Are Princeton Students Competitive?

November 28, 2023
Ive Jones '24

Prior to college I led my large public high school’s Model United Nations (MUN) team to various regional and national competitions. MUN, much like other intellectually-centered competition clubs, attracts striver-type students who enjoy the intellectual rigor, attention, and accolades associated with the activity. Many of the students on my team and on teams across the country aimed for and eventually attended rigorous colleges and universities across the country, in part because of the competitie drive that motivated their academic and co-curricular discipline. 

When I arrived at Princeton, I naively assumed that most of my classmates would resemble the students I encountered at these competitions. Those kids, who wanted to stand out in the sea of thousands of young adults, were fiercely competitive. 

What I discovered once I stepped on campus was that Princeton students however—even the ones who participated in MUN like myself—were a different story: 

The folks I sat next to in lecture, who I caught glances of while they messaged their friends under the guise of notetaking, giggled with when our Professors unknowingly said something humorous, or commiserated with at the end of a difficult discussion, became the basis of my first study groups. Our time together transformed from brief moments of connectivity in class to hours of tackling our work under the bright lights of the Butler College lounge.

What I found in my first few in-person classes was the spirit of collective action that is a defining trait of Princeton’s student life. This is in part enabled by the structure of Princeton’s academics which provides a framework for students to see one another as collaborators instead of competition. Princeton’s Honor Code is the backbone of academic life and it is the set of regulations that protect academic integrity in our classes. In the case of most of my classes, students were not just permitted but encouraged to collaborate with peers to complete assignments. In the case of my Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) classes, this took the form of informal Problem Set (PSet) groups. In the evenings, we would meet in a study room to cover course material and propose solutions to our PSET problems. In my non-STEM classes, my classmates and I would share course notes with one another and, at times, discuss our readings following class.

This is not to say that all of my classmates are my best friends. What stands out to me, even more than the close friendships that have formed through academic life, is the mutual respect my classmates hold for one another in supporting their academic journey. This mutual respect is definitely a privilege: I think students at Princeton can lessen their competitive selves because they perceive their status as a Princetonian as ensuring some level of security in the years beyond. Perhaps this sense of security empowers students to be gentler to one another in an environment that can, at times, keep us pretty busy.

The humming seats of Firestone Library have been the launchpad for some of my treasured relationships here and the subtler interactions between my peers provide me a feeling of comfort that I am truly appreciate of.