Princeton and Oxford are similar architecturally, but what about the experiences between the building walls? Landis Stankievech '08, a Rhodes Scholar pursuing graduate studies at Oxford, compares the two schools.
What are the differences between my Princeton and Oxford undergraduate experiences? The first thing I should say is that, at Princeton, I studied mechanical and aerospace engineering, while at Oxford, I’m studying philosophy, politics and economics. So right out of the gate we’re not comparing apple to apples here; some of the differences between Oxford and Princeton that I have emphasized below have been exaggerated in my personal experiences just because of the nature of the two subjects that I’ve studied. That being said, the two places really are rather different.
A lot of differences stem from the structures of the two institutions. Princeton is a smaller, centralized university, with virtually everyone living on campus. It’s easy to get to know a lot of people, and there is a strong feeling of community and a sense of allegiance to the university as a whole. Oxford is composed of many colleges, each of which has a few hundred students. Members of the colleges are usually tight-knit, but it can be difficult to get to know many people outside of your college. Allegiances tend to be to the colleges, which compete against each other in many forums, including recruiting, sporting activities and examinations.
The style of undergraduate education is also completely different. Princeton is similar to most North American universities in that the majority of the teaching is done in lectures. Students generally receive a standardized curriculum for each class, where they are told what they need to learn. Oxford has lectures as well, but they are largely optional and provide only a loose framework for the knowledge that will be required for the exams. The majority of teaching is done in tutorials, which are one-on-one or two-on-one sessions with a tutor. These tutorials occur in the colleges, and the curriculum of each is set by the individual tutor based on some loose guidelines.
Another big difference is the method of evaluation. At Princeton, each class usually has a series of exams and assignments that count toward the overall grade for the class. This grade shows up on a transcript, which provides an overall depiction of your academic performance. At Oxford, it all comes down to a series of final exams that are written at the end of your undergraduate career. These exams are graded and aggregated into one final grade that represents your overall performance at Oxford.
This is related to what I’d say is one of the biggest differences: the mindsets. At Oxford, learning is more self-directed. I think it has to be any time you study for two years without being formally evaluated. As I said above, the curricula at Oxford are a little bit less well-defined. The reading lists are practically infinite. It truly is up to each individual student how much they want to learn during the years that they are at Oxford. Of course, at Princeton you can learn as much as you’d like, but there is more structure to the system, and there are more checks in place to make sure you are doing work along the way. Both of these mindsets have their pros and cons, and I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other. Nor would I say that I prefer one school over the other based on any of the other differences that I’ve mentioned. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience undergraduate life at both universities, and I’ve enjoyed both immensely. Each has provided a unique environment for me to grow and learn, and each has challenged me in different ways.