Over the past couple of weeks I have spent almost a full day at Princeton University, only six miles from home. I have walked through the campus for 16 years, but never reviewed the university for this site. It’s really silly to cover Princeton as I would a lesser known school, and give it a report card. Instead of writing a ‘Profile’ or ‘First Impressions’, I decided to present a few attributes of Princeton University that separate it from other extremely selective private schools, especially others in the Ivy League. These include:

  • Nearly two-thirds of Princeton University students are undergrads versus less than a third of the students at Harvard and just over 40 percent at Yale. The atmosphere at Princeton appears to be more collaborative than competitive, the professors more accessible than they would be at a school that offers more doctoral and advanced professional degrees.
  • Princeton takes the middle ground when it comes to core requirements versus Brown, which has none at all, and Columbia, which is far more structured. Students take a freshman writing seminar as well as a set of core courses.  Everyone takes four courses per term from the freshman through junior years, six total as a senior along with their thesis. It’s fairly easy for a liberal arts major to have a minor or two, and for an engineering student to have one. And whether you’re a prospective English major or engineering, you’ll take the same introductory courses in Calculus and English Literature. Everyone also takes the same introductory Computer Science course—CS 126, one of the most subscribed classes on campus—and learns to program in Java. 
  • If you go by a week’s worth of the Daily Princetonian, the university’s student newspaper, Princeton University students are quite engaged in campus politics and institutional change. During the spring of 2018, students actually voted on four referenda—three later denied by the university’s administration— to change the university’s Honor Code. At the same time, Princeton students publicly debate political issues, and may join the American Whig-Cliosophic Society the oldest debate society and political union at a US college. Its two buildings, Whig Hall and Clio Hall, are in the center of campus, showing the importance of debate to the community. Princeton graduates its share of political and judicial figures that are either conservative or liberal. Supreme Court justices Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayer are Princeton alumni, but so is Senator Ted Cruz 
  • Princeton is the “most suburban” Ivy. Cornell and Dartmouth are in isolated places, the other Ivies are in cities. If you do not want to mix a college education with an education in city life, but want easy access to a large city, Princeton is the most practical option. Princeton, the community, could be considered a commuting suburb of New York or Philadelphia, depending on whether you drive or take a train. The campus is also going to feel less crowded and congested. It is more similar to Evanston, Illinois, home to Northwestern University, or Palo Alto, California, home to Stanford, than it is to any other Ivy League community. 
  • Princeton is an “athletes school.” It is the only Ivy that has produced the best player in college basketball (Bill Bradley, 1965) and the Heisman Trophy winner in college football (Dick Kazmaier, 1950). It is the last Ivy that could legitimately claim a National Championship (1950) in college football and the last  to have win a game in the NCAA Final Four in Men’s Basketball (consolation game vs. Wichita State in 1965).. Princeton has won over 200 individual and team national championships since 1897, including six in men’s lacrosse and three’s in women’s lacrosse. Princeton’s athletic program, with 37 varsity sports, currently ranks third behind Stanford and Wake Forest among Division 1 schools in the Director’s Cup standings. No other Ivy ranks higher than 55th (Dartmouth).
  • Princeton takes alumni reunions quite seriously. I have lived close enough to this campus, and mingled with enough alumni on the day of the event to believe that no school does them better.

Princeton is considered versus other Ivies, the most selective liberal arts colleges and non-Ivy universities, military service academies and tech-focused schools like Cal Tech and MIT. Unless a student is admitted and committed through Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action, the decision to attend Princeton is more likely to be driven by the things that make the university positively different from the other schools on their short list. I hoped that I have provided enough differences to help. This will be my first in a set of three Princeton University posts. Stay tuned for the next!

4 Comments on “What Makes Princeton University Special Among Selective Schools?

    • That’s true, every other Ivy has a medical school. However, I did not cover that point because the lack of a medical school does not make a difference in the undergraduate experience at Princeton. Unlike faculty of a graduate business school who might also teach undergraduates, the faculty of a medical school will rarely overlap with the faculty of the undergraduate arts and science or engineering programs.

  1. Re Princeton athletic history, the fencing team won the NCAA fencing
    championship in 1964. First NCAA championship for PU I believe, but check it out.

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