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.