A Day in the Life at Princeton University

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Laura is an Austin tutor specializing in ACT prep tutoring, SAT prep tutoring, Writing tutoring, GRE prep tutoring, and more. She graduated from Princeton University in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in English. Check out her review of her alma mater:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Laura: Princeton is located in the quiet town of Princeton, NJ. Princeton’s campus is peaceful and gorgeous; it’s mostly designed in a collegiate Gothic architectural style that is reminiscent of Oxford or Cambridge. On the north side of campus, the main humanities building (McCosh), the main library (Firestone), the chapel, and many of the dormitory buildings are among the most beautiful buildings you’ll ever see – and I still can’t quite believe that I got to spend four years living in and around the famous Blair Arch. You will get spoiled with the beauty of the campus – all my friends note that this is something that they really miss!

Almost all students live on campus, and that means that it’s easy to get around campus by foot. Most of my classes were a five-minute walk away from my dorm room. The engineering quad is the farthest from the center of campus, and so a fair number of engineers do use bikes to get around – but even this isn’t necessary. Only a few students own cars, and they are useful only for leaving campus and not for getting around on campus. A train line runs onto campus, which is a much easier option for transportation if you’re going to the airport or into New York.

The campus is extremely safe – I’m very sensitive to danger, but even I would sometimes walk home alone from rehearsals or club meetings at 2 am. You can always call campus security for an escort between buildings, however, and there are blue phones all over campus which you can use to call security in case you feel unsafe at any time. But honestly, you’ll probably never need to use them. 

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?     

Laura: Extremely available! This, to my mind, is the number one advantage that Princeton has over other major research institutions – the professors take their undergraduate teaching extremely seriously and consistently prioritize their undergraduates. It’s often said that Princeton is a liberal arts college (accessibility of professors, emphasis on undergraduates) with the advantages of a major research university (huge library, professors at the top of their field) and it’s really true! There are lots of opportunities to get to know your professors: from freshman seminars (aimed at allowing first-year students to work with top professors in a variety of departments), to college dining halls (each dining hall has several faculty “fellows” who eat there regularly), discussion sections for classes (all faculty are required to lead “precepts” alongside their graduate student teaching fellows), and of course, office hours. One of Princeton’s unique qualities is that you can often work with the top professors in a department even without majoring in their field; many top Princeton professors voluntarily choose to teach introductory courses.

Students all work one-on-one with a top professor on their independent work in their junior and senior years. All students must complete one or two “junior papers” (medium-length research papers) and a senior thesis. For most Princeton students (myself included!), this is one of the highlights of their Princeton careers – most seniors produce theses that are longer and smarter than anything they’ve ever written before. Students can also choose to apply for a creative thesis, which might be a book of fiction / poetry or a performance in a play (with a critical analysis element).

Of course, the amount of contact you have with your professors partly depends on you. If you’re like me and seek out small seminars, you can interact almost solely with professors throughout your four years. If you prefer large lecture courses, it’s possible to largely avoid professor contact until you start your independent work junior year. My number one piece of advice to incoming students is to pursue every opportunity to get to know their professors. You will have the most brilliant scholars in the world teaching your classes, and they really, honestly want to get to know you and to help you in any way they can. Take advantage of it!

Academic advising is run through your residential college for the first two years, and through your department for the following two. Residential college advising is fine; departmental advising is much better.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students? 

Laura: For the first two years, students are placed in one of six residential colleges (Mathey, Rocky, Butler, Wilson, Forbes, Whitman), which serve as your de facto community for the first years on campus. Student meal plans (which are required for all incoming students) allow you to eat in any of the college dining halls, but most students end up eating at their own because they know so many people there. Indeed, the residential college system means that you can go to the dining hall at any time and see people you know – much of my free time in college was spent lingering in the dining hall over dinner, as new friends kept arriving and sparking new and vibrant conversations. 

In the second two years, students still live on campus (housing is guaranteed for everyone), but they have a wide variety of eating options: going independent (students have their own kitchen and cook for themselves), joining a co-op (a group of students alternate cooking for one other), staying in the residential college (eating in dining halls), or most famously and popularly, joining an eating club. About 70% of students choose the last option, but it’s definitely not a required part of Princeton life. I stayed in my residential college (Mathey – the best one!) for four years, but I still ate with my friends from eating clubs or co-ops regularly because everyone gets guest meal passes which allow them to invite their friends to dine with them at their club / college. 

Dorm rooms are generally quite nice; most students live in doubles or quads their first year or two (quads generally have two bedrooms and a large common room, doubles usually have one room) – but in later years, you can either live in a larger suite or get a single room for yourself.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Laura: I knew that I wanted to be an English major even before I arrived on the Princeton campus, and I chose Princeton partially because I knew that they had one of the top programs in the country. Astonishingly, the department exceeded my expectations; professors in the department are both brilliant scholars, and inventive and generous teachers. There were also fantastic departmental resources available; the English department even funded me to go to England to do independent research the summer before my senior year!

The most popular majors are Economics and Political Science, but the smaller majors are every bit as good as the larger ones (if not better). Indeed, Princeton has run campaigns encouraging students to follow their passions and pick unorthodox majors, where class sizes are small and where students will receive intensive faculty guidance. The Woodrow Wilson school (or “Woody-Woo”), a Public Policy major, is a signature Princeton major which uniquely helps students think about policy-making as undergraduates. But departments are strong across the board, in the humanities, sciences, social sciences and engineering. 

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Laura: I found it incredibly easy to make friends at Princeton because of the diversity of organizations which allow you to carve out a niche (or multiple niches!) for yourself. The residential colleges make it easy to get to know people in your first two years, and they run further programs to foster a strong sense of student community, including weekly discussion tables and college trips to NYC. I ran a “Philosophy Table” discussion group which mimicked a language table, but talked about abstract philosophical questions instead! Most students on campus are involved with multiple organizations – I was very active in an Episcopalian student religious organization, a Shakespearean theater group, and the English department community – and this made it easy not to be pigeonholed in a single group. You’ll also get to know people through your classes; many students at Princeton really do want to continue class conversations over lunch after class is over.

Greek life is not very prominent on campus; they exist, but they operate largely under the radar. Much more popular are Princeton’s eating clubs, social organizations which 70% of students join. Eating Clubs are either “sign-in” or “bicker” clubs; sign-in clubs allow you to join by simply putting your name on a list, while bicker clubs ask you to go through a process like a sorority / fraternity rush. Most students join eating clubs in the second half of their second year, but you can continue to join in later years (which means you can switch your eating club or change to another dining option at the beginning of any semester). Students dine in their eating clubs and attend social events there in the evenings, but only a few officers live there; evening events are usually open to non-members as well. Each of the eating clubs has its own reputation and they become a crucial part of many Princeton students’ identities. But it’s perfectly possible to be very happy at Princeton without being a part of an eating club as well.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Laura: The Career Center has an active presence on campus, but I never used them because professors did such a fantastic job helping me make my post-graduation plans. I went on to a Ph.D. program, and my advisors in the English department walked me through every step of the process, helping me select schools, write personal statements, and decide which school to accept. (I went on to an English Ph.D. program at Harvard.)

But my friends who did use the Career Center found them generally helpful, and they continued to receive help after graduation, both in compiling resumes and recommendations, and in being put in contact with alumni in the field. Many companies from across the country recruit directly on the Princeton campus and there are regular careers fairs which allow you to talk to lots of different possible employers.  

It’s also worth noting that Princeton has an incredibly strong alumni network that helped many of my friends get amazing internships and interviews in their chosen field. Princeton alumni are passionate about their school, and they come back, year after year, for Princeton’s elaborate three-day reunion celebration every May. Because of this loyalty and love of Princeton, alumni are almost universally eager to help undergraduates and recent grads succeed in their chosen field! 

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Laura: There are lots of different places to study around the Princeton campus. Dorm study rooms are well-maintained and generally include some kitchen equipment for snacks, residential colleges and eating clubs have small libraries for quiet study near the dorms, and the Frist Campus Center, though loud, offers a large array of dining and caffeination options. Princeton’s main library is Firestone; while the main reading-rooms get quite crowded around exam-time, there are always enough working spaces on lower floors of the library, which still have natural light thanks to skylights. Seniors are also able to request “carrels” in Firestone, where they can store books for their senior thesis and where they can study; these are quite cramped, but they do ensure a quiet working space at all times! You can also choose to study in one of specialized libraries (East Asian studies, Architecture, Art, Engineering), many of which are quite beautiful! 

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus?  

Laura: The area of Princeton immediately around campus is beautiful and exquisitely maintained –with expensive restaurants and shops, four ice cream / fro-yo shops (Princeton students consume a lot of ice cream!), and a hotel. Because the restaurants immediately around campus tend to be expensive (Panera is the best inexpensive dining option), students generally walk down Nassau Street to access an array of less expensive dining options a bit further from campus. Very few students have cars (it’s hard to get on-campus parking before senior year) and buses are available, but not super easy to use, so students tend not to leave campus very often. Some students get frustrated by the town of Princeton, but for the majority of students, life happens almost entirely on campus.

For those who do want to get away from campus, it is definitely possible. A train, affectionately known as the “Dinky,” runs directly on to the Princeton campus and connects students to the NJ Transit line. In one hour, a student can get to the Newark airport – or to New York City itself! Most students go to New York at least a few times during their four years at Princeton; the residential colleges organize sponsored trips to New York to see Broadway shows and operas at an extremely reduced price (bus transport included), and classes sometimes take their students to the city for field trips (usually plays / operas or museum visits). A few students make New York a more regular part of their social life and visit the city more often. 

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Laura: Princeton has around 1,300 students in each class (5,300 undergraduate students total), plus 2,500 graduate students. For me, this was the perfect size; large enough that I continued to meet new people from my class through the end of my senior year and small enough that I constantly ran into people I knew as I walked around campus. Because there are so many more undergraduates than graduate students (and because grad students generally live on the far edges of campus), Princeton truly feels like an undergraduate campus. 

Class sizes are excellent at Princeton. Most of my classes were small seminars (averaging 10-15 students), some were small lectures (30 students), and a few were larger lecture courses. Lectures in the humanities are rarely larger than 80 people, though science courses can be larger. But every course has a small section / discussion component called a “precept,” which will allow you to ask questions and discuss the material from class. The precept system worked very well for me; I often had professors running my precepts, and the few graduate students who taught my precepts were generally good. (A graduate student will never teach a lecture or a seminar at Princeton.)

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Laura: One of my most memorable class experiences was an intensive sequence of courses aimed at freshmen called the Humanities sequence (HUM 216-219). Over the course of two semesters (technically four classes), we read the great books of Western Civilization, from the ancient Greeks to the end of the nineteenth-century, working closely with five top professors from different departments each semester. The course was interdisciplinary, asking students to think in terms of history, literature and philosophy, and brought together a fantastic group of students who were eager to immerse themselves in the best works of the human mind. Because the workload was so intense, the group coalesced into a social as well as academic community; many of my closest friends at Princeton came out of this course. By the end of the term, we made class t-shirts with pictures of one of our professors on the front, with the motto: “T.K. Rabb [the professor] is our philosopher-king.” Crazy nerdy, but very fun. 

I also have to mention Chemistry 207 (Advanced General Chemistry) – a course that I took to fulfill my science requirement, which ended up being an extremely enjoyable course. The class combined intense academic work with consistently amazing demonstrations; the professors joked that they tried to orchestrate at least one explosion per class. They also periodically tested the validity of popular movie scenes etc.; one day, we tested whether a person could really outrun a burning fuse by going to the back of the chemistry building, having one student volunteer dress up as Zorro (complete with black mask, black hat, and sword) and then run as fast as he could alongside a trail of gunpowder. And Zorro won!

Check out Laura’s tutoring profile. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.