It all comes down to what kind of a person you are. I don’t mean that in a trite way—Princeton is very distinct (imo) both socially and academically, which makes it a great fit for some but not for others. Allow me to elaborate.
So what’s good about Princeton?
1) The undergrad focus is real. We don’t have a medical, business, or law school, and there aren’t too many grad students either, so Princeton lavishes its money and opportunities on undergrads. Doing research on campus (especially for natural sciences majors) is par for the course. It’s also fairly easy to cultivate strong connections with professors. Princeton will fund almost anything—travel to an academic conference, a renowned speaker your club wants to bring in, summer internships. We have PICS (domestic internships), IIP (international internships), the Guggenheim (criminal justice internships)—all Princeton-specific. With the exception of intro courses, classes are small; the preceptorial system ensures that you get individualized attention even in large lecture courses. We have big names: Alan Blinder, Harvey Rosen (economics); Robert Sedgewick (computer science); Peter Singer (philosophy); Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides (creative writing).
2) Princeton is loaded. I’ve already alluded to this, but we have the highest endowment per capita among HYPS. Case-in-point: our newly-constructed Lewis Center, a vast complex for the arts, has suspended, sound-proof practice rooms filled with Steinways, state-of-the-art black-box theaters, and vast wide-open spaces reminiscent of the Oculus in NYC.
3) We have school spirit. Despite the workload, students still somehow find time to join acapella, dance, and cultural affinity groups, student publications, political clubs, debate (Whig-Clio, the oldest debate union in the US, was founded by James Madison and Aaron Burr). The arts performances are almost always sold out. Our school spirit doesn’t manifest in the form of attendance at football games, but we do show up and support our friends.
4) We don’t take ourselves too seriously. The Kardashian Lifestyle Club is Princeton’s newest club. It’s surprisingly popular. Make of that what you will. So is the Liar’s Club, which plays Mafia and other games on Friday nights. Also, Princeton Plays—a club for those who are interested in BDSM (strictly educational, or so they say).
5) We take integrity very seriously. Princeton’s Honor Code is extremely stringent. Some might call it overly punitive—and I, like the majority on campus, want Honor Code reform—but I think that exemplifies the uncompromising academic tradition which Princeton has stood by since its inception.
6) Campus is beautiful. Yale comes in a close second (:P), but—in my not-so-humble opinion—Harvard and Stanford can’t compare. Sure, I’m no longer as awed by the imposing Neo-Gothic architecture as I was on day one. I’m not a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed prefrosh any longer; I can see Princeton’s shortcomings, such as its institutionalized hostility to mentally-ill students (this is a problem at many colleges, including Harvard). But even now, walking around campus, I’m deeply moved by the familiar outline of my residential college, the towers of Holder Hall and Firestone Library, the stained-glass dome of the Chancellor Green Library. This place is isolating at times, but it’s my home.
7) We bleed orange and black. Princeton grads are fiercely loyal to the school; tens of thousands of alumni, from elderly men in their 80s to recently-graduated seniors, descend upon campus each year during Reunions. That’s practically unheard of. Our alumni donation rate is the highest of any university in the United States—a whopping 63%. N.B. That’s not to say that our alumni donate the most money; that distinction belongs to Harvard.
8) Princeton is a cult. Carefully-crafted rituals, such as the P-rade and arch sings and Princeton’s fight song “Old Nassau,” whose lyrics you’ll learn during pre-orientation, are designed to induct you into the Cult of Princeton. If you’re anything like me, you’ll roll your eyes the first time you’re instructed to stand up, place hand over heart, and sing “Tune every heart, and every voice/bid every care withdraw…” But by the third time, you’ll raise a reluctant hand to your chest. By the fifth, you’ll start to mouth the words. And before you know it, you’ll realize that—for all its flaws, Princeton is the best damn place of all.
Socially: Here are some common stereotypes.
1) Princeton is the most elitist of the Ivies. Its “preppy country-club” reputation was enshrined within books like Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and perpetuated by certain aspects of campus culture, most notably the eating clubs—quite literally mansions where many upperclassmen take their meals and party. Is their truth in this image? Absolutely. The most selective eating clubs have this process called bicker, which is akin to rush at fraternities/sororities. The wealthy, athletic, beautiful, and cosmopolitan do tend to congregate there. However, these kinds of people stick together at any school. The eating clubs perhaps make these divisions more apparent, but they certainly don’t create them. Moreover, bicker is only a big deal if you make it a big deal. It’s very easy to opt-out of the bicker-club-or-bust mentality, especially if you have like-minded friends. There are many, many “sign-in” clubs that anyone can join. TL;DR: If you want to join a selective eating club and you’re charismatic/attractive/athletic enough to get in, you’ll be happy here. If you’re someone who doesn’t care about that, you’ll be happy here. If not getting into a selective eating club would devastate you/make you question your self-worth, please don’t come here.
2) Princeton’s campus is insular. This is true. Princeton can’t compare to Cambridge or even New Haven; we call it the Orange Bubble for a reason. However, NYC and Philly are fairly accessible by train, and Princeton heavily subsidizes Broadway tickets—so that’s nice. Also, the town itself is extremely quaint. There’s no nightlife to speak of, so all the partying takes place at the eating clubs on Prospect Street. We call this weekly trek “going to the Street.” It definitely gets monotonous after awhile. If you’re not a fan of drinking (I’m not), you can watch movies for free at the Garden Theatre most Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The student government sponsors some really great movies, too—I’ve watched Lady Bird, Three Billboards in Ebbings, Missouri, I, Tonya, and many more on Princeton’s dime.
Princeton is hard. This is very true. I came from an extremely rigorous, STEM-oriented high school and spent six hours/day doing homework. People from my school who have gone to Harvard and other top schools found college easy, so I was expecting that to be the case with Princeton, too. It wasn’t. If you’re going to be an engineer (BSE), expect to take five classes every other semester. That might not sound too bad if you took seven classes in HS, as I know many kids from NJ or CA do, but trust me—this is totally different. Most people (with the exception of the actual geniuses) live from pset to pset here. Nowadays, I work until 1:30 in the morning almost every day. That said, if you’re planning on pursuing an AB degree, the workload will be a lot more manageable in most cases. There are serious drawbacks to being inundated with schoolwork. For every hour you work on a pset, that’s one less hour you can spend doing extracurriculars, preparing for interviews, or even relaxing/hanging out with friends. Students at Stanford/Harvard seem to have a lot more time, anecdotally-speaking, to pursue outside projects, which is what really makes your resume stand out—not straight As. Speaking of straight As, Princeton nominally ended its decade-long grade-deflation policy a few years ago, but remnants of that still linger—our average GPA is still lower than Harvard’s, Stanford’s, and Yale’s. Personally, I’m the kind of person who enjoys keeping my head down and doing schoolwork, so—although I complain about the workload—it’s alright.