With snow already on the ground and a Winter Storm Warning in effect until tomorrow evening, you might be considering decamping from Princeton for warmer climes. Brandt Belson, a mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate student, provides a view of how attending school in sunny Pasadena, CA might differ from Princeton.
I graduated from Caltech in 2008 with a double major in mechanical engineering and business, economics and management, and now I'm a grad student here at Princeton. Both schools are terrific, but there are important differences.
Academically, I can only comment on science-related aspects, and the classes at both schools focus on fundamentals and theory. This is especially true at Caltech, where nearly every class is strongly based on understanding the "why." Both Princeton and Caltech do offer classes that are more practical. At Caltech, there are optional informal mini-courses that teach useful skills, while Princeton has a few full classes that are applied.
The names explain a lot: "Institute of Technology" vs. "University." In the first two years at Caltech, every student takes "core," which is a large set of math, physics and chemistry classes. Caltech's focus is clearly on science as it is truly a research institution. In contrast, Princeton is a leading authority in nearly everything, and it focuses on providing a more comprehensive liberal arts education. This means undergrads are a focus and can take classes on most any topic, from anthropology to Slavic languages.
With Caltech, it's pretty much mandatory to mention the workload. Caltech has three terms, and students take about five classes a term. At Princeton, there are two longer terms, and most students take four or five classes a term. In my experience, the classes at Princeton teach less material and assign less work. I'm sure you can do the math. So if you are up for the challenge, Caltech certainly offers the opportunity to learn at a blistering pace, but it's a blistering pace. Princeton classes teach plenty and efficiently without quite taking over your life.
Your potential fellow students are quite different, too. Princeton's undergrads (around 5,000 of them) have very different interests and personalities. There is a lot going on campus, and everyone has a role, or two, or three. There are athletes, writers, singers, actors and even partiers. It's high-paced, and sometimes I wonder how the undergrads do so much. Caltech's students (around 900 of them) are at Caltech because they love science, pure and simple. Their backgrounds differ, and while many play sports, write, sing, act and even party, everyone is a scientist first. If there is one thing I miss about Caltech, it's that every student was a brilliant analytical thinker.
To settle a few loose ends, if you're wondering which has better food, the answer is undeniably Princeton. Location and weather go to Caltech, with its SoCal beaches and sun. Housing is a draw, and each campus is beautifully located in a rich suburb. (But: Pine or palm trees?)
In the end, what led me to my decision was this question: Do you want to be a research scientist? If yes, then there is nowhere better to get started than Caltech. If you're not sure or enjoy other pursuits as much as science, then go to Princeton, where you will have the time and ability to explore, while in no way limiting yourself if you do choose to be a scientist.
If you're a former Tiger who is now pursuing graduate studies elsewhere or a Princeton grad student who attended undergrad outside the Orange Bubble and would like to contribute a comparison send an email to email@example.com.