Classes are hard. When people hear you go to Princeton, most assume you're some sort of genius. That may be, but most likely you don't feel like it most of the time when you're at Princeton, because everyone is so academically driven that even Pass/Fail classes aren't a joke. When I came back home after my first semester at Princeton, lots of my friends at other schools were talking about how much easier college was compared with high school. Unless you went to a ridiculously tough high school, this will probably not be the case at Princeton. Given the academic rigor, Princeton students do study a lot, partly because of the amount of work their given, and partly because most of them just seem to be ambitious, driven individuals. There are tons of libraries on campus (and the library system is immense/impressive...students here definitely take it for granted) and students can also be found studying in dorm common areas, cafes, and the campus center. On average most students work 3-5 hours per night, but sometimes less, sometimes more. A lot depends on your major. Humanities students tend to have lots of reading, often seemingly impossible to complete, whereas science major usually have lab reports and problem sets. Finals take place after winter break, with a week's reading period and then two weeks for exams. This can be a stressful period, but it's great having to class to focus on finals work. It is easy to forget a lot over winter break though. The student/professor relationship is generally very positive, and becomes more personal when you begin to focus in on your preferred department for a major or certificate (the Princeton equivalent of a minor). While there are many large intro classes, there are also plenty of smaller seminars, and these are usually the majority once you get past the intro levels. The large classes usually break into what's called precept once a week, a one hour small discussion group to cover the material in a smaller setting, led by a TA or the professor. This is good to keep you from getting lost in large classes, but it also means you can't totally zone out in these, because you'll be expected to contribute to precept discussion, which makes up a part of your class grade. Popular majors are always Politics, Woodrow Wilson School, Economics, and History, and these are all stellar departments. All of the smaller departments have awesome faculty as well though, and students sometimes benefit from the extra attention they can get from majoring in a less common field, especially when it comes time for the two JPs (junior papers) and the daunting senior thesis they must complete before graduation. You don't have to declare a major until sophomore spring, which is great for those like me who enter Princeton clueless as to their academic goals. I've settled on Comparative Literature, because it has the potential to incorporate many of my interests, such as foreign language, translation, creative writing, literature, film, and art. One way to figure out what you're interested in studying is simply by completing the required courses. All freshman have to take a writing seminar, and although most people I know seem to have hated this, my writing seminar, on the culture of consumption, has been one of my favorite classes so far. There's also a foreign language requirement and a number of "distribution requirements," which compel you to take classes in a number of broad categories. The hardest of these to complete for a hardcore humanities person like me are the one Quantitative Reasoning (mostly math classes) and two Science and Technology (with lab!) classes. These are good opportunities to use the four PDF classes you're allotted. I took an Astronomy class like this last spring as my math, and science I got out of the way with Intro to Psych and a class on Lasers I'm currently taking. All in all, the requirements aren't too painful and can introduce you to a new field of interest, or at least provide you with a funny story about bumbling cluelessly through lab. There are many career-driven students on campus (many seem to be aspiring analysts and i-bankers), but probably an equal number like me who still haven't quite figured out what the future holds for them. Even the career-driven seem to branch out and take the opportunity to explore other interests while at Princeton though, so people in your classes usually range from department majors to the random finance student who has always wanted to take a ceramics class. Princeton is quite a competitive place, and getting in is far from the last time you feel the strain of competition. While classes aren't aggressively competitive, the grade deflation policies still give everyone the feeling that its necessary to outperform their peers. Sophomore year, many students compete to get into the Woodrow Wilson foreign policy school. Others compete for summer internships or grants. Even fun at Princeton seems competitive at times. Many extracurricular groups require audition and acceptance--from a capella, dance groups, the business society, and theater, to just being a campus tour guide. In addition, half of the eating clubs that many students join during sophomore year require "bicker" (similar to rush) to gain admittance.
If you're considering coming to Princeton, you have to face a couple facts: (1) the admissions committee has the incredibly difficult task of creating a freshman class from an enormous pool of some of the most academically-gifted and otherwise-talented students in the world (caveat: you can't get in if you don't apply!); and (2) the university doesn't maintain its prestigious academic reputation by allowing its students to hang out in the Woody Woo fountain or on Alexander Beach all day (both excellent ways to de-stress though). Typically, students will take four classes per semester with about 11-15 hours of class per week. Engineers take five classes some semesters and may have up to 18 hours of class per week. While it might be easy to sleep through a 9am economics lecture, good luck catching up on the material since most of the time lectures are different and in addition to the readings that are assigned. Moreover, a lot of classes won't be with 200 or 50 or even 20 other students. The vast majority of classes at Princeton are smaller seminars and classes that require engagement with the material and active participation. Even if participation doesn't really affect your grade, you don't want to be the only person in the room who hasn't done the reading... especially when there are only 10 other people in the room. As a result, you'll find that people put a lot of time into their studies outside of class. While very few people make this their only activity, it is priority #1 for most students, which is the only way it can be when you have 200 pages of history reading, an oral presentation in French, a politics paper, and a creative writing assignment all due in one week. The plus side? Classes are hardly ever boring. 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.
As expected, the size of the class often determines how much you actually get to interact with professors. However, I did find that if you made the effort to seek professors out for help or even to just chat about the readings, most professors were pretty responsive. Also, I think this varies from department to department. I majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and found that the faculty and students could have a very close relationship; I often met with professors outside of both the class and Princeton setting. For example, I attended one of my Professor's surprise birthday parties and I also went to dinner with Professors and their families. My favorite classes at Princeton were offered through the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) department and the Philosophy department. I felt like both of these departments were devoted to learning for its own sake, which I personally really enjoyed. I'd say that the amount of studying really varied from student to student depending on the student's level of course work and extracurricular activities. In my experience, it is really easy to overwhelm yourself at Princeton because there are so many great classes and there are a lot of different extracurricular activities. Even though I was really busy with classes and activities, it was always easy to hang out with friends since most of the students live on campus and, therefore, are within a 10 minute walk no matter where I was on campus.
Classes are hard, but if you're going to complain about Princeton being too hard then don't come, I mean it's the best school in the country, of course it's hard. Many of the classes are big lectures and when I was in high school I thought that I wouldn't like that, but the fact of the matter is that the professors here are some of the most famous academics in the world and big classes let everyone experience them, which is good. Lectures always are accompianed by precept as well, which is a small class setting with a TA or sometimes the professor. There would never be a lecture that didn't have a precept too. If you want to get to know a professor that's easy to do. Almost all professors like talking to people that are interested in what they teach so lunch meetings and whatnot are easy to arrange. A Princeton education is geared towards whatever you want it to be. If you want to live your life researching in the world of academia then go for it. If you wanna be an Ibanker then you can do that too.
I have made some incredible relationships with Professors here. You'd be incredibly surprised as to how approachable even the most famous professors are. I am very fortunate to have established a very strong relationship with Professor Robert George (Professor in Politics). My favorite classes have been Constitutional Interpretation, Civil Liberties (both in the Politics Department), International Protection of Human Rights (in the Woodrow Wilson School), and The South in American Literature (English). Class participation is absolutely essential. Intellectual conversations occur everywhere on campus - on the fields, in coffee shops, on walks, in ice cream shops, in the library, and in class. Competition has increased recently because of the administration's Grade Deflation policy. Overall, the education at Princeton both in the classroom and out of the classroom is absolutely incredible.
This may shock you, but Princeton is very good at academics. Good teachers, great precept system, and a name that opens doors. Academically, Princeton will get you where you want to go. My more personal take: the engineering is great and the liberal arts are even better, so if you're an engineer but think you might leave for liberal arts, there really is no better place to go than Princeton. Note on the grade inflation policy: Princeton has recently started cracking down on grade inflation by asking professors to give fewer A's to students. Everyone worries about the grade inflation policy. If you're an engineer, don't. We never noticed a difference. If you're in liberal arts, this will make your grades slightly lower than they would have been a few years ago. Whether this bothers you is up to you.
Princeton is challenging, probably more challenging than the other ivys due to the new grade deflation policy. One thing about Princeton is that there is a very big difference between people who major in the sciences and engineering and those who study the humanities. Humanities does not usually have Friday class. There are usually fewer hours spent in class for humanities students, and more importantly, more A's are given out in humanities classes. Most employers do not care what you major in when you attend Princeton, so maximizing GPA can be achieved by picking an easier major.
Professors always know your name. Most classes are 20-30 people with "precepts" where small groups meet to discuss/strudy the material under the guidance of a TA or professor. No classes are actually taught by a TA, always a professor. The lady who taught my freshman calculus class had won a nobel prize. Professors also have an open door policy, so even though they have office hours, you can still walk in any time they are around to ask questions. I have never been turned away when I had a question, no matter how busy the professor. Classes are VERY hard.
Not all professors know your name but definitely all preceptors. Students study alot. Everyday. But I think a good number of people follow the motto Work Hard, Play Hard. Or Work Harder, Play Harder in some cases. Class participation is very common. Most people are very active in class discussions. And students do continue class conversations out of the classroom often. I feel like students are more competitive just with themselves and not with each other. People are always forming study groups and willing to help each other out before exams.
It really depends on which department you are in. The English professors are really wonderful at getting to know their students. The same goes for history and language professors. It's harder in the sciences because the classes are so large, but if you put in the effort your face will be recognized. Students study all the time and are extremely competitive. It's often difficult to find study groups because students can be so against helping others succeed.