What is Princeton really like? How does it compare to other options you might be considering for college if you are still choosing the site for your undergraduate experience? Or maybe you are already at Princeton and you want to know what you would be doing right now if you didn't have exams this week?
Given that Princeton does not accept transfers, there are few people who attend Princeton and another institution as an undergrad, so we have called on undergraduates and graduate students to compare their two schools. Some attended Princeton and then moved onto other institutions, while others came to Princeton for graduate school.
Today we're going to start with history graduate students Paul Davis and Sarah Milov, who both attended Harvard.
So here you are, a high school senior faced with the biggest decision of your life: Harvard or Princeton? But whom can you talk to about this problem? Your best friend has only gotten into Duke, and your parents are pushing their alma maters. So you’ve done what any gunner in your position would do: You’ve sought the wisdom of The (online) Daily Princetonian. Though if you’re basing your decision on the superiority of on-campus newspaper, you already have your check in the mail to zip code 02138.
Harvard vs. Princeton: It’s a matchup as legendary as Pacino vs. De Niro and even harder to adjudicate. After all, how many have actually attended both universities as undergrads? JFK did, but he's unavailable to render a verdict.
Still, this dispute must be resolved. Ordinarily, prefrosh can base their decisions on the infallible U.S. News rankings, but it appears that the two schools are currently tied. Another lodestar must be sought.
And thus, as Harvard alumni and Princeton grad students, we will do our best to offer guidance, aware that our impressions of undergraduate life at the latter institution have been glimpsed through a glass darkly (and sketchily). Below are a few categories and our judgments.
Prime Location: Harvard. Cambridge is pulsating and of ample size. Princeton is a tiny yuppie hamlet, as insular and incestuous as the village in M. Night Shyamalan’s eponymous film. Given that the world beyond is Route 1, we suppose that quarantine is probably prudent.
Prime Weather: Neither. If this matters, go to Stanford.
Convenient Urban Excursions: Harvard, to Boston. The T shuts down early, but it’s fast, cheap and convenient. Princeton touts its nearness to New York, but do you really want to spend two-and-a-half hours on NJ Transit trains? Alongside New Jersey residents? Only to arrive back in bucolic Princeton Junction after the Dinky has stopped running, necessitating a $15 cab ride on top of steep train tickets and Metro fares? Unless you know someone in the city at whose apartment you can crash, you will not head up there with any regularity. And let’s not even discuss the absurd inconveniences involved in getting to Philly by public transportation: it just isn’t worth it.
Convenient Rural Excursions: Princeton. New Jersey isn’t just turnpikes and strip malls and dusty beach roads lined with skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets: The area around Princeton is actually quite lovely. Get a bike, and go crazy.
Best On-Campus Food: Princeton, by a hairnet. Some of its dining halls and eating clubs are mediocre, but we have to give them the edge on account of Forbes’ chocolate fountain and the generous selection of hard-serve ice cream.
Best Off-Campus Restaurants: Harvard, by a mile. We’ve eaten at every restaurant in Princeton — save the Bulgarian place beneath La Jolie — and nothing compares to Rialto, Harvest, Cambridge 1, Tamarind Bay, 9 Tastes, Finale or the greasy late-night drunk food of Felipe’s, Noch’s and the Kong. Add in gems like Dali and Punjabi Dhaba in Inman and the disparity is even greater. In every food category and price range, the establishments of Harvard Square are either equal or superior.
Best Haitian-Owned Pastry Shop: OK, not every category: This has to go to Princeton, home of The Little Chef. The other close calls are ice cream, hoagies and full-service convenience stores, but in general it seems like there’s an inverse relationship between proximity to campus and quality of food. It’s difficult to comprehend how a just God would allow the respectable cuisine of Conte’s and Da’s (winner of a separate category: “Best Thai Restaurant in a YMCA”) to be pushed aside by abominations like Sotto and Thai Village, but the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. P.S. For the record, PJ’s pancakes are terrible.
Safer Campus: Princeton. Yes, there’s the Serial Flasher, but during our freshman and sophomore years alone we had the Bicycle Groper, the Serial Whisperer and the Alleged Masturbator. Princeton has numerous false gunman warnings, but Harvard has real gunmen. It’s practically New Haven. Which reminds us...
Most Storied Rivalry: Harvard. With Yale. What's Princeton's rival again? Penn State?
Best Administrative Paternalism: Princeton, which shows it has its priorities straight by keeping Dillon Gymnasium open later than Firestone Library, while Harvard lets strivers burn themselves out at a 24-hour Lamont.
Superior Academic Experience: Probably Princeton, where professors advise all senior theses. If you go to Harvard, most of your education will be administered by cold, angry, overworked graduate students; conversely, as this article indicates, Princeton grad students are good-humored and have plenty of time on their hands. But what kind of nerd picks their college based on academics?
Superior Nightlife: It depends. If you like the eating club scene, Princeton’s great; if not, you’re out of luck. Harvard is more of a mix with final clubs, affordable bars, House events and crowded room parties. But let’s be honest: Neither school is Arizona State.
Most Accomplished Alumni: Harvard.
Most Self-Satisfied Alumni: Princeton. They donate more money to their alma mater and come back each spring, dressed identically, to relive their idyllic college years. In short, they seem happier than Harvard grads, but also more cultish.
FINAL VERDICT: Honestly, it doesn’t really matter: You’ll probably end up a smug douchebag either way.