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

Thank you all for the feedback. This is an amazing resource. I should clarify my earlier question which I think was a little unclear. My concern is not about the existence of a social “top tier” (athletes/wealthy/connected) - I assume that exists everywhere and that is not really the issue - but about the degree to which the REST of the student body (beyond the top tier) is “sorted”. At schools without a pervasive Greek or Greek-type system, I would think that things would be more fluid socially for the bulk of the kids, but maybe not. If not, what does the sorting look like at those schools?

Hi, I take very keen interest in this thread. I used to think negatively about the social scene at Duke and hated the tiers and social stuff. But looking back, I wish I was taught how to make sense of all this. I have a much better understanding of all this now. I recommend following self help programs which greatly helped me digest all this stuff. In retrospect, I should’ve taken a part in all of social tiering stuff and play the game than attempting to shun it off.

@JWalls and others who have commented – Among Top 20 Schools check out Rice University. No Greek life. A residential system based on Oxford University. Happiest student body (many publications) and one of the most diverse student body. Do some research and let me know your thoughts.

Thank you for your reflections! It was very interesting and certainly revealing about the culture of Duke as a whole.

In answer to the question about whether this is different at other colleges:

I did not sense a social hierarchy when I went to Williams… but maybe I was oblivious! Everyone was friendly. No one ever excluded me from anything… and I am socially awkward and had a rough time back in my middle school years. Freshmen entries at Williams are designed to have a mix of students so you are socializing with people from all walks of life from the start. I was the opposite of a big partier, but when I went to parties on the big social days-- homecoming weekend, winter carnival, etc.-- nothing was ever exclusive.

A couple points based on the follow-up questions and to clarify my earlier post:

1.) While a social hierarchy does exist to some extent at Duke, I found Duke to be a VERY welcoming place that has a strong sense of community and pride that is STRENGTHENED by athletics (and specifically men’s basketball). In fact, that was one of the major pulls for me personally for Duke over the Ivies (Penn being my runner-up, but the sense of community I got from Duke put it over the edge). People are proud to wear Duke across their chests and don’t care where you come from, how much money you have, what you look like when you’re cheering for Duke basketball. We’re all Dukies at the moment and this extends to a very strong alumni network after graduating (which high schoolers don’t think about, but helps tremendously later on in life). And this also extends to academics were people are very helpful in forming study groups and being collaborative. I probably learned more from my peers than my professors in all honesty (those engineering problem sets are sometimes brutal…). It’s almost like there are “two Duke’s” – one very strong community where everybody is in it together in a flat hierarchy that extends to academics and watching athletics (and after graduating as well) and then another for the social scene “after dark” if you choose to participate (and it’s a segment of the social experience, not ALL of it). So, I’d agree that the complaints in the OP centered on social life would not impact academics or somebody’s Duke experience if they don’t want it to. Which leads me to…

2.) RE: Social hierarchy. This occurs at most all top schools. Ask Harvard people about eating clubs, etc. Having said that, I bet if you polled a random assortment of Duke students, they would have different “rankings” than the OP and some in fact, would have NO IDEA what you’re talking about at all because it has zero influence on their life. That, to me, signals it does not permeate everything and only impacts you if you let it. If you hang out with the type of people that care about that stuff, it would impact your perspective. And you certainly CAN have a very strong group of friends and social experiences without being at the “top” of the social ladder – honestly, most Duke students are pretty nerdy and has gotten moreso over the past 10 or so years (it’s a top 10 school after all), and come from all walks of life across the world. You can easily find like-minded individuals and still have a good time with lasting relationships. Based on surveys at graduation and transfer rates, Duke students show VERY high levels of satisfaction with their Duke experiences. If everybody was miserable, people would be transferring and you can see that Duke has one of the lowest transfer rates in the nation, which signals the OP’s experience is not all that typical.

So, in summary, I agree that there are some challenging social aspects at Duke that could be improved upon, but this 1.) is definitely not unique to Duke, 2.) doesn’t have a large impact on you if you don’t let it, and 3.) doesn’t impact the academic environment at all.

I found that Duke’s challenges honestly prepare its students better for life, not only from an academic/knowledge perspective, but learning social aspects that also come to life in the business world (I get that everybody doesn’t go into finance/consulting/business fields, but those certainly are popular). Duke’s challenges/shortcomings are shortfalls that exist at almost all other top universities and also exist in a different but related form later on in life. If you can learn to deal with everything at Duke, I personally think you’re better prepared to be a more successful person AFTER Duke. LIFE IS NOT ALL KUMBAYA AFTER DUKE. Duke forces you to learn how to deal with difficult circumstances from all facets. Which is the point of going to college in my opinion – to expand your horizons and prepare you to be successful at life in contributing to society in whatever field you choose to pursue.

Good luck all!

Hey again, everyone. Thanks again for all of your input so far. I wanted to address a commom question that I keep seeing pop up in these comments.

It seems like a lot of people believe that a similar social hierarchy exists at other top schools like Duke. I can only comment on my own experience here at Duke, but I do acknowledge that other peer schools could have similar issues. With that being said, I do personally believe that there are 2 main reasons why it could potentially be worse at Duke.

  1. The surrounding area

Unlike schools like Harvard, Columbia, Penn, etc. that are located in large cities or college towns, the area around Duke is comparatively lackluster. I mentioned in my original posts that most people at Duke will only ever interact with Durham by going to Shooter’s or Ninth Street, and I stand by this. Most people at Duke do not venture that often into Durham for any other purposes. Since most people aren’t frequently enjoying the surrounding area, the social organizations have been forced to more or less create the social environment of the school.

  1. The housing system

For independents, you can only block house with 5 other people. What this means is that after freshman year, you will only be able to live next to 5 people for sure. If you have more than 6 total people in your friend group, including yourself , you’ll have to exclude some people from the block, and figuring out who is in or out of a block breaks up many friendships too. Unlike colleges that have residential colleges like Rice, Yale, etc where people have some form of permanent community in the houses if they want it, the houses for independents are not close at all. Most people in independent housing will just hang out with their block, and it’s not uncommon to not know the name of the person living down the hallway from you.

Again, these are just my opinions. Thanks again everyone for taking the time to read and contribute to this thread.

@DukeObserver You hit the nail on the head. My son goes to Rice. He is a sophomore. He loves Rice. Two reasons:

  1. College Residential system: He belongs to Lovett college and his four years he is guaranteed at least 3 years of Lovett housing. Even for 1 year if he moves out to off campus, he still belongs to Lovett and will spend his on campus time at common areas within Lovett. I have seen this first hand Residential system at Rice (and Yale) are like families away from home. You always belong to Lovett and develop a deep sense of pride and connection with all 100+ students that are part of your residential college system. The bond is further enhanced when residential colleges compete against one another in various sports on campus. It makes students bond at a very fundamental level as part of a family.
  2. Rice has no Greek life! so no hierarchies and no one to appease to attend a party. Each residential college throws 2 parties each year and its open to all students… Bar none! No isolation. No one can ban anyone.

In the past two years I have been to Rice campus multiple times and I know half of Lovett college students by name now. His friends come and spend their break at our home in Dallas for a couple of days. I can see the happiness that these kids have. Thats why Rice student body is rated one of the happiest, which I posted earlier. I am not saying Duke is not a great school but what I am saying is that when a high school student moves away from home to be on his own for the first time in their life, having a family atmosphere away from home goes a long way in making the student feel at home. I really believe that Residential college system at Rice and Yale etc. is something that other top schools really need to consider.

An advice from a former unhappy student turned happy now :slight_smile:

Please prepare yourself both mentally, physically, and emotionally. This is far from just being academically prepared. I advice to take a year off before attending colleges like Duke. A lot of older people tend to do well here because they know themselves better and thus have high self-esteem. A high self-worth and inner confidence (bonus points if you have something to show for it) can make all the difference and take you far at Duke both academically and socially.


Where are you getting the graduation surveys from? I’ve never been able to find them, and I’m actually quite curious about what’s in them

@DukeObserver so basically Duke has a popularity system?

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I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but in a simplistic way, I guess so, but what in life isn’t a popularity contest?

This is a very interesting post for me as someone who graduated from Duke last year and still have no knowledge of the Greek system/social scene at Duke. I think I do fall into a rare minority, but I just wanted to inject a little hope/positivity into the possibility of being happy at Duke.

About me:

  • I’m a homebody - I enjoy quiet nights in with friends, watching movies, doing arts and crafts with others, you get the picture.
  • I attended several basketball games because I wanted to experience that school spirit and whatnot, but am by no means “into” the sport culture.
  • I graduated never having been to Shooters or a frat/sorority party (in fact, I couldn’t even name a frat or sorority).
  • Not a WASP, was on a lot of financial aid while at Duke
  • Was not in an SLG, was in a block with 5 of my friends and was very happy living in the same place for the 3 years on West Campus

I was so very very very happy at Duke, though I do consider myself extremely lucky to have found people with a similar mindset. My friends and I were the type to go out to find good food, go to performances at DPAC, and drink hot chocolate while re-watching Disney movies. It’s entirely possible to go through 4 years here being completely detached from the social scene and be happy. I think you do have to get out of the mentality of a pecking order (as in, if you’re not part of a group on the list, you’re at the bottom), and think more along the lines of “I’m not going to become someone I’m not in order to fit in. I just need to find others like me.”

We were all academically driven, but our interests were different so there was no competition between friends. And I’ll say this to the “competitive” atmosphere at Duke - I personally think “competitive” carries a connotation that’s not entirely correct. I want to say the Duke community as a whole is very “driven” - students set high goals for themselves, and the Duke curriculum as a whole really pushes students to sort of find their own path and change the world. People aren’t concerned with pushing others down in order to get ahead, and I’d go so far as to say that people are quite supportive of each other, if only because everyone knows how difficult it is to thrive at Duke.

All that said, I tutored a lot at Duke and I will say it’s true that Duke is not for everyone. I worked with many students who were struggling academically and having come from being the cream-of-the-crop in high school, felt discouraged/that they didn’t belong. I think that an important part of growing/maturing as a student at Duke is distancing one’s self-worth from one’s achievements, and if you don’t think you can do that, you might have a very hard time emotionally at Duke.

Side note: I was pre-med, and I think Duke did a great job of getting me into medical school. Feel free to PM me or I can make a post about that experience (both pre-med and applying to med school) if anyone’s interested.

I would love if you could make a pre-med experience post! @mecsquared

Thanks, @mecsquared for injecting your experience into this seemingly negative post. I have a feeling it will be VERY easy to find a lot of fun things to do in Durham, and surrounding areas. I mean… it’s a beautiful area in a beautiful part of the country! What’s not to like that isnt EVERYwhere else?!