rinceton University is a school of extremes: the typical student works obsessively, heads several clubs, and treats partying like it’s a required class. With its neo-Gothic architecture and ivy-covered towers, students feel like they’re going to school at a country club—until the workload kicks in. Four years of demanding class work culminate in a mandatory thesis for liberal arts majors; most students spend their senior years writing these treatises. Students add to their responsibilities (and resumes) by taking on a slew of extracurricular activities, running from class to club meetings before dinner, stopping by a cappella rehearsal, logging a few hours in the library, and returning to the dorms to hang out with friends before bed. But the focus on diversifying the historically old-money, boys’ club student body keeps thing interesting—undergrads come from all over the world, represent nearly every race and religion, and range from hippies to preppies and beyond. On weekends, students head to “The Street”—which houses 10 party-hosting “eating clubs”—to balance their intense academic lives with equally intense social ones.
Princeton’s prestige stems from its academic reputation, and students confirm that classes really are that good. Most upper-level courses emphasize depth over breadth, requiring students to critically evaluate information on narrowly-focused topics. “Professors rarely gloss over broad topics to try and pack everything into one semester. Instead, your transcript is littered with amazing titles of diverse fields of inquiry like a French course in Jewish identities in post-WWII France and an electrical engineering course on the applications of lasers and other high-technology innovations in everyday life," writes a junior majoring in political science and government. But the workload can overwhelm: “Don't come here unless you are willing to work,” writes a classical studies major.
Liberal arts students declare their majors toward the middle of sophomore year and spend their junior and senior years doing independent research. Two “junior papers” prepare students to write theses, mandatory for liberal arts majors, during their senior years. Some students receive university funding to research their theses abroad, others pursue original laboratory research, and the majority spends hours in the library surrounded by piles of books. Students generally find independent work stressful but worthwhile and commend the thesis requirement—though often not until memories of frantic, late-night typing fade. “Independent work is a major focus and is worth the time and effort it takes,” writes a senior biology major. Engineering students may not have to write theses, but they suffer though extra class requirements beginning their freshman year. Undergraduates tend toward collaboration, but a small subset—notably, pre-med molecular biology majors—are cutthroat, to their peers’ chagrin.
While a minority of Princeton students fit the “stuck up, elite, rich” stereotype, most undergraduates maintain that there’s a social niche for everybody. “Over 50% of kids are on financial aid, and for every preppy kid you find here, you'll find an equally punk/artsy/goth/jock kid,” one junior writes. The University prioritizes admitting a student body diverse along racial, ethnic, political and economic lines, boasting strong financial aid offerings with a no-loan policy. But though there are different groups of kids, they don’t always sit at the same cafeteria table. “The stereotypes are definitely not accurate in terms of numbers (44% of admits into the class of 2012 are students of color), but there are still cultural divides and self-segregation that do not reflect the diversity of Princeton's student body,” writes a Class of 2007 alumna involved in student government.
Princeton’s social scene widens the gaps between socioeconomic groups. During freshman and sophomore years, students belong to one of six residential colleges. Each includes dorms, social spaces, and a dining hall, and shrinks the student body to a more manageable, 400-person size. But at the end of sophomore year, many students join “eating clubs,” coed social groups that eat and party in 10 mansions along “The Street.” Each of these beautiful dwellings is home base for its upperclassmen members, and offers a dining hall, taproom, and—for a handful of officers per club—free board. Students who belong to eating clubs are passionate about the social system and attached to their clubs. “You meet all kinds of interesting students in your clubs, and after your sophomore year, your club becomes your on-campus family. They are great places and tons of fun!” writes one junior. Only members can dine at eating clubs, but they’re open to underclassmen for free parties at night. “Overall, social life is open and dynamic, with the Street (eating clubs) functioning as a unifying force which brings students together to one location on Thursday and Saturday nights,” writes a sophomore. But eating clubs are pricey, with the most expensive at almost $10,000 per year. This fee, which covers dining and social expenses, is prohibitive to many students—despite some financial aid—dividing those who can’t afford to join from those who can. Princeton’s administration is trying to subvert the eating club-based social culture by creating four-year residential colleges, the first of which, Whitman, began admitting upperclassmen this year.
Most students devote hours each week to extracurricular activities. Opportunities range from athletics (varsity sports take up a majority of free time) to publications (students write and publish newspapers, magazines and academic journals) to performance groups (including the cultishly popular a cappella groups). Students in the most time-consuming groups make these their social groups as well, and many eating clubs correspond to specific interests. Tower attracts actors and singers, Cloister houses “boaters and floaters,” and Charter appeals to engineers. But at bottom, what unites most Princeton students is their intellectual curiosity, their need to be overwhelmingly busy, and their pride in and attachment to their school.