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Facing the challenge of your academic life, and winning

If you thought getting into Princeton was hard, wait until you see what you have to do to get out.

Every spring, college seniors across the nation break out the sunglasses, play frisbee, drink beer and work on their tans. Senior spring at most universities is a time of blissful and aimless relaxation.

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But Princeton is not your average university. Senior spring for students here is not a time for fun and games. Instead, it is a time for work — hard work.

It's called the senior thesis.

One of the unique features of a Princeton education is the requirement that all A.B. students and some engineers complete a major independent project in their senior year.

These written reports — due in March, April or May, depending on one's department — vary in length from 20 pages for a technical paper to 100 pages or more for social science topics. The thesis can make up as much as 40 percent of a senior's departmental grade point average. As a result, it becomes the primary focus of a senior's academic activity.

Seniors reduce their course loads and, inevitably, their leisure time, to complete the project by its imposing spring deadline.

In preparation for what seems an almost impossible task, A.B. students attend seminars and write 20-to-40-page papers — or JPs — in their junior year. Some students maintain the intellectual momentum gained from their JPs and base their theses on the same topic.

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Independent work allows students to focus on an area that interests them, but sometimes projects do not turn out as expected, as in the case of one biology major who wrote his thesis on seed dispersal.

"I had no choice" in a thesis topic, he said, asking to not be identified. "My choices failed and this topic was assigned to me."

"I could see how the thesis could be a valuable experience," he continued, but added his experience was "not particularly" rewarding.

Writing a thesis also gives seniors an opportunity to work closely with faculty members who specialize in their field. Many seniors consider the interaction with their adviser the most rewarding aspect of their work.

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But such a valuable learning experience has its price, and most seniors pay for it with sleep, social activities or their lives (temporarily).

Those who have been through the thesis experience say that the process proves cumbersome, even if it is rewarding in the end.

In addition to sacrificing their fall, winter and spring vacations to research, many seniors procrastinate so much throughout the year that it is necessary to pull all-nighters for weeks at a time, typing furiously.

"The final push was probably four days before it was due, over Houseparties weekend, with maybe six hours of sleep the whole time," said chemistry major Ben Horwich '99. "I was starting my concluding chapter at noon on the due date and working for a 5 p.m. deadline."

Not everyone procrastinates, however.

History major Griff Witte '00 said he finished with plenty of time to spare. "I did most of the work second semester, but once I got going, I really got going," he said. "The thesis was truly the culminating academic experience of my Princeton career."

After the great ordeal is finally over and the bound copies of their final papers are sitting snug in their department's office, many seniors experience the phenomenon of "post-thesis depression" — and find themselves actually missing the time they spent working on their theses.