The University of Chicago and Princeton may seem to be two very different places on Thursday nights, but how accurate is that across an entire education? Matt Reid GS, who graduated from Chicago in 2004, explores the similarities and differences between the two schools.
When deciding where to go to college several years ago, my choice ultimately came down to the University of Chicago or Princeton. I chose Chicago and studied chemistry, but have since found my way to Princeton, where I’m a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering. There are some major surface differences between the two schools: One is a larger university in a big, sometimes gritty city, and the other is a rarefied Ivy League university in a pleasant town. These differences certainly influence the character of the schools, but since academics are the most important part of college, I’ll begin with what I’ve found to be the great similarities between Chicago’s and Princeton’s academic experiences.
Both universities feature rigorous and renowned undergraduate programs within larger universities, with outstanding coursework and research in nearly any field. The faculty at both schools are leaders in their fields, and many are dedicated teachers as well. The most important feature of Chicago’s academic experience is the core, a series of small discussion courses surveying the humanities and social sciences along with courses in calculus, foreign languages and physical and biological sciences. I loved the core --- it was one of the things that brought me to Chicago --- but for students whose interests are less broad or who may have already found their academic passion, the core can be a burden. Chicago is also a larger university than Princeton, with the resources of law, medical, business and other professional schools available to students who may be interested. Chicago does not have an engineering school as Princeton does, however, and Princeton’s strength in the applied sciences is an important aspect of its academic offerings. When I found that my interests were shifting to the applied sciences, Princeton stood out as a university with a strong engineering program alongside its programs in the basic sciences.
Where the schools differ most is in culture. While both are strong academically, Princeton seems to favor the scholar-athlete, while many Chicago students are more likely to have been on a quiz bowl team. You’ve probably heard that Chicago is "where fun comes to die," and indeed if a great party scene is what you’re looking for, then Princeton, with its eating clubs, might be a better fit. For many Chicago students, the city is the primary social outlet, and living in the city makes an indelible impact on many students’ lives, from what they do on weekends to where they volunteer and intern in the summers. I grew up in a small town and was ready for something bigger, and living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood in which the University of Chicago is located, provided both the positive and negative experiences of living in a big city. Princeton resembles parts of Hyde Park with its nice homes and leafy streets, but it is more quiet, and just beyond campus lies forested running trails and pastoral scenes that defy many a New Jersey stereotype. Princeton is a very pleasant place to live, though it can be too quiet for some. New York and Philadelphia are both just over an hour away by train, however, so it’s easy to get an urban fix when needed.
A degree from either Princeton or Chicago will serve you well in whatever field you choose to pursue. At both places, you’ll make friends, have challenging classes and have great opportunities for research or internships. Much of the difference comes down to wanting to be in a large city or a small town, at a school where social activities are dispersed throughout a city or one with a strong social life on campus. And before you get too stressed over your choice, remember that there are plenty of nerds alongside Princeton’s jocks, and that there are even frat boys at Chicago. And regardless of your individual interests, you’ll find people to share them with at either university.
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.