The Inside Scoop: Princeton Edition
By Victor Hua
Nothing quite captures the attention of people like name-dropping an Ivy League institution; try it next time at a family gathering. I promise you, heads will turn. Something about discussing low acceptance rates and exclusivity in general gets people’s adrenaline pumping. But keeping in mind that hundreds of articles have already been written about getting into college, I’ll be talking about something a little different: handling your college environment. After three semesters’ worth of meeting various personalities on campus, I can say with certainty that different students here have very different approaches when dealing with the high-pressure cooker environment that is Princeton University. Some spend their nights (and days) holed up in their dorms studying. Others place an emphasis on securing the most prestigious internships with big name companies. Still others focus on social climbing and accumulating clout. I’ll be giving you a glimpse of everyday life at Princeton, particularly the social scene, and how I personally choose to approach it.
As almost any graduate of a public high school can testify, the overwhelming majority of public schooling systems can be quite faulty. Lack of college preparation, overly bureaucratic administrations, and a general absence of resources are among the shortcomings of public schools in comparison to magnet and private schools. Yet, almost explicitly because of these reasons, my high school years were arguably some of the most enjoyable of my life. Looking back, cramming in homework during lunch and seeing the occasional fist fight taught me not to take myself too seriously, and reminded me of how much I needed to learn about the “real world.” My environment was diverse to say the least; everyone pursued vastly different passions. The most valuable lesson I learned in high school? That the friends you make and your happiness are worth more than what you look like on paper.
It’s a bit different at Princeton. A significant portion of the student body comes from backgrounds where academic preparation was the sole pillar of their existence. In any given class, the person sitting to your right probably won math competitions starting at age five, and the person on your left definitely went to a top high school where they were defined by their report card. Throw a bunch of students of that caliber onto the same campus, and you find yourself in an airtight bubble of a community where you’ll either be pressured into being busy every waking moment, or be judged for not being so. Some actively recognize their intense mentality yet are unable to change it. As a current Princeton senior describes it,
“I find it impossible to ‘chill’ after spending four years at a magnet high school where everyone’s lives were revolved around academics; it’s ingrained in me.”
But with so many Princeton undergraduates coming from top schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Horace Mann School, it’s hardly a surprise that this mentality carries over to college life.
Caring about classes and searching for internships is one thing. But when you’re surrounded by remarkable students who somehow maintain close-to-perfect GPAs, lead seven different clubs on campus, and secure internships at companies like Google, Goldman Sachs, and Jane Street as freshmen, it’s at least a bit difficult not to feel pressured to attempt the same. It’s just a byproduct of living and eating with overachievers, and I mean that in the best way possible. But it’d be naive to ignore the blatant social effects of living in such an environment.
Having been immersed in such a culture from day one, I felt like I needed to prove something. To demonstrate that, even though my high school’s name wasn’t at the top of U.S. News’ Best High School Rankings, I still belonged. I let this mentality eat away at me freshmen year, to the point where it became habitual to stress myself out for, honestly, no apparent reason—I just (erroneously) thought that constantly feeling stressed necessarily translated to being productive.
I assure you, it wasn’t just me. Administration is aware of the pressure attending Princeton can bring, and so every other email and health center event is dedicated to making us students feel secure in ourselves, to showing us that it’s okay to fail. Despite the constant reassurance the University attempts to bedazzle us with, however, the most popular conversation topic amongst undergraduates still seems to be how “painful” it is to see the minus after an A on transcripts.
I’ve long since thrown this mentality out the window, but its prominence is painfully visible when Princeton is analyzed from a social lens. Take scheduling, for example. Figuring out times to hangout with friends seems impossible for the most part, especially when your calendar looks like this:
As you might notice, it seems impossible to make every event on this calendar due to overlaps—and that’s because it is. It’s just one example of how real workaholism is. Mind you, this is an actual schedule of a Princeton student. Which means you should expect to see most people once every blue moon, since being free and only free for exactly 30 minutes next Thursday isn’t particularly conducive to forming strong relationships. When the planets eventually align and you finally end up finding a time to catch up with your friend, it’ll most likely be over a meal in the dining halls: it’s quick, good for a short conversation, and at least both of you have someone to sit with (eating alone is every college student’s second biggest fear). Princeton lingo for this is, let’s see, something along the lines of, “Let’s grab a meal sometime!”
I’d say my approach is a bit different. Eating usually isn’t the only thing I do with people I consider friends. Personally, a little spontaneity goes a long way. In some sense, I use it as a metric to gauge how well I can get along with someone. The friends I’ve gotten close to at Princeton are the ones I can message, “Wawa run?” at 3 a.m. or “Let’s go to New York tomorrow!” without receiving a reply like, “I need to start my assignment due in two weeks.” But maybe that’s just me.
As a Computer Science major here, the expectation is to land an internship at a large tech company at some point, usually during either your sophomore or junior summer. In addition to taking difficult quantitative classes, recruiters expect you to work on side projects, boast a flourishing GitHub account, or have previous work experience to demonstrate your passion for coding to even be considered in the hiring process. Knowing this, Princeton tech students are extremely proactive. Maybe too proactive. It seems that every coder you run into happens to be on their way to prepping for a coding interview, or to a quiet room where they can complete all 8000 challenges on HackerRank.
Though I study Computer Science, I’d honestly prefer to spend my time doing things that are, well, fun. A couple of weeks ago, I spent my Thursday night building a cardboard canoe with my old roommate and racing it in a competition, in spite of the multiple deadlines I had that weekend:
Would have spending those four or so hours working on my assignments been more productive? Sure. But did building cardboard boats add unforgettable memories to my Princeton experience and bring a smile to my face? Of course. I’m not discrediting the importance of studying in college, but if saving your GPA and boosting your resume become the only reasons you wake up every morning, I’d argue that you should reevaluate what’s important to you.
Take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m not advocating for you to drop your work ethic, because at the end of the day, you go to college to learn and earn your degree. What I am advocating for is to make time for yourself, your friends, and your family. Not just because you feel obligated to, but because you should genuinely care about the people you bond with and the memories you make with them. Frankly, the moments I’ll remember aren’t going to be the hours spent in the library studying for exams. They’ll be the times that I stay up late goofing off with friends, being spontaneous, and eating at places that aren’t the dining hall. Prioritize your happiness. After four years of school, what are you going to remember?