Sunday, February 21, 2010

Orange and Apples: McGill

With the world focused on Canada for the Olympics, now is a perfect time to look north for a Canadian school for Orange and Apples. Rachel Parsons, a graduate student in Philosophy, attended McGill University and provides a comparison with Princeton.

I’m a Princeton grad student, and I hail from Montreal, where I attended McGill for both my B.A. and my B.C.L./LL.B., an analog to the J.D. here in the United States. If you’re trying to decide between attending Princeton or McGill for your undergraduate years, I hope to be able to offer some helpful information mixed in with an opinion or two.

First of all, it depends on what you are looking for. Do you want to find a sense of independence during your college years? Do you want to live in an interesting and unique city with incredible diversity? Do you want to be part of a rich academic culture that includes professional schools for law, medicine, dentistry and business? Then you should go to McGill.

On the other hand, do you prefer a small, secluded college experience, where you live in a very wealthy town, you are never alone, you have oodles of support, and things are made easier for you? Do you prefer to live on campus, always feel safe and spend every waking moment basking in the life that the university has tailor-made for you? Then you should go to Princeton.

These universities are like night and day. If I had to find some similarities, it would be that both places offer an excellent education and place a primacy on student wellbeing. An important difference, though, is that at Princeton the students are treated more like consumers: The university exists for its undergrads, and all resources are directly or indirectly devoted to them. McGill is highly devoted to its undergraduates and offers them all the same important advantages as Princeton, but one gets the sense that the institution exists primarily for something beyond them: Admitted undergrads are being offered an opportunity to partake in something that would somehow exist without them.

The end result in either case, so long as you work hard and are open-minded, is a second-to-none education, but depending on your personality, you might thrive better in one environment over the other. I think that, in principle anyway, Princeton students generally have more access to professors, partially because it's such a small place, and partially because professors often lead at least one precept for their class and generally tend to be more involved in student life and development. However, I recall the Arts Dean at McGill saying that her greatest wish for all the new students was that each would build a mentor relationship with at least one professor before they leave. This is certainly what happened for me. Thus perhaps a more stark example of the difference in environment is what happens when a student's grades are sliding and she or he is in danger of failing a course. At Princeton, all sorts of people will be put on alert, and someone will contact the student. At McGill this won’t happen, at least not as a matter of course, and if the student doesn't contact her professors she will likely end up on probation. There are committees that she can talk to after the fact to explain, document and rectify the situation --- e.g., if there was a death in the family, or the student was suffering from a medical condition, etc. --- so fairness is not comprised, but there isn’t the close-knit supervision of students that you will find at Princeton.

As for the social situations at each school, I lived with my family for some of my time at McGill, so I didn’t have the full social experience, but I get the sense that you will encounter less elitism at McGill than at Princeton. There are no elite "eating clubs" at McGill, though there are some small-time sororities and fraternities if you’re into that. Beyond that, there is room to find whatever you are looking for; students make friends in residence during their first year, and after that they live in apartments, cook for themselves and get involved by joining clubs and participating in SSMU activities (SSMU is the Student Society of McGill University, and it is extremely active). I loved my time at McGill, and from what I gather undergraduates love their time here at Princeton. So it’s all about what kind of experience you are looking for and what kind of environment you think you will thrive in.

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


Anonymous said...

Most important: drinking age is 18 in Montreal. Makes for a HUGE difference in social scene. McGill social scene is primarily at clubs and bars, with student parties often hosted there.