Harvard and Princeton are both the Number 1 universities in the country according to US News & World Reports, but how does the experience at the two schools differ for students? Ralph Kleiner '05 offers a comparison of the two institutions.
In 2005, I graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in chemistry. Immediately thereafter, I started work on my Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard. My experience at Harvard has been extremely rewarding both scientifically and professionally. The Boston area --- including MIT, Harvard and Harvard Med, the newly formed Broad Institute and countless other academic and industrial ventures --- is one of the most exciting places in the country for research in the natural sciences. As a grad student, it’s easy to take advantage of these opportunities; for an undergrad however, the competitive environment created by students who know exactly what they want to do, and those who are less certain, can be a bit overwhelming.
For most undergrads, college is more a place of exploration than a means to an end. My time at Princeton was spent doing just that. In addition to deciding on what I wanted to study, I dabbled in several fairly diverse activities, spanning everything from a cappella singing to playing on the sprint football team. (For those interested, Harvard has no sprint football team.) I also belonged to an eating club, that bastion of Ivy League indulgence and exclusivity that my non-Princeton friends tease me about incessantly. Of course, Harvard is not without its pretension, as evidenced by the recent licensing of its name to a line of preppy high-end men’s sportswear.
What I most treasured about my Princeton experience was the sense of community fostered by the school. I think that a large part of this was due to the relative seclusion of the campus as well as the focus that Princeton places on the undergraduate body (which, after all, constitutes more than two-thirds of all students on campus). Socially, the eating clubs provided an inclusive and convenient environment for meeting your peers. I also always had a feeling that the admission office had done an exceptional job of selecting students that were both sufficiently diverse and yet had a certain set of core values in common. The friends that I made at Princeton have remained some of the closest people in my life.
In contrast, Harvard is nestled in the heart of Cambridge, which provides a number of exciting opportunities for rest and relaxation for those with the initiative to seek them out. Nearby Boston has even more things to do if you envision yourself spending significant amounts of time off campus. While the town of Princeton is quaint and idyllic, the extent of its charm can be appreciated within the span of a single afternoon.
Ultimately, it’s hard to go wrong with either school as an undergraduate institution. The undergrads that I’ve interacted with at Harvard have all seemed very happy and would probably praise its virtues no less than I’ve praised those of Princeton. Neither school however, is an appropriate choice for someone interested in following college football. Then again, my hometown team, the Syracuse Orange, hasn’t fared all that well recently either.
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.