Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Orange and Apples: Dartmouth

Today in Princeton, it's nearly 50 degrees Fahrenheit and partly cloudy. And in Hanover, it's going to snow. This may mean a lot to you, but if it doesn't, Dan Ames, a psychology graduate student and Dartmouth graduate, has more to offer.

If you’re faced with the problem of choosing between Princeton and Dartmouth, congratulations on having an enviable problem. The undergrads are known to be inordinately happy at both institutions, and not just because their respective mascots --- tigers and amorphous color concepts, respectively --- are both so darn cute. Both institutions are much more undergraduate-focused than most other top-flight universities. This means that lots of attention and resources are directed toward undergraduate education and entertainment (relative to graduate and professional programs). Dartmouth does sit a little bit further on this undergrad-focused end of the spectrum than does Princeton (just my own observation, but for corroboration, see U.S. News & World Report rankings, among other sources), but undergrads are clearly the stars of the proverbial show at both schools.

Though both schools offer an excellent undergraduate education, one significant academic difference is that Princeton students are required to complete a thesis during senior year, and most are also required to complete a kind of “mini-thesis” during junior year, while theses are entirely optional at Dartmouth.

A majority of eligible (that is, upper-class) students at both schools are affiliated with a Greek house (Dartmouth) or an eating club (the uniquely Princetonian analog). Most affiliated students I’ve spoken with at both schools seem really positive about the scenes at the houses and the clubs. On the other hand, I’ve heard some students at both schools say that the Greek and club scenes (respectively) “dominate” social life on campus. Personally, I can only say that this wasn’t my experience at Dartmouth (where I was unaffiliated), that I didn’t frequent the frats much, didn’t feel that my options were limited by that and really couldn’t have been much happier socially.

A quick word on politics: Notwithstanding some now-outdated stereotypes, the student bodies of both schools are quite liberal overall. That being said, both campuses have an active conservative voice and an energetic political dialogue.

The overall similarities of Princeton and Dartmouth extend into the towns of Princeton and Hanover: Both are pretty, safe and endearingly (if deliberately) quaint. Both campuses are surrounded by golf courses, excellent running trials and quiet residential zones in all but one direction. Even along the main drag, the similarities are striking: There’s the campus bookstore, that amazing local coffee place, that little independent movie theater that doesn’t play independent films, similar arrays of restaurants and (mostly mid to upscale) clothing outlets. Princeton offers a bit more in terms of sheer volume, but the content is nearly identical.

Real differences emerge at a larger geographical scale: Princeton is an hour away from Manhattan by train, while Dartmouth is two hours from Boston (by car or bus). At the risk of making a point that’s been made by many others, campuses with easy city access provide some very cool opportunities, but may also encourage students to leave campus in order to have fun, thereby making on-campus life just a little less vibrant. As a graduate student, I really enjoy being able to get to the city, but as an undergrad I was very grateful that everyone stayed on campus to have fun, and was so happily wrapped up in undergraduate life that city access wasn’t an issue for me. The cost-benefit analysis of easy city access is largely a matter of personal taste.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that there are nontrivial differences in the Princeton and Dartmouth academic calendars. Princeton is on a traditional semester schedule, whereas Dartmouth operates on something called the D-Plan. Roughly speaking, this plan breaks the school year into 10-week chunks and allows students to choose when they take their summer vacations. This can be a tremendous plus in terms of internship and study abroad opportunities, but it also means that you could go a full year without being on campus at the same time as your best friend.