Princeton University, originally the College of New Jersey, was founded in 1746 as the fourth college in British North America. The school moved around New Jersey, from Elizabeth to Newark, before finally setting in Princeton in 1756. The entire college (classrooms, dorms, library, chapel, and dining room!) were housed in just one building, Naussau Hall, for nearly half a century. In 1783, Princeton was briefly the capital of the United States, when Continental Congress met in Nassau Hall. Today, “Old Nassau” is a national landmark. The school officially became Princeton University after expanding and earning its university status in 1896.
Today, there are many unique aspects to Princeton’s undergraduate experience. First of all, nearly all 5,100 undergraduate students live on campus. As a freshman, each student is assigned to a “Residential College,” where they can choose to live, or at least remain affiliated with, for all four years of study. Each Residential College has a faculty head, faculty fellows, a dean, a director of studies, and a director of student life. They even have classrooms where freshman and writing seminars are often hosted. The colleges offer many learning opportunities for students outside of the classroom, such as meals with prominent professors, foreign-language conversation tables, speaker series, and trips to nearby entertainment venues. They also host dances, barbecues, movie nights, and intramural sporting competitions. The colleges foster a close-knit campus community and allow students to get to know their peers through informal learning, recreational, and social opportunities.
Another unique part of being an undergraduate at Princeton is the preceptorial system, or the “precept,” for short. The precept was introduced by former US and Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson in 1905. It was loosely modeled after Oxford and Cambridge tutorial systems and was designed to help students “actively engage in the learning process.” Basically, a precept is a small weekly discussion groups that meet outside of class to discuss course topics and readings, usually led by a professor or graduate student. Tips on how to survive your first precept can be found here, in The Princeton Tiger, one of the nation’s oldest college humor magazines. (Fun fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald is a Tiger alum!)
The Princeton academic experience culminates with a senior thesis, which is required of all undergraduate students. The thesis allows students to conduct an independent research project in the field of their choice and work one-on-one with a faculty member to develop their project. Planning for this project usually begins junior year, and students who are especially proactive can use University funds to conduct research abroad or in the US. In some departments, students defend their theses much like a Ph.D. candidate, making the exercise excellent preparation for graduate school. Many senior theses have helped clarify and launch career goals, while others have gone on to be published as books or in journals. Some have even caused controversy, such as John Aristotle Phillips’ design for a homemade nuclear bomb.
For students set on joining a sorority or fraternity, Princeton might not be the best fit. The University does not recognize any Greek organizations. Despite this, there are still a few “faux” chapters and roughly 15% of the student body are members; however, none of these chapters are allowed to convene openly on campus or offer housing. In addition, freshman are not permitted to get involved with these organizations in an effort to prohibit hazing. Students can, however, join a historic “eating club” instead. Eating clubs typically have between 120-180 members who eat daily meals together prepared by a head chef. Each club has a designated club house, and these facilities also have libraries, game rooms, and study spaces for students to use. While six of the clubs are selective and require that students submit an application, the other five are open, so no student will be excluded from this tradition. Additionally, the cost of joining a club can be factored into a student’s financial aid package, which further ensures that all interested students are included.