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Duke University has joined a small group of colleges that include optional questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on admissions applications. But Duke is doing so in a different way from others, with a short essay, rather than boxes to check. And applicants can use the essay to write about identities beyond sexual orientation and gender identity that they want to share with Duke.

The move comes as other colleges that have added such questions report that their experiences have been positive. Duke is also the first Common Application institution to add such a question -- a notable development in that the Common Application in 2011 rejected the idea of adding optional questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to its application form.

Duke's question states: "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."

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, said via email that Duke students and others had encouraged the adoption of the new question, and that much of the discussion had been over whether to use a checkbox or some other format.

"I decided that a more open-ended question would be better. In general I prefer to think of diversity within the context of values, interests, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, rather than discrete attributes, and asking the question in this way moves us in that direction," Guttentag said. "I wanted people to understand that our asking questions like this was to further our goal of understanding the applicant better. Giving the applicant space to talk about themselves in that context rather than just check a box better helps us understand the applicant as an individual and as a potential member of the Duke community."

Proponents of adding these types of questions have argued that colleges should be considering whether they do a good job of attracting applicants and admitting applicants who are gay or transgender -- and then making sure these students succeed. Just as colleges use data to track their performance in educating minority groups (in part by asking applicants and students their race and ethnicity), they should do so about other groups, these advocates say.

Daniel Kort, a Duke senior who is president of Blue Devils United, Duke's LGBTQ student group, said he would have preferred a checkbox, to be similar to the approach used by other students to identify their various identities. But he called the open-ended question "a significant step in the right direction."

Elmhurst College was the first to adopt such a question, and reports that about 3 percent of applicants annually check a box indicating that their identity is something other than straight.

The University of Iowa has been through two admissions cycles in which applicants have an optional question: "Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?”

In the first year with the question, 353 of 21,600 applicants checked the box. In the second year, 870 of 24,000 applicants checked the box.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology gives students an optional question on sexual orientation and gender identity that includes a "straight" option such that all students may answer the question.

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT, said that because the question wasn't intended for reporting purposes, the institution doesn't release breakdowns on the results. But he said that the response to the question has been "overwhelmingly positive" and that 75 percent of applicants answer it.

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