Around this time every year, it is a solemn and holy tradition for Princeton undergraduates to start complaining about a peculiarity of the University academic calendar. Exams after break? Ew. But I argue that if you closely examine the arguments for both having exams before break and having exams after break, it is clear that having exams after break is the superior — if counter-intuitive — choice. Princeton students should not be so hasty to wish away one of the great structural advantages Princeton gives us.
I break down the arguments for exams before break into two camps: the psychological and the practical. The first argument is the main argument for exams before break: it is psychologically taxing to know how much work you have to do when you come back to school. You are restless with anticipation and anxiety, and because of this, you can’t really take a break at all. You cannot relax for feeling that you are supposed to be working on something. I am sympathetic to this argument and I think there is no way around the fact that this is the case.
The second argument, somewhat less common, is that it is a disadvantage to have so much space between learning course material and taking exams. If you learn things before break, and take exams after break, you have more review to do given that time has elapsed. I’m not sure this is actually the case. While it is true that you have to deal with a possible three-week gap in your learning process, even if you take exams directly after classes, you will still find that you have learned most material long ago and will have to do substantial review and relearning.
So, the psychological argument is superior to the practical argument for having exams before break. Now, let’s turn to the arguments for exams after break. The first, and probably one of the most important arguments: having what is essentially an extra three weeks to your reading period is huge. If you seriously need the time for whatever reason, you have it. With three weeks of free time, you can come back from just about anything during the semester; whether it’s a sickness, a sport, or doing the Prospect Eleven as often as possible for a semester. Whatever it is, you can make up for it. Why would you ever want to trade this ace in the hole away?
Second, as much as it’s nice to have a break after exams — which we do anyway, called Intersession — it’s also nice to have a break before exams. Princeton semesters are tough. Are you really spending enough time on yourself during a semester? Probably not. Take a load off for a few weeks, come back to Princeton and papers and exams refreshed and rejuvenated from your trips to Montreal and Mexico. Maybe just as important, right now, the gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas Break is three weeks long. Moving exams and reading period to before break will make that gap up to seven weeks long. That is a long time.
Third — and this is the primary reason that the administration does this to begin with — having exams after break helps give us a longer summer break. Imagine you adjust the Princeton schedule to have exams before break. One possibility is that you just begin the semester earlier. This will chew up more of summer break.You may find that instead of being able to take a two-month, or ten-week internship with say, J.P. Morgan, then going home for a month and a half to relax and actually have a break before school, you would take an eight-week internship and drop back into school in a matter of a few weeks. Hard to call it a summer vacation if you don’t have one. This does assume that we start the spring semester at the same time as we do now, but a longer winter break with a schedule change is always in the cards.
Finally, having exams after break means you face a significantly easier fall semester, because it becomes a less accelerated schedule. You may have noticed that Princeton’s 12 week semesters are shorter than other schools, which contributes greatly to their increased difficulty vis-à-vis other schools. Colleges on the semester system usually have semesters of 16-18 weeks. We are learning 16 weeks of material in 12 weeks, and that makes a big difference. That’s why this school seems like it comes after you. Currently, the lengthy break for Christmas and the other breaks during the fall semester help expand the semester and give you some more breathing room. I have always thought that the fall is much, much easier than the spring because the breaks act like shock absorbers to absorb any sudden influxes of large assignments. Winter break helps contribute to that, and I’m not sure that’s something worth losing. Of course, some schools do get longer winter breaks for extra space between semesters, but I do think that you can have too much of a good thing. Five weeks of break leaves me with too much time doing nothing.
In sum, there is a real psychological problem with having exams after break. I feel it too. But there are so many practical benefits for the rest of the year, so many concrete advantages that it seems downright silly and short-sighted to trade a few weeks of psychological relief for extra time to work, an easier semester, a longer summer break, and a less rapid pace in the fall. It’s not worth complaining or changing; just keep exams after break.