploring! You never know what might spark your interest…

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Fairy Tales: Grimms to Disney

The material is all truly interesting and engaging, and the class offers a fascinating look at how deeply our society has been affected through the development of different types of tales passing from generation to generation in evolving forms of media.


Gender, Poverty, and Health

We learn as much from Dr. Watt as we do from each other. Class discussions are regularly integrated through the course, which offers students an opportunity to apply and engage with the learned material.   

Advanced Media & Innovation

I got to learn about the strengths of multimedia production while engaging with incredible entrepreneurs in the triangle area!

Magazine Journalism

An incredible opportunity to meet first-class journalists and to refine your writing skills for a future career in the publishing industry.

Engineering Sustainable Design for the Global Community

Students do things like keep track of their trash, electricity, or food for a set number of time and then reduce it to levels that would be possible in the contexts their trying to design for. Then at the end of the semester, Duke Engineers for International Development teams take the final design projects and actually build them.

 

Becoming a Sorority Girl Part 2: Big-Little Week

In my last post, I told you all about the sorority recruitment process. Now it’s time for the fun stuff!

In most sororities, you get paired with a ‘Big’, and subsequently you become part of her ‘family’ or ‘lineage’. Big-Little pairings are different all across the board, but the basic idea is that you become part of each other’s lives in whatever way you both feel comfortable – a big can be anything from a study buddy to a substitute college mom. For me, I was hoping to find a big that was caring, and open, and comfortable enough with me to be a best friend/mentor/confidant. I lucked out and got all of above!


This is my ‘family’ before they knew who their new ‘Little’ was going to be…ME!

More about her in a moment, though. First, I have to tell you about Big-Little week. In my sorority, after you submit your preferences on who you would like your big to be, there is an entire week that you are not allowed to know who they are, and they shower you with presents.

It might be better than Christmas.

Every day, I had a gigantic basket delivered to me (wherever I was on campus) by a boy doing something crazy.

Three a cappella boys serenaded me in my dorm room and another did the entire Single Ladies dance at the freshman dining hall in the middle of dinner.

The surprises didn’t end there – all of the baskets were full of crazy goodies. Everything from my favorite candy to a giant chalkboard, jewelry, and crazy costumes… I have a massive blanket, decorations for my room, SO much junk food, and more tshirts than a person could ever think to need. There is so much more, but the list would just get long and boring.

This is a basket that one of my friends in a different sorority got during HER Big-Little week!

Now, I know….I know. There is sort of a stigma to what the typical sorority girl has to say about her sorority, her Big…blah blah blah. And yes, I used to think it was obnoxious. In favor of avoiding being “that girl”, I will try to be brief in my stereotypically “sorority” statements.

I absolutely love my Big.

She actually is THE BEST.

I talk to her more than I talk to anyone else in my life right now. We have both opened up about our families, our personal lives… Everything. I feel comfortable around her, and she already is the best friend and mentor that I was hoping for in a Big. I can go to her for anything…homework help, guy problems, work stress, you name it, and she is there for me.

All-in-all, going through recruitment was one of the best decisions I have made since I got to Duke. Would I want to do it again? No. But it was so far beyond worth it, and I am so happy.

Q&A with Ty!

Meet Tyrone (goes by Ty!) Jean. Ty is the residence coordinator for Neighborhood 1 (best neighborhood!) on East Campus and is responsible for the overall management of the student resident life in those dorms. I got a chance to ask Ty some questions about his job and the freshman residence life experience. See his responses below!

1. What is your favorite part about your job as a residence life coordinator?

My favorite part of my job are the students. Each year I get to meet new freshmen who are new to college, Duke, and East Campus. Their energy gives me new life and the opportunity to cultivate authentic relationships. Each Duke freshman has a unique narrative of how they got here, what they want to accomplish and where they hope to go after Duke. At some point, I like to think that I have some role in that. As an RC I believe we provide an essential service to ensure students have a safe and clean place to live. We also have several administrative responsibilities that ensure the areas run effectively and no student “falls through the cracks”. I’ve worked at several other universities and the amount of care and concern we demonstrate for students is unmatched. 

2.What do you think is unique about the first year residential experience at Duke?  

When you ask any student (after 1995 when East Campus became a first year campus) where they lived freshman year, you will always hear an enthusiastic response about their specific hall. It’s a part of your Duke identity. Many students develop meaningful relationships in their dorm because of the many RA and House Council programs, late night chats with hall mates and game watching parties. Moreover, a strong sense of community and belongingness is unique to the Duke first year experience. 


Bassett (my dorm!) and one of the dorms that Ty oversees.

3. What are the benefits of having the whole freshman class on their own campus?

You have the opportunity to meet your entire class and really take ownership of an entire campus! You have your own library, dining hall and gym. You always have people to study with and they are usually a minute away. You can access upperclassmen but you always know you can come “home”. 

4. Is there anything else you think perspective students should know about the freshman residential experience?

Making mistakes, failing, and not being perfect are ALL OKAY! All freshmen will experience this on some level and it’s about learning and growing that makes your Duke experience what it is. Each hall is equipped with the best trained Resident Assistants Duke has to offer. In addition, each hall has a Graduate Resident, Faculty in Residence and Residence Coordinator who are all here to help in your transition to college. I don’t think there is any question they can’t answer!

Inside Holistic Admissions: How Does My Decision Happen?

As we prepare to release admission decisions tomorrow evening, Duke’s admissions officers know that many deeply talented students are going to be crestfallen and perhaps mystified. Only 9% of Regular Decision applicants will receive the news they hope to see. For those we do not admit, an admissions officer’s words may not diminish disappointment, but I hope they can make the selection process less opaque.

Alongside mystery naturally lies skepticism for some, especially in an arena as complex and high-stakes as selective college admissions.  Earlier in the application season, The Atlantic tapped into the confusion many students experience and took a shot at holistic admissions as a lure, offering students the false promise of personal consideration. Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues: “From colleges’ perspective, “holistic” is just shorthand for, we make the decisions we make, and would rather not be asked to spell out each one.”

The decisions we make here in Duke Admissions are nuanced, subjective, and, yes, personal.  Though never arbitrary, they can be difficult to understand without having seen a large, representative sample of the applicant pool. However, “holistic admissions” is not an explanatory scapegoat; it is a practice that enables meaningful distinctions among a sea of candidates who are highly qualified to attend a school like Duke.

I’ve written before about the workings of reading season, but let me dig a little deeper into the underpinnings of holistic admissions.  Philosophically, it rests on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Each student is a person, not merely a catalog of accomplishments (though, of course, those are considered in our selections).  Remembering this benefits applicants by allowing identification of merits that do not lend themselves to quantitative measurements. It also benefits the university as we seek to create the most vibrant possible community of flesh-and-blood individuals.
  2. Context matters.  Each component of an application indicates more as part of a whole than on its own. Different pieces reflect back on one another to portray and reinforce characteristics, and accomplishments become more meaningful considered in the context of opportunities available and obstacles faced. Further, each application is necessarily considered in the context of the entire applicant pool and the potential context of a well-rounded incoming class.

As an intellectually demanding and fast-paced university, Duke is first and foremost concerned with our applicants’ academic qualifications.  When I read an application, I always start with the transcript.  Even the best essay of the year is unlikely to sustain an academically lackluster application. (By the way, to younger students reading—please don’t feel that you ought to write a confessional essay. The personal statement is already a tricky genre, and the confessional is even tougher to write well.  For essay tips from Duke Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag, check out this piece in the Raleigh News & Observer.)

Most students who apply to Duke display the intellectual chops and commitment to succeed here. With over 32,000 students vying for just 1,700 spots in the class, even absurdly fine grained distinctions along a numeric metric wouldn’t get the selection job done. To look at just one example: more than twice as many valedictorians applied as we had spaces in the class, and that’s a count contextualized by the fact that only half of schools sending us applicants provided a class rank. We have to look at other factors, and we want to consider all the other ways a student might contribute to the richness of Duke’s community.

Duke is very transparent about relevant characteristics we seek—things like engagement, impact, creativity, talent, and drive—and where in the application we look to find them.  There are six areas, both quantitative and qualitative: curricular rigor, academic grades, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, the quality of thought and expression in the application essays, and standardized test scores.

These components are equally important, and most of the time just one of them doesn’t “make or break” a decision, though different pieces may come to the fore in different discussions.  In making a case to admit a student, I have to articulate to the committee what stands out.  For decisions on the bubble, the factors that most differentiate a student from the norms of the applicant pool—positively, negatively, or simply uniquely—are likely to drive the committee conversation.

We do not rate or rank applicants’ personal qualities, but we do aim to identify those that emerge, and we care very much about them. A suite of recommendations, essays, extracurricular and academic choices, accomplishments, and an interview report, if available, can solidify a strong sense of kindness, grit, wit, or a particular flavor of intellectual fervor.

Evaluating a file is an art akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle without a box.  We aren’t starting with any preconceived pictures, and we don’t possess every piece of information that might be interesting or valuable.  We do not presume we know everything about all our applicants, but the application provides enough interlocking pieces, many of them very big, for us to identify a picture of each student as a person.

I take it very seriously that a real, hopeful human being devoted significant effort over many years to present each one of the 1,600 or so applications I read in a winter. I consider it a great privilege as well as my duty to give full, fair consideration to each applicant.  I am often saddened to recommend deny decisions, and I frequently experience excitement when someone’s unique blend of traits and talents comes to life on the pages of her application. Many times, disappointment and delight come hand-in-hand as the committee is forced to make tough calls.

Bovy is right on this count: a disappointing outcome does not imply any shortcoming.  The tough reality is that there is far more excellence of character and ability in our applicant pool than we can physically accommodate on campus. The selection process is personal, but don’t take it personally if you receive bad news from Duke or any other selective university.  If you are among the few to receive a letter that begins with the word “Congratulations” from us, know that it has been tremendously well-earned.

Thornton Wilder writes: “Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous.” As you wait these last few hours, keep your courage—and be sure to take it with you to college. It is the first step in all great things.