Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Orange and Apples: University of Chicago

Princeton may have had its lowest acceptance rate ever, 8.18 percentage of applicants, but the University of Chicago may have experienced the most impressive change in acceptance rates. Chicago accepted 18% of applicants this year, a decrease of 8.8 percentage points from last year. Chicago saw a 42% increase in applicants this year. As their acceptance rates begin to become closer, how similar are the experiences at these two institutions? Jessica Chong ’07, a Chicago doctoral student, discusses her impressions.

I was a molecular biology major at Princeton and am now a human genetics graduate student at the University of Chicago. When I was deciding on a college, I actually considered both Princeton and the University of Chicago, and I did not know most of the things you will read below.

The most obvious difference between the University of Chicago and Princeton is location: city vs. suburb. As a school in a well-off suburban New Jersey town, Princeton and its surrounding environment are relatively quiet and safe. The vast majority of Princeton students live on campus; your friends will always be a few dorms away. On the downside, though it is rather easy to visit to New York from Princeton, the train trip takes more than an hour, and trains only run every 45 minutes or so. In comparison, the University of Chicago is a 40-minute bus ride from downtown Chicago, and buses run every 10 minutes, so it is far easier to head into the city for a spur-of-the-moment night out. Hyde Park, the neighborhood around the university, is fairly residential but still is an urban area, which means more crime and noisier streets. The university only guarantees housing for freshmen, so many upperclassmen end up living in apartments around Hyde Park. Although every student considering UChicago seems to have questions about safety, in my opinion, Hyde Park is not as dangerous as its reputation suggests—although muggings in the area occur somewhat frequently. That said, the university offers free night shuttles and escorts to help students get around safely.

There are some academic differences as well. The University of Chicago follows a quarter system, while Princeton follows an atypical semester system. At Chicago, fall classes run from the last week of September to mid-December, winter classes from the beginning of January to mid-March, and spring classes from the end of March to the end of June. There is no midterm break, but there is a week of break between quarters. At Princeton, fall semester classes run from the first week of September to mid-December, and spring semester classes from the end of January to the end of May. There is a week of break after both fall and spring midterms. Princeton's atypical semester schedule places fall finals in January, after the holiday break. Personally, I felt that the University of Chicago's quarter system was unnecessarily stressful for two reasons: the lack of a midterm break meant that the exams for one class could easily overlap with regular homework and projects for other classes, and there was only a four-day reading period (Thursday through Sunday) before the single week of final exams. In contrast, Princeton's system, which includes a one-and-a-half-week reading period and a one-and-a-half-week exam period, allows ample time to complete final projects and papers, and prepare for exams.

Both the University of Chicago and Princeton have a liberal arts education requirement. Chicago requires all students to take "The Core," while Princeton students are required to complete "distributions." These requirements are very similar in content and spirit between the two universities, though Chicago's Core includes a physical-education requirement. Both schools use these requirements to ensure that all undergraduates experience courses in a variety of subject areas.

Most importantly, however, is that the two universities appear to have differing attitudes toward how they educate students. Princeton will allow you to sign up for nearly any course you want, though your adviser will usually question you to make sure you are certain about your preparedness for the course. (So no graduate-level chemistry classes as a freshman when you didn't even take chemistry in high school.) But at Chicago, the top-level freshman math class, Honors Analysis, is invitation-only based on your score on the calculus placement exam. All other students are tracked into a variety of levels of calculus or pre-calculus classes depending on their scores on the exam, and the chemistry and physics departments also use the scores on the math exam to help in placing students into their own freshman courses.

In addition, the University of Chicago and Princeton differ in their approaches to research done by their undergraduates. Princeton requires all undergraduates to complete at least one year of research with an adviser in their departments, culminating in the writing of a senior thesis. It is an experience that all Princeton students share together and celebrate completing when they graduate. At Chicago, while many students do engage in research, only a select number pass their department's GPA requirement and are given permission by their adviser to actually write a thesis, called an "honors thesis." The remaining students are allowed to do research if they find an adviser, but they cannot write a thesis on their work.


KEO said...

From a U of C student:
Actually, the thesis process is different for each department. Many undergraduates have to write a thesis to graduate. A few departments do not require the thesis in which case the student can write one for honors. In both cases, there is a minimum GPA in order to graduate with honors.

Many students end up writing a thesis one way or another, and any student can chose to write one or to do an independent research project as long as he or she can find an adviser. In many ways this is a difference of hand-holding. The U of C leaves its undergraduates to fend for themselves and assumes that if a student wants a research experience he or she can find a way to make it happen.

Anonymous said...

(continued) You're right; not everyone can take all classes at Chicago. But, really, are you claiming that we democratize the academic system so that any student, including one who has never taken calculus before, take the 160s honors calculus class and learn delta-epsilon proofs? I'm pretty sure your academic advisers, if worth their salt, would advise you against such a choice, too. Some courses simply require more foundational skills... and that's going to hold true whether you're studying in Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, or Chicago. As a first year, I took a history class with one other first year, a number of 3rd/4th years... and a few phD students, including one who had already published/edited books in the subject area. I was never made to feel that I shouldn't have enrolled in the class, although I was expected to pore over the same records from a 16th-century German village as the students with significantly more experience in historiography. I loved it. It challenged me and forced me to really engage with the material.

Finally, with regards to the thesis requirement... I think that Princeton's JP and senior paper requirement is a great idea. That said, as KEO posted earlier, the Chicago student who wants to research will not lack for willing advisers or resources. Jessica's statement that "only a select number pass their department's GPA requirement and are given permission by their adviser to actually write a thesis" is just false. You can always write a paper... but you may not qualify for honors, either because of the quality of your research/paper OR because of your GPA. I've never encountered a student who has been denied the chance to write a thesis paper, although I do know students who have bypassed that option because they knew they could not qualify for honors because of their GPA. The two situations are not equivalent.

Anyway, cheers. Apologies for any mistakes I've made about Princeton. Both schools have intelligent, witty, and academic-engaged students. Let's make sure that we don't misrepresent each other.

Anonymous said...

Whilst we're comparing oranges and apples, let's sure we're being accurate and are giving both university's their due. Housing is guaranteed for all undergraduates at the University of Chicago, even if the student moves "off-campus" and wants back into the system (http://housing.uchicago.edu/undergraduate_housing/parent_faq.shtml). It is true that the majority of 3rd and 4th years live in apartments around campus (most closer Forbes...), but that's just established campus culture.

While many students do have concerns about safety, I challenge you to find a student, at a university in an urban center, who lackd concern about safety. As a gross generalization, crime occurs in higher rates in urban neighborhoods. Sure.

As to the quarter-system, you say unnecessarily stressful; I say academically rigorous. You say tomato; I say tomahto. Jessica points out that Princeton's system is atypical, and it is -- even for university on a semester-system. It seems that Chicago's calendar roughly mirrors other schools with quarters. I personally enjoyed that due to the quarter system, I was able to take a large number of classes in my four-years at Chicago.

I agree with your characterization that the Core Curriculum and the Princeton distributions share a common spirit; however, the content doesn't seem quite commensurate. Princeton's requirement does not seem to require that the student to take specifically designed classes. In contrast, Chicago's Core is very structured. For the "Humanities" requirement, there are 8 or 9 possible sequences (Readings in World Lit, Philosophical Perspectives...) and so forth. Of course, there's a finite group of sequences, but they're meant to introduce students to rigorous, academic work in small classes. I think the entire Core can be boiled down to into an attempt to teach the Socratic Method, academic writing, and critical reasoning skills to first and second year college students. Again, in spirit, I'm sure that's the goal of the Princeton distribution system as well.

Jessica said...


I'm a little confused--I *agreed* with what you are saying about safety--I think Hyde Park isn't as dangerous as it is rumored to be and that UofC provides safety shuttles and the UofC police are really responsive. After all when there were gunshots outside my apartment last summer, the UofC Police were there within 2 minutes. Again, I think if you are smart and take advantage of the safety shuttles, walk in a group with friends at night, Hyde Park is relatively ok.

As for the honors thesis issue... it's not false. I know of (via friends throughout different departments at UChicago) of multiple (as in >=2) UChicago undergrads who wanted to write a thesis after doing independent research and were not permitted to do so by their advisers. Granted I'm sure there were reasons, but the fact remains that they were not allowed to write a thesis despite conducting independent research.

Regarding the 160s sequence, I think that it's one thing to advise or even discourage a student from taking a very difficult class... it's a quite different thing to outright deny them the opportunity to even try. Obviously the math department has its reasons for doing this, but it's something I personally disagree with and think should be made clear to students who are considering enrolling.

Jessica said...

Edit: I'll grant you that any student could write a paper... freedom of press and all that, but I would think that it'd be futile and frustrating to embark on writing an honors thesis with the knowledge that it won't actually count for anything.

Also I, personally, would find it rather depressing to be a senior, perhaps even one who's done research for multiple years, yet know that I have no chance of being able to write an honors thesis purely because my GPA wasn't high enough.

Jessica said...

Oops, one last comment: You're right about the housing thing... I thought I had looked that up while writing, but either I remember wrong or I found an outdated page. My apologies.

Anonymous said...

The Chicago approach to research and thesis papers seems more peer review oriented, where excellence is rewarded over mediocrity.

Re: Princeton, I'm not sure what the point is of having everyone do a thesis project in order to graduate. Isn't that a bit high school-ish?

Anonymous said...

As a UofC undergrad, I am offended by your claim to know about what our lives are like. Because you don't. As a grad student, you live in a different world. You haven't slogged through the Core, had the soul sucked out of you by the chemistry department, and watched your GPA fall further every quarter.

In one thing, you are correct. This place IS unnecessarily stressful. To go to UofC is to be a masochist. This place is hard, and they know it. The fact that the math department doesn't allow just any poor fool fresh from high school to take Honors Analysis is a kindness. Brilliant kids spend 20+ hours on those problem sets. If you take that class and aren't prepared for it, you probably won't only fail Analysis, you'll likely fail every other class you have because you will literally have no time to do the work.

As for writing a thesis, having a GPA of 3.0 or better in order to try for honors is the standard in chemistry. And that isn't easy. But we work for what we get here.

Those few departments that require a thesis do so because otherwise their major isn't hard enough. The rest of us have plenty of work to do. We don't go to Princeton.