Reasons Why You May Dislike Duke: A Memoir from an Unhappy Student

This post will be long, so there will be a quick summary at the bottom for those who don’t want to read the entire post.

Hi everyone, I am a current junior at Duke, and like many of you, I looked at College Confidential religiously when I was applying to college. Also like a lot of you, I applied to as many top ranked colleges as possible and was fortunate enough to get accepted into Duke among many other great schools. However, looking back now, I don’t believe that I would attend Duke again if I was given the opportunity to go back in time.

With college decisions coming out soon, I wanted to spend a little time giving back to the community that helped me out so much when I was still in high school. I often see mostly positive things on this website for any school, so I felt like my different perspective may be useful for anyone trying to decide whether or not Duke would be a great fit for them.

Before going any further, I want to acknowledge that there are many people who do enjoy and love Duke. This post is not to discredit those people or make any kind of judgement towards them. Also, there may be some of you that have your heart set out on Duke. If this is you, I truly hope that you find more happiness and fulfillment than I ever did at the university.

Having said that, keep in mind that this entire post is my opinion based on my own personal experiences and observations. Some of the things I may talk about could easily be an issue with college in general or society. Others on this board may tell you about their wonderful experience at Duke, and you should read their posts as well to gain a more comprehensive perspective about Duke.

I’ve listed some common conceptions or beliefs about Duke below, and I will elaborate on them as much as I can. Feel free to read as much or as little as you would like. However, here are a few terms that you may want to get familiar with before proceeding:

  • Marketplace: The freshman dining hall
  • Shooter’s/Shooter’s II/Shoots/WNS (Wednesday Night Shooter’s): The most common nightclub that people go to at Duke. It’s located near East Campus.
  • SLG (Selective Living Group): These are advertised as alternatives to Greek life. At the core, they are basically a group of about 100 people who live together and hang out
  • 9th Street: A street located near East Campus that has some popular restaurants
  • Food points: The currency of meal plans at Duke. 1 food point = 1 dollar.
  • Independent: Someone who is not affiliated with a Greek or SLG organization
  • WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. A term used to refer to the elite of the elite in the United States
  • Social organization: Term I used to refer to Greek life and SLGs

Common Questions and Beliefs

This section will mostly cover basic questions that most people have about Duke.

  1. Everyone at Duke has to be incredibly smart and accomplished right?

No. This was one of the biggest surprises and disappointments for me when I entered Duke. While there are some incredibly bright and amazing people at Duke, a lot of them have more or less been prepared to go to an Ivy League caliber school from birth by their family.

Most students here also care more about prestige and money than making a difference in the world. The most common topics of discussion are:

  • Greek life
  • Shooter’s
  • Internship/Job Recruiting
  • Basketball
  • How much work people are doing

By the time you graduate, about half of your graduating class will enter either finance or consulting.

  1. Is Durham a fun city?

It’s more fun than a typical suburb, but it’s not as fun as a large city. The best thing about Durham is probably the food. Outside of that, there are a few bars if you’re into that scene and a few nice shopping areas like Brightleaf and the Tobacco District. Durham isn’t really the safest city though, so you’ll want to go with other people at night if you feel the need to venture into it.

Even with these things, most people, especially freshman, will just typically go to Shooter’s and grab the occasional meal on 9th Street on the weekend. Duke definitely has more of a campus feel to it than a city feel.

  1. Is the campus nice?

Outside of what you see on the main quad from West Campus, there isn’t really much else to see. East campus looks more or less uniform on the main quad, and the dorms not on the main quad aren’t exactly the prettiest. Central campus looks like a rundown area of a city. Also, the administration likes to renovate the grass on West Campus a lot for whatever, so expect to smell fertilizer, mulch, and dirt often around West. However, if you like wide open campuses, you’ll really like how spread out Duke’s campus is.

  1. I hear that there is are a lot of issues with sexual assault at Duke. Is this true?

This is a pretty controversial topic at Duke and across college campuses in general. I do personally know a few people that have been sexually assaulted and raped while at Duke. The university has published some recent findings about sexual assault on campus if you want to read more.

Overall, I believe that if you go out with a group of friends and take care of one another, you should be safe. However, unfortunately, this isn’t a fool proof way to avoid these kinds of problems because drugs and alcohol make situations more difficult.

  1. Is the food on campus good?

As a freshman, you’ll mostly be getting your meals at Marketplace because of the meal plan. Most freshmen do start to get sick of Marketplace though, and you’ll often hear people complaining about it by the second month of school or so.

There’s a decent variety on West Campus, but it is quite pricey if you’re not on financial aid. The university seems to be cutting away dining options from students though after renovating the main eating location on West Campus, West Union. There used to be a lot of food trucks lined up near the Chapel, and you used to be able to order delivery from a few off-campus restaurants with food points. However, the food trucks have virtually been forced off the Chapel area, and you can only order food after 8 P.M. now.

  1. Is there a social hierarchy at Duke?

Unfortunately, yes. Things like Greek life and SLGS help perpetuate the hierarchy. I’ll talk more about the social scene in the next section.

  1. How’s the dating culture at Duke?

Hook-up culture is definitely the norm here. I’ll only comment on heterosexual relationships since I don’t know much else about other relationships.

20% of guys hook-up and date 80% of the girls here. These guys are typically at the top of the social hierarchy. On the other hand, girls have a lot easier time having these kinds of relationships since most guys don’t care too much about a girl’s social status on campus as long as she is physically attractive enough to them.

  1. Is basketball really that big?

Yes. Most people at least enjoy watching Duke Basketball games with their friends, and it’s a great way to meet and connect with people. I will say that basketball is something that unifies students together on campus, so it’s fun to get into it. If you’re not into basketball, no one will judge you, and you can easily avoid it.

  1. Can I have fun without drugs and alcohol?

Probably, but you’ll have to make your own fun. Most social activities involve some form of alcohol. If you want to enjoy a night in with friends, you can, but don’t expect that to be the norm at Duke.

  1. How hard is Duke?

This really depends on your major and what you’re good at. If you put the effort into studying and keeping up with your classes, you should be fine. The average GPA is around a 3.4 – 3.6 I believe. People on the pre-med track tend to be the least collaborative and most competitive students.

Social Life

In my personal opinion, the academic quality of the best ranked schools is relatively the same. However, what’s not the same is the type of people that you will be living with for the next four years. Each school has its own distinct kind of student, and you should become very familiar with this culture before selecting any college. Regardless of what you actually accomplish during your time in college, being around the right group of people can make it an amazing experience. Conversely, being around the wrong crowd of people will result in a lot of unhappiness and loneliness.

  1. Is Greek life huge at Duke?

Greek life is extremely huge at Duke, despite what other people might tell you. While the statistics may same something like only 30 - 40% of students are affiliated with Greek life, its presence is very prominent, and you will likely be affected by it at some point in your Duke career. These students mostly control the social and professional environment of the school because they often come from the wealthiest and most connected families.

Also, Greek life is very hierarchical. People often have conversations about which sorority or fraternity they think is “higher tier” than another one. You can see Duke’s section of the website greekrank if you want a little taste of these kinds of conversations. People will often have prejudgments about you based on what Greek organization you belong to.

Even if you don’t personally join a Greek organization, chances are, one of the friends you make first semester will. One common adage at Duke is that rush (the process of joining Greek life and other social organizations)

  1. What’s the social hierarchy at Duke?

With some flexibility, the social hierarchy is:

  1. Athletes
    1. People in the “top tier” sororities and fraternities
  2. People in the “mid-tier” sororities and fraternities
    1. People in the “top tier” SLGS
  3. People in the “mid-tier” SLGS
  4. Independent Girls
  5. People in the “low-tier” sororities and fraternities
  6. People in the “low-tier” SLGS
  7. Independent Guys

Girls have a slightly easier time than guys since many guys higher in the hierarchy will invite them out to events if they find them attractive enough.

Dating and socializing above or below your respective social tier is also virtually non-existent. People literally have conversations about which social group another person is in and will pre-judge them based on it. While there are friend groups that exist across different social tiers, it is by far not the norm.

  1. If these Greek organizations and SLGS are so great, why can’t I just join them?

Unfortunately, not everyone has equal chances at becoming a member of each organization. The organizations in “higher tiers”, except for athletes, are comprised mostly of WASPs or children of famous/important people. They won’t directly ask how wealthy you are, but they find ways to get the information out of you by asking things like what your parents do for a living, where you live, and what high school you went to. You can see any Greek organization’s Facebook or Instagram page to get an idea of the kind of people who generally join them.

These groups also start recruiting before the school year even starts through pre-orientation programs. If you want to try your luck at getting into any social organization, it will be tough regardless since you will be competing for roughly 20 spots in each group with around 300 – 500 people, if not more.

  1. How are the school clubs at Duke?

Many people find social fulfillment in joining a club at Duke. Like with anything else here, many clubs are very competitive, and you have to fill out an application for many of them in order to become a member. This mostly applies to the pre-professional clubs.

There are some organizations that are not selective or exclusive, a lot of them being race or religion based, that you can join as well if you’re into that sort of thing.

  1. What if I just want to get my degree and chill with some friends?

If this is you, Duke is probably not the best choice. Not many people go to class and then come back to relax with their friends. It’s sort of implicitly understood at Duke that you have to do as much as possible in order to remain competitive with others, and if you don’t you will fall behind, either professionally or socially.

  1. What’s the typical social life like freshman year?

Most people, in their first year, will become friends with the people living in their hall. Some people will decide to remain with these friends, while others will see them as temporary friends until they are able to find the kind of friends that they want through a club or social organization. Since people can’t join social organizations until second semester, there will be more open parties first semester hosted by various groups in order to attract potential members. Aside from these open parities, freshmen also like to go to Shooter’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays. People in freshman halls remain relatively close until second semester starts.

Second semester is when rush, the process of joining social organizations, starts. This will break up many friendships as people join differing groups. Although people may say that they’ll remain friends with you after rush, chances are most of them will become closer with the people in the organization that they joined. It’s especially tough for guys since fraternities will eat up a lot of their time post rush with pledging (making new members go through certain initiations and other things before they become full-fledged members).

After rush, the open parties practically stop, and people will start spending more time with their social organizations in order to develop stronger bonds. The independents who didn’t get into anything will sometimes remain friends, but by the end of the year, you’ll most likely only have a handful of people that you’ll talk with after the year ends.

  1. What’s the social life like after freshman year?

Your friends in Greek life and SLGs will become absorbed in them, and you won’t be able to see them as much anymore outside of the occasionally catch up over lunch or dinner since they will mostly be spending time with their social groups. If you are fortunate enough to be in any of these organizations, you can find good friends in them, but know that there is inevitably some drama within any social organization, so you may not be able to get along with everyone in your group.

If you’re an independent guy, don’t expect to go to any organized social event unless you are friends with the upperclassmen in that organization. If you’re an independent girl, you can probably show up to events with your female friends who are in a social organization without knowing many people and be let in.

As time goes on, social groups will become more or less solidified by the end of your sophomore year, since sophomores can rush as well, and it becomes a lot harder to meet people outside of class. You really have to put forth the effort to make new friends and be an initiator if you find yourself without a main group of friends.

  1. Are the students diverse?

Racially, Duke is a fairly diverse school compared to its peers. Economically, it is not at all. See this link for more info on that:

Students here tend to be socially liberally. Financially, the students tend to be more moderate.

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Academic and Professional Life

For most people, job opportunities are the reason why they decide to go to a school like Duke. In this section, I’ll touch on the academic and professional aspects of Duke a little.

  1. Will going to Duke will help me get into finance?

This is true to a certain extent. While a lot of big banks and other financial firms do recruit at Duke and similar peer schools, it is still very competitive to get a position. Going to Duke puts you through the door, but you will still have to work very hard in order to stand out. If finance is something that you want to do, be sure to network well too.

  1. Will going to Duke will help me get into medical school?

Not necessarily true. I’ve heard both sides of this. One group believes that having a lower GPA at a better undergrad school will help you get into med school while one group believes that having a higher GPA with more extracurriculars at a worse school will better your chances at med school. I personally believe in the latter, especially if the schools aren’t too far off and the “worse” school is significantly cheaper.

  1. Will going to Duke will help me get a consulting job?

I’m not too familiar with consulting recruiting, so I won’t comment on this.

  1. Is Study abroad/Duke Engage/Bass Connections really fun and engaging?

Most of them are. Although these programs can be competitive, I think for most students, they are a rewarding experience, and you should definitely participate in one of them before you graduate if you can.

  1. How good are the professors?

This really depends on the department. Most students find that professors in the humanities are better than the professors in STEM. Unfortunately, there are some large intro classes in subjects such as math, that are taught by graduate students, post-docs, and visiting professors instead of full-time professors. These kinds of professors aren’t generally as good as full-time professors, and many students struggle in classes taught by them.

Most classes that are graded on a curve at Duke are curved to around a B. Regardless of who your professor is, you should always try to make the most out of each class.


If you have your heart set on Duke than I wish you find more happiness than I ever did. For everyone else, please really consider all of the factors that they may not advertise or tell you about. Don’t waste your next four years at a place for the sake of prestige if you can’t see yourself being happy there. You’ll be extremely miserable.

If you have to pay significantly more for Duke than you would a good state school, I am telling you up front that Duke is not worth it at the undergraduate level. You’ll be able to stand out a lot better at a less competitive school and be around probably more diverse students.

I wish you all the best in college and the future.

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@DukeObserver - This is very well thought out and well written. In spite of your own negative experience, I applaud your attempt to be as impartial as possible. Well done! This definitely helped making a decision about Duke. Much appreciated!

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Agreed. Thank you so much for your respectful opinion! It will definitely help me in solidifying my decision.

As somebody who LOVED Duke and encourages people to go there constantly, I actually agree with a lot of what you said. You gave a personal opinion with some keen insights and said that Duke might not be a good fit for everybody. I think your preface frames it nicely:

One point that I want to address is about the social hierarchy. I would say it does exist to some degree and agree with your ranking on it for the most part (I was at the “bottom” as an independent male…the last and ninth place finisher on your list), but if you don’t give a s h *t about your social standing, then what’s the difference? It only impacts you negative IF YOU LET IT. I knew many people who had enriching social experiences (myself including) who didn’t let that stuff worry me, and in my friend group honestly, nobody talked about it because I didn’t associate myself with people who cared. I was in Pratt, though, so maybe that had something to do with it (yes, engineers are generally nerdier). Some of this might be more random than we are led to believe. Who you happen to have in your dorm, classes, and hang out with frame your experience. If you happen to be exposed to a certain type of person, then you may have a different experience. I, at least, think there is more randomness than people would like to admit.

I did get exposure to the Greek system though as my girlfriend was in a sorority (either considered a top or mid-tier one depending on who you ask) and had friends in fraternities. In hindsight, I wish I joined a fraternity as I think I would have had a better and more enriching social experience, but my academics/extra-curriculars kept me plenty busy. And I didn’t come from wealth – on financial aid – and am not a WASP either.

Two points that you mentioned that I agree with: 1.) Not everybody at Duke is super smart. In my BME courses, this was generally the case, but in many of my Trinity courses (I was a psych minor), I was astonished at how these people could have gotten into Duke. That’s my Pratt elitism showing…but seriously, not everybody is a super genius and there are plenty of “normal” people. 2.) Duke can be demoralizing to your self-confidence. Both socially and academically, Duke is a competitive place. (Not cut-throat academically, but sometimes you can feel “stupid” in comparing yourself. I know this seems incongruent with my first point that not everybody is super smart, but emotions aren’t logical sometimes…) There were times that I felt like a bit of a failure at Duke compared to how I excelled so much in high school. It can be a hard transition. HOWEVER, I believe that Duke makes its students stronger by pushing them and in the end, this is a positive in getting the most out of people are preparing them for the real world.

Just my thoughts on it. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think very highly of Duke and loved my experience, but in the moment, there can be times of challenges and doubt. And I’ve heard the food in the new West Union Building is AWESOME, so not sure why you were so luke-warm on that one. Like one of the most amazing eateries on any US campus and being compared to fancy food courts like Eataly in New York and Chicago. I graduated before that though, so can’t speak from personal experience. (Marketplace on the other hand can get repetitive).

Good luck to all!

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Wow, I’m very happy with the warm responses that I’ve received so far!

@bluedog I’m also really happy that you managed to find meaningful relationships during your time at Duke despite the social boundaries. We seem to be becoming from similar backgrounds, and I’m still trying to develop lasting friendships before I graduate. In terms of West Union, I think you kind of get sick of it after a while. Also, the prices are also pretty high if you’re not on financial add. Although I appreciate West Union, I don’t like how the administration is more or less removing food trucks from campus and preventing us from ordering from off-campus vendors. The 8 P.M. rule exists because most of West Union closes at 8

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The best post I’ve read so far.

One comment I’d like to make: the social hierarchy only matters if you let it affect you. Plenty of people (independents and many people in SLGs) don’t care if you are or are not affiliated. So, hang out with the right people, and you will be fine.

I’m speaking from the perspective of someone in an SLG (but not actively involved), with independent and affiliated friends (most of whom are, interestingly, not very involved with their SLGs/frats either). Rushing and joining an organization does not guarantee an enriching social life.

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OP. OP’s post correlates closely with what I think of Duke, and I haven’t even attended Duke.

Thanks for your post. As an alum, I tend to agree with you on most points.

However taking a step back, it appears that the reasons you listed for dissatisfaction with Duke are almost entirely based upon the social scene. While this may seem important to you during the college years, I can assure you that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

Duke is a sporty school, no surprise there. So the athletes are at the top of the social food chain followed by the greeks. But the same can be said for nearly every other top state school, and all of the ivies. The only other top schools where the social scene is completely differently is MIT and Caltech (the two schools that don’t place a huge emphasis on sports). Although you may not believe it now, you’ll be surprised at how many doors the Duke name will open for you.

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OP, thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I am a Duke alum (graduated late '80s) and had the same experience of rigid social hierarchy. While there are many things wonderful about Duke, I too think that it was a bad fit for me personally because of that. I had hoped that things might have changed since then but it sounds like they haven’t.

The reason I am focusing on this now is that I have an 11th grader who is looking at colleges. He likes the Duke campus, interdisciplinary approach, and location. He is a friendly, mature kid who is not socially inept, but he’s not really the type who would land at the top of the social pyramid at Duke and he doesn’t particularly like elitism. I’m concerned about how the social stratification would affect his experience.

The hard part is that we live in North Carolina and he is not sure that he wants to be a plane flight away for college, so that gives Duke a definite leg up in attractiveness to him (as does the legacy admit bump). He should be competitive at highly selective schools, which I say not to brag or to count on an admission, but just to convey that Duke and its peers are reasonably possible options. He wants to take advantage of applying ED to whatever his first choice ends up being, so we have to figure out all of this on the front end.

Questions for All: How do other top-20ish schools that you/your kids/your friends attend compare regarding the level of social stratification in the student body - do they have more or less than what has been described for Duke? And are small LACs as a rule less stratified? Such info would help us tremendously in planning where to look.

(I hope these questions don’t constitute hijacking of this thread. Apologies if so; I am new to this. Feel free to PM me if that is more appropriate.)

^ I am not a Duke alum, but I was struck reading the OP by how much of the dissatisfaction focused on the social scene. Most of the academics seemed reduced to a fairly simplistic and generic assessment.

I would suggest that the following are not uncommon among many schools, including many “elite” ones:

  • A social hierarchy which is influenced by Greek Life, athletics, and a high proportion of wealthy kids, and alums
  • A strong athletic presence
  • A large portion of the undergrads focused on lucrative career paths (finance, premed, tech)
  • Large entry level STEM courses and premed courses with a strict curve and a high presence of graduate students

I went to Stanford, and most of those things were present there as well. I had no interest in them, and they had almost 0% impact on my personal experience; nor did dining options or the social options available in Palo Alto. I would guess that for some applicants those kind of considerations are important, and for others they are negligible. It probably depends on what one is looking for in an undergraduate experience.

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@JWalls honestly all of the top 20 schools have the same social pecking order. There really is no difference. Even when you go to small liberal arts colleges like Williams (500 students per class) the pecking order still exists.

The only schools that I can think of where the social order is different are: Caltech, MIT, UChicago, religious colleges and those with minimal athletic programs (like community colleges).

The only way to avoid this is to attend a college where a large % are commuters.

WashU, I think, is a top 20 school that’s a bit different, as there is virtually no focus on sports. From what I’ve heard, it has a community vibe to it.

@JWalls, the NESCAC LACs in New England (often referred to as the small Ivies) tend to have hierarchies that are similar to Duke, Stanford and the Ivies, but perhaps not as rigid as the schools are smaller. Swarthmore, Carleton and Haverford, which are outstanding academically (all top 10 LACs and Ivy equivalents) have more egalitarian cultures. Swarthmore and Haverford have a Quaker heritage which is still evident in the campus ethos (strongly intellectual and driven to make the world a better place). Although it was a number of years ago, when I attended Swarthmore there was no discernable social hierarchy.

The above said, my son and daughter are having en excellent experience academically and socially at Duke, and are purposefully and happily independent (the fraternities play no meaningful role in their or their friends lives). They enjoy their interactions with professors and students alike, find the environment intellectually stimulating and appreciate the broad variety of extracurricular activities available. My daughter followed my son by two years and could easily have gone elsewhere but, based on her brother’s experience, chose to ED at Duke.

This is an extremely profound post and makes me re-evaluate my interest in Duke somewhat.

“Unhappy student” says all we need to know…From a review of the postings, one can conclude that OP would be “unhappy” no matter where OP attended school…Oh well.

^ Sheesh.

@DukeObserver , thank you for your contribution. All the best to you.

@argos5 There’s no need to attack him. He is trying to help prospective students. He didn’t enjoy the cliqueiness of Duke and he wanted to warn others that they may not enjoy it either.

I appreciate what this student has to say. In his opinion, is there a school out there where these issues don’t exist? I went to an elite small LAC 25 years ago without fraternities…I saw many of the same issues.