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“An original is worth more than a copy." | A Duke Student's Advice on Getting into Duke

We had an amazing privilege of interviewing Catherine McMillan and asked advice on: Getting Into Duke


Catherine is:

  • a student at Duke University

  • a former student at the North Carolina Governor's School

  • her documentaries were featured in a screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Here are some notable words she shares:

  • "being able to show and have examples of your dedication to a particular activity, interest, or topic is extremely important. "

  • "life happens and we all have days where we don’t have enough capacity. "



Q: Why did you decide to attend Duke?

A: I decided to attend Duke because it offered a liberal arts education and had a lot of service, academic, and social opportunities that I could participate in as an undergraduate. I also chose Duke because I thought it would be a good challenge for me. Finally, Duke also has a phenomenal alumni network, which has been key in learning about different fields.



Q: What is one thing that you believed made you stand out and get into Duke?

A: Something that I think made me stand out was that I had a well-defined area of interest and I went deep into that particular passion. For me, that was history.


I participated in the National History Day Contest from 8th grade to 11th grade and started a club at my high school when I was a senior. This competition fine-tuned my historical research skills but also gave me a platform to synthesize information and present it at the local, state and national levels. One year, one of my documentaries was featured in a screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. My participation in this competition, as well as my hard work that allowed me to advance to the national contest, also gave me access to another opportunity, which was a year-long remote internship with the National WWII Museum as a Student Ambassador oral historian.


Putting a lot of activities on your resume is one thing, but being able to show and have examples of your dedication to a particular activity, interest, or topic is extremely important. Leadership roles, hours per week, anecdotes and stories--these are all details that can help you refine way you frame your extracurricular activities to the next level.




Q: What leadership positions did you handle while in high school, (ex. President, chair member, captain, etc), and how did you manage to maintain them without dropping expectations?

A: In high school I was president of Young Professors Club, which is a student-led organization that fosters teacher-to-student mentorships and peer tutoring. I am very passionate about mentoring and providing academic support, so my tenure as president was fulfilling.


Maintaining leadership roles entails a level of integrity and time commitment, but I think the most important aspect of performing well in these positions is to understand the division of responsibility on the executive board of your organization. Having clearly defined roles in leadership enables for the club/organization to operate efficiently and effectively. It also reduces the pressure for one person to shoulder all responsibility alone. I believe a well-formed executive team can help to support one another, because life happens and we all have days where we don’t have enough capacity. To ensure that these lapses don’t turn into patterns of behavior, creating organizational accountability can help to offset common challenges in club leadership.



Q: How did you structure your college essays?

A: Everyone has a unique lived experience and way of conveying their ideas. A humorous essay for one person may be a better fit than a heartfelt story. For me, I wanted to illustrate personal experience in a way that vividly integrated active reflection and passion.


I structured my essay as a narrative, describing the relationship I had with my aunt from childhood to adolescence. It was difficult to squeeze into the word limit, but I really tried to show my thinking. I provided detailed descriptions of sounds and sights. I wrote short vignette that showcased challenges and new ways of thinking. And I closed off with a paragraph of what I learned from the relationship.





Q: What type of projects did you undertake on your own (experiments, forming a club, nonprofit, research, internships, etc)?

A: I produced documentaries for the National History Day Competition, which at the time wasn’t sponsored by my school. I had an internship with the National WWII Museum. I took piano lessons, participated in local/state adjudications, and also developed my own craft for original composition, which got national recognition. I also was involved in service, particularly with people who have developmental/intellectual disabilities.




Q: Were you able to win any scholarships? If so, how?

A: There were some school-specific scholarships that I won. This entailed an application process that corresponded with applying to the school. I also won some outside scholarships. I recommend doing a ton of Google searches and scouring for opportunities. It can mean the difference between having and not having student loans.



Q: Where was your main focus or priority in high school and how did you set them? (Academics, extracurriculars, etc.)

A: My dual priorities was to maintain an academically rigorous schedule as well as participate in meaningful extracurricular activities. I saw them as two equally important components to my high school experience.



See Catherine's LinkedIn account here!