October 24, 2022

How I got into Duke with full scholarship and what they don't tell you about student life


darcybee from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Campus Image of Duke University
How I got into Duke with full scholarship and what they don't tell you about student life

College Application Journey

Ever since elementary school, I knew that I would go abroad. I was actively studying English since grade eight but did not start my college applications until mid-10th grade. At that time I went to a regular (non IB/AP) school in Kazakhstan where you could literally attend only 3 classes, and if you speak up during class, you are already doing well. As a result, I had enough free time to prepare my applications well. If I had studied at NIS (Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools), this would hardly be possible. And so I lived and breathed the idea of going to a university abroad.

There was very little information about college admissions, whatever was there came mainly from agencies that send students abroad for high fees. It was also difficult to filter information, for example, the website might say “scholarship”, but in fact, it's only a 10% discount. At that time I had no idea about need-based financial aid and looked only at merit-based scholarships.

In April, I began studying for IELTS and by the end of May I scored 7.5, half a point off in the writing section. I then took SAT in June which ended up being a disaster because I thought the bare minimum of preparation would suffice, just like it did with IELTS. But it didn't and after getting the result I studied hard. At that time, Tumblr was a great help, specifically a forum + community of students applying to various colleges (nowadays Reddit does the job). I was able to communicate with applicants from different countries and finally learned about need-based financial aid, essay writing rules, and so on.

Next fall I took the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Again, my score was far from perfect: Reading + Math added up to 1400/1600, which is on the lower end for prestigious universities. Biology SAT Subject came out to ~ 630/800. To be honest, I was quite upset, and while checking the results of others on forums, I kept thinking "Damn, I won't get in anywhere."

Duke University Campus
Duke University Campus

Stats & Extracurriculars

This is the first time I'm sharing my stats publicly. I always thought that they are bad, not worthy and that other students had perfect scores. But now I'm happy to share them to show that even with such stats, even from a regular school, you can get in🔥

- IELTS: 7.5

- SAT: 1400

- GPA: 5/5

Extracurricular Activities

Regarding my extracurriculars, I was a lot into sports: figure skating, and karate - I also wrote an essay about it. Overall I've always been a very active student: I was the class leader and the leader of Wikipedia club, where we even participated in a conference in Hong Kong.

At the same time, many of my activities happened outside of school, since a regular school doesn't provide many opportunities. So I wrote about everything that I did on a daily basis. For example: ran a blog on Tumblr, managed social media of pop groups (fandoms), translated new episodes of series, and wrote fanfiction. I took absolutely everything I did and tried to demonstrate that despite the fact that my school has few opportunities, I've always been interested in different ways of expressing myself.

My College List

I built my college list solely on the basis of financial aid (please don't do that!). I knew nothing about "College Fit" and proper ways to choose universities, all I knew were rankings and scholarships. I also knew that I had to go abroad.

Unfortunately, I also ignored Liberal Arts Colleges, as they are listed in a separate ranking and I didn't know how to do research well. If I were to apply now, I would happily add some of those Liberal Arts Colleges.

I applied ED to Johns Hopkins, but got rejected, and it was the biggest pain of my 11th grade. I then applied to UChicago for Early Action, but received a deferral.

The rejection from John Hopkins came in mid-December, and I had nothing prepared for other universities. For the next 2 weeks I was rushing my essays, but to be fair, it was for the better as I was able to use the accumulated experience and expertise that I did not have when applying to Hopkins.

In total, I applied to 17 universities and got accepted by 7-8. From what I can recall, I applied to all Ivy League universities except for Harvard, Northwestern, Vanderbilt (accepted), Amherst College, Wesleyan University (accepted), and Yale-NUS.

Interview at Duke

Of all universities, I liked the way Duke conducted my interview, which I had to do as a scholarship finalist (more on that below). The interviewer created a friendly atmosphere that struck me by surprise. I previously had a phone interview with Princeton, and it went terribly - it felt like they were trying to intentionally fail me.

During an interview with Duke, I was blonde, but the Skype profile photo had dark hair, so the first thing we started talking about was my hair color and how much I like to dye my hair. Then we moved on to talking about classes I want to take, and then about my dog. I felt a connection with the university and was very comfortable throughout the whole process. It felt like not only did I want to go to Duke, but that feeling was mutual, as they also wanted me.

Scholarship and Financial Aid

Bill and Melinda Gates created a University Scholars Program at Duke for interdisciplinary students. Due to the fact that my application did not have a specific focus, I was lucky to be selected.

This scholarship is merit-based and covers absolutely everything (tuition, meals, accommodation), plus 2 summer semesters, and an additional 7,000 USD is given for one more summer. Had I not received this merit-based scholarship, I would get 100% need-based financial aid.

Additionally, Duke has an International Fund (Karsh), which supports foreign students on financial aid. They asked me what laptop I want and what's my favorite color of bedsheets 😅 Lastly, I requested to have my flights home covered once a year.

Student life

Duke University is located in Durham, North Carolina. The city is very small, not particularly fun, and not the safest. You can see homeless people or crazy people shouting something on the street, so we always had to be very careful in the city. But the campus itself had everything we needed: gyms, shops, etc. The only places we would go to were Target or Whole Foods.

My freshman year was very similar to that of a typical American student. But after the 2nd year, which I spent in Australia, I returned as a completely different person. I realized that the world is too big, while the campus is too small. I bought myself a car, started going to the skating rink and to other cities, I and my friends would often visit various fairs.

Student life was busy. We used to organize figure skating competitions and traveled to other states. I volunteered at an elementary school and even on a farm. I entered Consulting club, International Relations club, Jiu Jitsu club; did photography, and wrote for the student newspaper. Every 2 weeks we held a seminar together with scholarship fellows. I've also done a research internship on campus, and in Australia.

I almost forgot about the theatre! During my junior year, I got into the theater because I accidentally saw an advertisement for a play called “Bad Roads” about the 2014 war in Ukraine. I immediately went to the audition. I then participated in another play in my senior year and even earned myself a Theater minor. I was able to use summer scholarship funding to take part in a summer theater program in London. In general, I always tried to use all the opportunities provided.

Work on Campus

I worked starting from my first year for 15-20 hours a week since the money was still needed. I started in a store on campus - at first, I was a cashier, but then became a supervisor with managerial responsibilities. After returning from Australia in my 3rd year, I became a social media editor for the university's social media. One of my projects was creating videos for Duke's YouTube channel and some of them organically gained 40,000 views and were played throughout the university. That's when I realized that it's amazing to do creative work when you don't even feel like you're working.

My path is rather strange - from science and academic work to something creative. But it eventually got me into marketing, which is what I'm doing now.

Difficulties of making friends

I probably still have a little trauma from that period.

When you first arrive, everything is just amazing and incredibly fun, as all the students are starting to get to know each other. Even before I arrived, I was active in the Facebook group, thanks to which I was recognized on campus from the beginning. In a short period of the orientation week, without exaggerating, I met ~ 2000 people.

But at some point everything changes. September comes, and after a few weeks of classes, you notice that everyone is in their little groups, and no one is making a conversation on the bus anymore. If you miss this very, VERY short period of time when you need to have lunch with everyone and attend all the parties, you lose touch and don't feel like you belong to the community. I experienced this firsthand as I was very burned out from the initial interactions, and also didn't have the financial means to participate in all activities. For example, everyone would go out for dinner, but I kept thinking that I don't have money to constantly eat out. Or I need to buy clothes for a party, but can't afford it.

Because of this, the international student community has undoubtedly separated. The students on financial aid stayed together, and it was much easier to be friends with them.

Social Hierarchy

Another moment I missed when it comes to social life is fraternities and sororities. I couldn't be a member of sororities because participation costs 1,000 USD per semester. In addition to the sororities, Duke had Selective Living Groups - groups of students that lived together from sophomore year. But again, you need 70 USD just to participate in the selection process. From that point, you will not get invited to any party, as parties are organized between sororities. Of course, I still went to various events, but in general, the social hierarchy was painfully obvious. When you see the kind of cars being driven around campus, you realize that students not on financial aid, which is a majority, pay 300k+ over four years. Such social disparity is probably the hardest thing about the States.

After I came back from Australia, I realized that there is a whole world besides the university bubble, and I started to care less. But I must say that for all four years it was hard and lonely. It's worth noting that American students feel exactly the same way. Duke had a center for student counseling, which always witnessed a crazy queue of students. Everyone was in need of therapy and antidepressants.

We should be talking about this part of student life much more.

Pursuing Masters in Australia

I made a rather unusual decision not to apply for OPT, but go to a graduate school instead. Ever since I visited Australia in my sophomore year, I've been determined to work there. As of this moment, I have already completed my Master's degree at Griffith University, and currently waiting for my 3-year work visa. I also knew that I didn't study marketing as such during my undergraduate degree, and I wanted to get more practical knowledge through the master's program. Australian universities have a lot more practice than US ones.

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from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Duration of Study

Aug 2016 — Sep 2020



Learn more ->
Duke University

Duke University

Durham, US🇺🇸

  1. 😇


    2 years ago


    1. 🥰


      1 year ago

      I found your story pretty inspiring! I am currently attending NCSU on a full-ride but considering transferring to DUKE. I am also an international student with a similar background.

      1. 🫠


        5 months ago

        I found this story very sensational and interesting. I applied to duke earlier last month for the fall semester 2024

        I would like to know if the financial aid covers airfare for international students? . I eouod be expecting your reply .