Tomorrow, Princeton, and many other schools, send out their acceptances, launching thousands of school comparisons. In deference to that stress, today's school comparison will not depend solely on decisions arriving tomorrow. Instead, we look across the Atlantic to Cambridge, which sent out their acceptances months ago. Kevin Kung '08, who studied Physics at both Princeton and Cambridge, explores the residential and academic environments at the two universities.
I have the possibly prejudiced view that while Princeton is the most beautiful campus in the U.S., Cambridge is the most beautiful in the U.K. Both are green and leafy in the summer, and Cambridge is furthermore gifted with the River Cam, which creates some endless student pastimes such as punting. On the other hand, while Princeton is extremely compact (you can walk across the whole campus in less than 15 minutes), some Cambridge colleges and departments are very spread out (I have once spent 45 minutes walking to another college). This probably wouldn't be important if you have a bike, but it certainly makes it easier to choose a college that is close to your classes and normal sphere of activity. Furthermore, while Cambridge is relatively crime-free, the more distant you are from the action, the more you have to look out for your safety. For example, I live in the off-center West Cambridge, and in the past winter there were several cases of mugging on the route of my daily commute to my department, and at the bottom line, the road home at night can be quite dark. This had never been a concern to me at Princeton.
In terms of academics, it is inherently unfair to compare Princeton and Cambridge, since my Cambridge degree doesn't involve coursework. It appears that the formats of undergraduate classes in the two universities are more similar than different, the main difference lying in the terms used: For example, “tutorials/supervisions” as opposed to “precepts.” The main source of academic pressure in Princeton comes from the time-consuming, graded, and therefore peer-competitive weekly assignments. At Cambridge, study is more self-paced. What you learn in Princeton over two 12-week-long semesters, Cambridge manages to squeeze more stuff into three 8-week-long terms, with 5-week-long breaks in between, so the Cantabrigian stress level seems to fluctuate much more as a function of time. But again, I have only seen physics classes and can't speak for other departments. And oh, Princeton's exam-after-the-winter-break schedule does not apply in Cambridge.
While both universities have the residential college system, only when you've seen Cambridge do you realize that the Princetonian colleges are merely shadows of the original. Cambridge colleges are steeped in justifiable pride and history, but this can sometimes make things frustratingly bureaucratic. I live in a small, new and intimate college (Clare Hall) for graduate students only. While students have the option of eating in the dining hall, most of us find it more cost-effective to cook for ourselves, and I must say that throughout this year, I probably gained more knowledge through experimental cooking/baking, than through my degree course! Of course, Eating Clubs are non-existent in Cambridge; the closest equivalent of Princeton's houseparties are Cambridge's world-famous, pricey, and college-organized May Balls.