As a host for the Princeton Humanities Symposium, I found myself over-glamorizing the University to two high-strung, visiting high schoolers who thought the admissions committee was basically the CIA tracking their every breath. Outwardly, I know it’s my duty to project a positive representation of the University. I wanted to make the high schoolers' next three days live up to their expectations of the No. 1 university in the United States, replete with all the trappings that the guidebooks and the internet boast about. But internally, I knew that there was an unavoidable disingenuousness to my words.
I’m selectively excising and editing the bulk of what was an objectively terrifying freshman year. There’s nothing inherently wrong with harmless embellishment to indulge your Ivy League dreams; however, I value honesty, and I think it’s to their detriment that I fail to give an accurate portrait of my Princeton experience.
Given what I know now, I think prospective students should be warned that this school won’t offer the unconditional, cushion-like feeling of a home, and — at least for the average student — it certainly does not readily provide academic outlets for positive self-validation or reinforcement of your capabilities. Anyone up for the challenge of Princeton needs to be willing to accept that for most of the time, it’s very easy to get lost somewhere as a meaningless cog within the business-like system and even harder to avoid feeling like a small fish failing to swim in an extremely wide, deep pond. Ultimately, if you’re not careful, the University will force you to assume the worst about yourself, and to entertain the notion that out of 10 people, you may very well be the 10th best.
Having been a former symposium attendee myself, I can say that my host never mentioned these drawbacks. Instead, she rattled off the same practiced propaganda to me back when I was a nervous high school senior willing to soak up every word she said. Even if she was stressed, unhappy, or emotionally struggling, she never let on that her 19 years of life might have been equally as perfect without Princeton. Looking back, I see now that we were both echoes of Tina Fey’s character in the film “Admission,” mindlessly rambling, inflating the University’s wonderful small-town atmosphere, the world-class lectures, the endlessly stimulating social scene, and all the life-changing opportunities that it provided.
As I led both girls around, like many a tour guide before me, I heard myself conflating the idea of friends with random acquaintances and animatedly describing parties that I had watched from my dorm room window rather than attended. I know that subconsciously there was a part of me that earnestly wanted to relive the few positive aspects of my freshman year, but I also couldn’t quiet the nagging guilt that in making up these anecdotes, I was stalling for time to avoid telling them the truth that I wish I had been told as a prospective freshman.
For starters, the insularity of the Orange Bubble has always been severely understated, and there’s a definite reluctance to acknowledge the so-called “effortless perfection” among the student body that’s ingrained in the University’s culture. In looking back, I wish someone would have spared my ego and had the guts to say that despite the aura of calm that many students try to project, Princeton is never easy, even for the hardest-working and most competent of students. Similarly, I wish I hadn’t listened to the oft-given spiel about taking academic risks that falsely led me to believe that the school provided a safety net where you were free to take chances and could still expect to stay afloat and even succeed.
As a naïve freshman, I was completely unprepared for Princeton, especially given the ego boost of getting in that had temporarily warped my view of my own intelligence. On my receiving my acceptance letter, I took it as a signifier that I must somehow be brilliant, and thus I came to campus wanting to show my peers just how academically qualified I was. Suddenly, I became a risk-taker, deciding on a whim that I could masterfully juggle 300-level courses and compete with seniors while magically maintaining a 4.0.
I became self-deluded to the point where I overestimated my own capabilities and ended up being forced to drop a lab course in a subject that I had no experience or interest in when I found out that it was non-PDF. Sadly, no one — not my academic advisor or my residential college dean or any of my older friends — informed me that I was making a mistake or setting myself up for inevitable failure; in fact, many people whom I sought guidance from applauded my ambitiousness and assured me that I would me more than capable of managing while still enjoying my freshman fall.
In this moment of crisis, I felt abandoned without academic guidance or an emotional support network to fall back on. By mid-spring, I was suffering from an acute case of chronic ego deflation to the point where even dragging myself to precepts became a mortifying experience. I spent the latter half of the year living at home to avoid facing the world and having to be physically on campus too often. Even worse was the knowledge that I would not be accepted if I were to be open about the negativity of my experience or to try and seek empathy in shared struggles with my seemingly perfect peers.
My roommates called me a Debbie Downer, my former classmates gave me patronizing glares when I passed them in the hallways, and even University Health Services felt inadequate at a time when I was desperate to reconnect to the campus community without being branded as an idiot. I’ll admit that it’s been a monumental struggle ever since returning to campus sophomore year to try to avoid an existential meltdown while rebuilding my sense of self-confidence and trust in my own ability.
However, many of the hurdles that I faced could have been resolved had there been more transparency on the part of the University about the true rigors and intensity that I was about to face. It doesn’t matter how up to date the facilities are or how many famous professors are teaching each semester, or even what the school’s U.S. News ranking is. If a student truly wants to come to Princeton, none of these arbitrary distinctions necessarily needs to be restated. Thus, rather than trying to “sell” Princeton and build up freshman year as the best time of our lives, the University needs to give equal weight to demystifying the unspoken struggles of the freshman experience so that anyone interested in attending Princeton knows exactly what they’re getting into when they apply.
At least now, as a representative of the University, I can take that first step. I’m waiting for when I’ll inevitably be asked by the seniors I’m hosting, “Why did you pick Princeton?” I will have revised the canned answer that I had planned in my head, in knowing that whatever I say from now on needs to have two parts, balancing the obvious pros against the cons that are too often obscured.
Hayley Siegel is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.