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An open letter to the first-years during your unprecedented transition to Princeton

Nassau Hall
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Dear incoming first-years,

Starting your education at an Ivy League school is intimidating enough. I cannot imagine how scary it must be to begin your first year of college during a pandemic. I remember anxiously awaiting the start of “real life,” as I imagine many of you are right now, like it was just yesterday. I am writing to share what I wish I knew two years ago, back when I started this wild ride we call a Princeton education. 


I grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and was the first student to go to an Ivy League School in six years. After arriving at Princeton, I quickly found that many of my classmates had attended some of the top schools in the country. While I had taken just one AP class, many of my peers had already completed years of research in major medical centers. I was incredibly intimidated by how successful and intelligent so many of my classmates already were. Among our numbers were Olympic-level athletes, founders of international nonprofits, mathematical geniuses, and recipients of major awards. I questioned whether I really belonged at Princeton, whether I was only at this university because it needed to fill its quota for rural, public school kids.

These persistent doubts filling my head were an unmistakable symptom of imposter syndrome. It may take you a while to realize it, but everyone at Princeton deals with it at one point or another. I’ve seen this time and time again — friends crying at a lower-than-expected midterm grade, legacy students wondering if they’d have gotten in if their parent hadn’t attended, peers dropping out of a department because they felt “too dumb.” I like to think of attending Princeton as winning the education lottery. Out of tens of thousands of qualified applicants, you are lucky enough to be a member of the Great Class of 2024, and you deserve it just as much as everyone else. Be grateful, be humble, and make it count. 

Another thing I wish I knew back when I was in your shoes is that you absolutely do not need to make all of your best friends during fall semester of your first year. In fact, it’s unlikely. My closest friends on campus aren’t from my zee group or my OA trip or my freshman seminar. They are the people I just happened to get to know through clubs, classes, and other shared experiences. I even met some of my closest friends earlier this year on the Halftime Retreat, and even after sharing just half an in-person semester together, we’re still close. At the start of the first year, everyone will rush to make friends. It might feel like everyone else has more friends than you. Trust me when I say that they don’t. You’re all in the same boat. Take the initiative to reach out to people. Especially in a virtual Princeton community, it’s important to put effort into getting to know your peers.

Before I began my first year, I was advised by an alumnus to “take advantage of as many of Princeton’s resources as possible.” He shared an anecdote about a classmate of his who had reportedly gotten over $250,000 dollars of funding from Princeton by the end of his four years. Of course, the $26 billion endowment is great, but I encourage you to prioritize the experiences, not just funding, that Princeton has to offer. The opportunities for growth offered by Princeton are too often overlooked. Go to talks you know nothing about, join that club you’ve been meaning to check out, or attend that virtual yoga class. You might just leave with a new friend or a changed perspective. 

You’re entering Princeton at a historic time. The world is experiencing a pervasive pandemic while our community reckons with Princeton’s racist past amid the Black Lives Matter movement. You’re experiencing the first fully online semester in Princeton’s history. Everything so important to the first-year residential experience at Princeton has been drastically changed — zee groups, orientation, study breaks. You’re taking your first Princeton courses before setting foot on campus as an enrolled student. This won’t be a typical introduction to Princeton, but you are able to make the most out of this unfortunate situation.

Most importantly, keep in mind that failure is okay. You have already accomplished so much. You graduated high school in a pandemic. You were accepted to Princeton University. Be proud of yourself! Princeton will present many challenges, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. There may be times that you don’t think you can possibly get your assignments done or finish the semester. You will get through the difficult times and you’ll come out on the other side even stronger. Use your resources, prioritize your physical and mental health, and give it your best shot.


I’m wishing the best of luck to you all as you begin your first year. Make the most of it — it sure goes fast. Welcome to Princeton!


A junior who was in your shoes not too long ago.

Hannah Reynolds is a rising junior in the anthropology department from Upstate New York. She can be reached at

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