The first week of freshman year, I remember my residential college head repeatedly telling the same anecdote about a student who came to him regarding her coursework. Over the course of their discussion, she complained to him “I have too many advisers!” Princeton ostensibly has an excellent support system for incoming freshman. RCAs, PAAs, DSLs, and a slew of other acronyms all remind us that, as hard as academics at Princeton are, there will always be structures in place to set our feet on the right path and bail us out if necessary.
When students’ principal advisers within a department are professors, however, freshmen don’t have access to optimal information. My advisor in the physics department emphasized the rigor of Princeton courses, and encouraged me to take courses with a lower workload in my first few semesters at Princeton. Experiences can certainly vary across departments, but professors and faculty have an undeniable incentive to be risk averse. This line of reasoning has merit, since students come from different backgrounds and arrive with different degrees of preparation for Princeton.
At the same time, many of the most rewarding and fulfilling classes one could take at Princeton exist outside of one’s major, and do require a substantial amount of work. Freshman year is an ideal time to explore these classes. For students who aren’t certain of their interests, taking an easier introductory class won’t provide the same understanding of what a major entails as a more difficult class, so an aversion to these sorts of classes prevents students from exploring other potential majors. Even for students that know exactly what they want to do with their lives, Princeton offers the chance to learn unique skills, from singing to painting, that won’t be easily accessible after graduation.
The effect of a few bad grades freshman year is small compared to bad grades junior or senior year, making freshman year the ideal time to explore a broader scope of materials. Moreover, as our time in Princeton draws to a close, students are pressed to finish distribution requirements and certificates, making it less feasible to take a whimsical class that has a high workload. Kiddie Lit isn’t packed with students that have a passion for children’s literature; it’s a course that earned its name for offering a relatively low workload.
It’s a fine balance between not overloading yourself in your first semester and taking advantage of Princeton’s unique opportunities, and professors are unlikely to have that body of knowledge. From conversations with friends throughout various departments, the default seems to be to err on the side of caution and suggest course loads that are guaranteed to be safe. The opportunity cost, however, shouldn’t be trivialized.
The best arbiters of whether “X schedule” is doable for a freshman are likely to be other students with similar experiences. While RCAs and PAAs can help, they are only one or two upperclassmen, with majors that likely differ from those of their advisees. In an ideal world, departments would have a structured way to connect freshman with upperclassmen majoring in their field within the first few days of the school year, and before course selection had closed. This would give freshman more honest feedback about classes and the difficulty they might expect at Princeton, and would encourage taking classes that we’ll never be able to after we leave the Orange Bubble. A wide pool of upperclassmen simply provides freshmen with more experiences and more data from which to form their first experiences at Princeton, and possibly explore something they never thought to before.
In the meantime, I’ll keep telling every freshman I meet to take a painting class.
Rohit Dilip is a junior concentrator in Physics from Fremont, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.