The Freshman Seminar
Each freshman seminar is limited to 15 students and is developed and taught by a member of Princeton’s renowned faculty, whose main role is to serve as a facilitator of ideas. Each freshman seminar is hosted by a residential college, which means that discussions started in the classroom can continue over meals or in other informal settings.
Class discussions dictate their own direction, and students are encouraged to argue, get inspired and be passionate. Both students and professors consistently cite freshman seminars as among their finest academic experiences at Princeton.
Each semester brings new seminars to choose from, often with close ties to current events. Popular seminars in recent semesters have been:
Active Geological Processes: During a weeklong trip to the Sierra Nevada, students in this seminar observe changes in the Earth’s surface firsthand. Class meetings help students prepare for the trip and, afterward, provide a venue for presenting their findings and interpretations.
Life on Mars — Or Maybe Not: Following the thrill of a scientific discovery comes the difficulty of presenting it to the public. This seminar poses the question, “How reliable is science news?” and looks to understand the science behind news reports, the factors that shape media coverage and ways in which that coverage tends to distort the findings.
Cultural Revolutions of the 1960s: From literature and comedy to journalism and war, this course surveys the upheaval of the 1960s, examines the major figures who acted as catalysts and traces their impact through the decades that followed.
Ethics in Everyday Life: Students are challenged to examine their values — and express them — in this seminar, while focusing on the ethical issues surrounding food, money, personal relationships, meaning and purpose, and the self.
Polarized America: Ideology, Inequality and American Democracy: Drawing on political science, history, economics and sociology, this seminar looks beyond the red state/blue state rhetoric to reveal more significant factors contributing to today’s sociopolitical climate.
Underworlds: Students in this course journey to underworlds as old as the eighth century B.C.E. and as recent as the 21st century — from Homer’s "Odyssey" to "The Sopranos" — at the same time, examining the role of the underworld in epic literature and related cultural traditions.
The Precept System
Most classes at Princeton are small. The ratio of students to faculty is 5 to 1, and even lecture courses average just 30 to 40 students. This means that at Princeton, no one gets lost in the crowd.
Students have the opportunity to engage their classmates and course materials even more closely in precepts, which are small discussion groups that meet weekly to further explore the readings and topics of a particular course. The precept provides an open forum in which students are encouraged to voice their opinions and challenge those of their peers.
The precept is a defining component of a Princeton education. Loosely based on the tutorial systems of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, it was introduced by Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson in 1905 as a way for students to engage actively in their learning process.
Precepts may be led by the professor who teaches the course, by other faculty members or by advanced graduate students. Students have the opportunity to meet with a professor during regular office hours to bring up questions and ideas one-on-one.