This spring break I got some much needed relaxation as I sat back and watched two forms of March Madness: one of course on the basketball court, the other pervading the gossip of teenagers and parents alike as current high school seniors began to hear back from colleges in the regular decision round.
“Did you hear John doe got waitlisted at Dartmouth?”
“I know. He’s not getting in anywhere. I bet his essays are bad.”
This college talk got me thinking about how much my perspective on the matter has changed over the course of this last year. When I was applying to schools, I meticulously researched the places I was considering and went on a plethora of tours and info sessions, all in the name of determining which college was the perfect fit for me. I had all these preconceived notions of what I wanted in terms of campus, location, size, curriculum, etc.; preconceived notions I came to somewhat randomly and arbitrarily. In the end I decided that Duke fit the bill, enough so to commit to applying early decision, so here I am today.
With the end of my freshman year coming to a close, I realize how off my perception of Duke and college life as a whole was. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had an amazing year and couldn’t see myself at any other school, but it’s been a completely different experience than I expected—in particular socially. For this reason, I thought it would be useful to jot down a few things I wish I had known when applying to schools.
Perhaps my biggest misconception was with Greek life and its presence at Duke. If you were to ask a tour guide what Greek life was like at Duke, they would probably tell you that only 34 percent of students participate in Greek life, approximately 40 percent of females and 30 percent of males. While this is true, it’s extremely misleading. Even though technically a minority of students are affiliated with groups, Greek presence feels ubiquitous. Outside of Shooters or Devine’s, many times the only options for going out are Greek or other living group parties that can be exclusive.
I’m not saying that if you’re not in a group at Duke, you’re going to have a bad time or be excluded. There’s a path to your personal happiness at any school, regardless of the Greek presence, and there are plenty of fun things to do at Duke and in Durham that have nothing to do with frats or sororities. But like it or not, Greek life will most likely have some impact on your Duke experience even if you choose not to rush, and that’s something to consider.
My friends at Northwestern and USC—at which approximately 40 percent and 20 percent of students respectively are Greek—agree about the presence of Greek life on campus. They both chose not to join traditional fraternities or sororities, but still regularly attend Greek events. One of the major benefits of Greek life is having a built in close-knit group of friends, but they’ve managed to find that in groups and clubs that share a common interest, in both of their cases film.
At the beginning of break I went up to Providence to visit a couple of my friends at Brown, a school that has virtually no Greek presence. While the environment felt much more inclusive, there was noticeably much less going on than a typical Duke weekend. That meant a lot of smaller parties in dorm rooms, which were a nice change from the sometimes overwhelming frat parties, but I could see it getting a little bit old after a while.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time on Greek life, but when I talked to my friends at other schools they all defined their social experience in terms of the lack or presence of Greek life, so it felt important. But onto school itself. When applying to schools, I thought I wanted to be pre-med, so a big factor in my decision was if a school had a strong science reputation. But if I’ve learned one thing in college it’s that interests can change, so it’s dangerous to apply to a school only for a specific program. I’m no longer pre-med, but luckily I still love Duke as a whole. I have other friends who aren’t so lucky.
As far as the classes you take in your first semester go, I wish I had taken a lighter course load. Many incoming Duke freshman, myself included, got through high school never encountering that much of a challenge in classes and come in with the attitude that they’re invincible when it comes to school. But Duke is a whole other animal. The classes at Duke, especially the large intro-level “weed out” classes, can be pretty difficult and require a lot of time and effort to just stay afloat. There’s a lot of other stuff going on in the first semester; joining clubs, adjusting to life away from home, making friends, and to balance all of that with an intense course load can lead to a lot of stress. I would have much rather learned what it takes to succeed in a Duke class before diving into those more difficult classes.
But the most important thing I’ve learned is that while each school is unique, outside of surface differences they offer very similar things. It’s not so much the school you’re at, but what you do when you get there. Of my friends at other schools, those who actively try to make the most of their situation eventually find happiness and those who convince themselves that they are in the wrong place never do. So to current high school seniors, regardless of where you end up, know that your work has just begun.
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Sami Kirkpatrick is a Trinity freshman. His column, "the new duker" runs on alternate Thursdays.