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Selling Princeton

I recently had the pleasure of attending a small dinner lecture delivered by W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 on the topic of Princeton’s architectural history, from which I gleaned many a delightful tidbit of information about this place that we students from all four corners of the earth have come to call home. As I sat through slide after slide of photographs from the historical record, thoroughly engrossed by the evolution of our campus from a rural pasture surrounding lonely Nassau Hall to a vibrant mecca of global scholarship and aspirational tourism, I came to a startling realization: Princeton is not a small campus anymore.

It may have been, once upon a time, many buildings and expansions ago, when the Dinky still dropped students off beneath the majesty of Blair Arch and not on a plywood platform in a parking lot. Anyone who has ever had to make the trek from Frick to Foulke or from Forbes to just about anywhere already knows that scuttling from place to place often requires much more time than the 10 minutes the Registrar optimistically allots at the end of each class period.


Though I, on my brakeless bicycle, have seen the vast expanse of this sprawling campus hurtle by me, I was surprised to discover that somehow I had still managed to internalize the fantasy —oft-repeated in the pages of admission brochures and through the lips of Orange Key tour guides —that Princeton is some sort of intimate, intellectual country club sprung straight from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. What's more, I realized that I myself have been guilty of describing Princeton in this way to those outside our Orange Bubble.

Perhaps this was inevitable. The first time I ever stepped foot on the Princeton campus was during my prefrosh visit, when the cheerful residential college adviser of my Preview hosts led me and a group of my fellow prospective students to the aptly-named Prospect Garden. As we admired the flowers and foliage in their soft April bloom, the RCA gestured to the Italianate villa overlooking the cobbled walkway on which we stood. “That’s Prospect House,” she said. “It’s a little like a restaurant. You’ll only get to eat there on special occasions, like if a professor invites you or something. I’ve only gotten to eat there once, and it was the best meal I’ve ever had on campus.”

Two weeks ago, I received my first invitation to dine at Prospect House, at a luncheon with the journalist Janet Malcolm. I eagerly sent in my RSVP and reveled in my anticipation of what would undoubtedly be an incredible experience. On the day of the lunch, I returned from my 8:30 a.m. lecture and took a nap —the first I’d taken all year —awakening with a start to realize that I’d slept through my alarm and was already 20 minutes late. I rushed madly up to Prospect House and slunk, breathless and chagrined, into the only empty seat at the long white table in the ornate upper-story dining room. I sat, hungry and humiliated, at the best meal I would ever have on campus, too embarrassed to even rise and fill my empty plate.

Each year during Preview Weekend, when the prefrosh tire of asking unsolicited questions of professors in seminars and take to grilling the undergraduates after class instead, I find myself saying some truly peculiar things. It starts innocuously, with something like “Princeton is a small campus,” and before I know it, I find myself telling well-worn half-truths designed to obstruct any comprehensive understanding of what life is really like on this side of paradise.

“I don’t really worry about this grade deflation business.”

“Everyone is more or less happy with their rooming situation, in the end.”


“You’ll end up largely where you’re meant to be, eating club-wise.”

I wonder if my habit of disingenuously sugarcoating Princeton’s flaws arises from my own insecurities about the choice I made to attend this University. I sometimes find myself feeling as though successfully recruiting a prospective student would somehow validate my own decision to matriculate four years ago. In this way, Princeton strikes me as an elaborate pyramid scheme, each new class trying desperately to convince its successors that this is a worthwhile place to be —and no successful pyramid scheme makes a point of full disclosure. I wonder how many others are deeply unsatisfied with some aspects of life at Princeton but still smile through their teeth while they sing the praises of Old Nassau. I suspect it is quite a few.

Some time ago, a prospective freshman somehow acquainted with my brother wrote to me on Facebook asking for advice on her choice between Princeton and Harvard. I wrote her the best reply I could —lengthy, reckless and honest —the kind of language that would immediately disqualify a person from employment at a used-car dealership. I checked up on her a few weeks later to discover she’d chosen Harvard, with its own set of foibles and final clubs. Whatever her reasons for choosing, I hope she made the right decision in the end.

Daniel Xu is a molecular biology major from Knoxville, Tenn. He can be reached at

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