Princeton vs. Harvard: Which College is Right for You?

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For many students, Princeton University and Harvard University are the ultimate college dream. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, founded in 1636, while Princeton is the fourth-oldest, founded in 1746. The two Ivy League institutions are known for offering stellar academics and graduating many leaders in their respective fields. They’re also both extremely selective.

 

So, in comparing Princeton vs. Harvard, how do you decide which school is right for you? Here’s a rundown of each.

 

Princeton vs. Harvard: A Quick Overview

 

Princeton Harvard
Location Princeton, NJ Cambridge, MA
Campus Type Suburban Urban
Undergraduate Enrollment 5,428 6,788
Acceptance Rate 5% 5%
U.S. News Ranking 1 2
Sticker Price $71,960 (2020-2021 school year) $72,391 (2020-2021 school year)
Student to Faculty Ratio 5:1 6:1
Middle 50% SAT/ACT SAT: 1460-1570

ACT: 33-35

SAT: 1470-1560 

ACT: 33-35

Subject Tests Required? Two recommended Two recommended
Median Starting Salary $70,200 $69,000

 

Princeton vs. Harvard: A Closer Look

 

Location

 

Princeton is located in Princeton, New Jersey, a suburban town with a population of around 31,000 people, roughly 45-50 miles from both New York City and Philadelphia. Like many college towns, much of Princeton’s culture revolves around its namesake university. Still, it has a thriving community in its own right, with plenty of history, arts, food, and nightlife.

 

Harvard, meanwhile, is situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. As part of the Boston metropolitan area, it’s a bustling city, with a population of more than 110,000. Cambridge is most notable for being home to two prestigious universities: Harvard, of course, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s also right nearby many other top schools in the Boston area, including Boston University and Boston College. 

 

There’s plenty to do in the historic city of Cambridge itself, such as shop and dine at Harvard Square. Boston is just a couple miles away, where students can visit famed sites like Fanueil Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Prudential Center. Students can take the subway, nicknamed the T, to travel between and around campus and downtown Boston.

 

Size

 

Princeton has a total enrollment of more than 8,300, 5,428 of whom are undergraduates. The student to faculty ratio is 5:1, and about 74% of classes have fewer than 20 students. 

 

Harvard is a bit larger, with a total enrollment of more than 20,700 students, nearly 7,000 of whom are undergraduates. The student to faculty ratio is 6:1, and around 72% of classes have fewer than 20 students.

 

Weather

 

Given that both Princeton and Harvard are located in the Northeast, students will experience all four seasons. The Boston area is farther north and by water, meaning winters tend to get very cold and snowy. Princeton is a bit more temperate, although summers can get very warm and humid.

 

Academics

 

Students don’t apply directly to a program or department at Princeton; they apply to the university itself. When they are enrolled, they may choose among 37 concentrations and 55 interdepartmental certificate programs. The university offers two degree paths to undergraduates: Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) and Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E). Undergraduate students must fulfill certain general education requirements, including writing and foreign language.

 

Popular majors include computer science, economics, political science, biology, and many others. It’s one of few institutions to offer an undergraduate creative writing program. Most AB students declare their majors in April of their sophomore year and must do so before choosing courses for the fall of their junior year, while BSE students must do so in May of their freshman year.

 

Harvard College began implementing new general education requirements starting in 2019. Students must take courses across four areas: Aesthetics and Culture, Ethics and Civics, Histories, Societies, Individuals, and Science and Technology in Society. Students must declare their majors in the fall of their sophomore year. Approximately a third of students end up changing their concentrations. 

 

There are 50 fields of study, and popular majors include history, computer science, psychology, public health, and economics. Students may also choose a “special concentration,” creating a degree plan that addresses a “uniquely challenging academic goal.”

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Housing

 

At Princeton, first- and second-year students are required to live on campus, and most upperclassmen choose to as well. Residential colleges include a mix of students from all four years, along with some graduate students. Only 6% of undergraduates live off-campus. There are several types of dorm rooms: apartment-style, three-room doubles, traditional doubles, and singles. There is also some specialty housing available, including substance-free housing.

 

At Harvard, first-year students live in shared suites by Harvard Yard. Second-year students are placed in one of Harvard’s 12 houses by lottery, assigned at the end of their first years. This is meant to foster a sense of community. More than 97% of the total undergraduate student body lives on campus. Another notable feature is the option of gender inclusive housing, in which students can choose to live together regardless of their gender identity.

 

Food

 

Princeton offers many food options. Freshmen and sophomores are automatically enrolled in unlimited meal plans, which accommodate people with dietary restrictions, including those adhering to Kosher and Halal. 

 

One of the most notable food-related features at Princeton is eating clubs. This tradition dates back to 1879, when students didn’t have access to on-campus dining; instead, they created clubs to socialize and eat together. Today, there are 11 dining clubs with their own facilities and character. They are run separately from Princeton itself and have their own board of officers. Some are selective, while others are open. Students are able to join in the spring of their sophomore years, and membership lasts for life. Not only do these clubs provide food options for students, but they also offer a community, much like Greek life at other schools.

 

At Harvard, all undergraduates living on campus are required to be on the unlimited meal plan.  Annenberg Hall is exclusive to freshmen, and other students eat in their House dining halls. There is also a Hillel dining hall open to all students, serving Kosher food. Students who are not residential may purchase meal plans.

 

Harvard is known for offering cuisines from all over the world. The dining halls also accommodate dietary restrictions, including allergies and vegetarian/vegan. There are also plenty of terrific restaurants and cafes right by the university.

 

Financial aid

 

With a sticker price of $71,960, including tuition, room and board, and fees, an education at Princeton doesn’t come cheap. However, approximately 61% of students receive financial aid. Princeton’s website notes that the average grant for the Class of 2023 was $56,500, covering the entire cost of tuition. Moreover, 100% of families earning up to $180,000 were entitled to financial aid for the Class of 2023.

 

Harvard’s sticker price is $72,391, but the institution is “committed to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for all four years.” Twenty percent of students pay nothing, and more than 50% receive financial aid. 

 

Both schools are known for their extremely generous financial aid policies, as they are no-loan, need-blind, and meet full demonstrated financial need. This means that you won’t receive loans in your financial aid award, that your ability to pay will not impact your admissions decision, and that your financial aid award will cover 100% of the difference between your expected family contribution and the cost of attendance.

 

Neither Princeton nor Harvard awards merit scholarships; they are given on the basis of need only. However, you can still receive scholarships from outside organizations. These will be factored into your financial aid package and may lower the need-based aid you receive from your college.

 

Want to learn how much Harvard or Princeton will actually cost you based on your income? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to see your estimated cost of attendance, based on real data for each school.

 

Sports and Extracurriculars

 

With 37 varsity men’s and women’s teams, the Princeton Tigers dominate on the field as well as in the classroom. About 18% of undergraduates participate in the athletic program, playing in both the NCAA Division I and the Ivy League. As discussed, eating clubs play a large role in students’ social experience. There are also 300 student organizations. Fraternities and sororities are not recognized by the university, but several are run by Princeton students.

 

With 100 programs in 43 countries, Princeton offers a robust study abroad program. The institution also partners with organizations across the globe, giving students the opportunity to intern in foreign countries as well.

 

Harvard has 43 Division I teams, which also play in the Ivy League. The university also offers 450 student organizations in areas such as public service, music, health and wellness, media, media, gender and sexuality, and more. Like Princeton, Harvard doesn’t officially recognize fraternities or sororities, although Greek life does exist off campus.

 

Similar to Princeton, around 60% of Harvard students study abroad. The university offers a list of approved programs around the world, including locations like South Africa, Russia, and the United Kingdom. 

 

Culture and Diversity

 

Approximately 56% of the Class of 2023 at Princeton identified as people of color. Harvard’s is equally diverse, with 54.2% of students identifying as people of color. Harvard’s demographic makeup is as follows:

 

African American: 14.3%

Asian American: 25.3%

Hispanic or Latino: 12.2%

Native American: 1.8%

Native Hawaiian: 0.6%

 

According to the Campus Pride Index, Princeton earns 5/5 stars for its commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. In addition to offering an LGBT Center and initiatives for current students, the university also has a Bisexual, Transgender, Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association.

 

Harvard also has a prominent LGBTQ community. This year, the Title IX Office launched a new LGBTQ+ Resources Page. In 2018, more than 20% of freshmen identified as something other than heterosexual. 

 

Student Outcomes

 

At both Princeton and Harvard, the starting salaries for graduates are around $70,000 on average. Ten years out, median salaries fall in the three digits, $113,900 for Princeton and $136,700 for Harvard. Students at both schools end up in a variety of industries and career paths, with many tending toward finance and banking.

 

How to Decide Between Princeton and Harvard

 

Both Harvard and Princeton have outstanding reputations and are considered the cream of the crop in terms of colleges. Along with Yale University, they alternate between the top two rankings in U.S. News every year. Prestige alone shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding where to spend the next four years of your life, however.

 

If you’re admitted to both Princeton and Harvard well, first of all, congratulations! It’s a huge accomplishment to be accepted to two of the most selective institutions in the world. Second, you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you in a college. 

 

For example, if you prefer a larger campus and urban environment, Harvard is the better pick. You’re surrounded by the bustling, intellectual Cambridge community. On the other hand, if you’d rather have a less busy feel, Princeton is your choice.

 

While you have plenty of choices in terms of major and career path at both schools, each has particular strengths. For instance, creative-minded people may appreciate Princeton’s creative writing program, while Harvard’s strong business and pre-med tracks will likely appeal to students intended to pursue careers in these fields. 

 

Considering the high earning potential for Harvard and Princeton graduates, you’re likely to be satisfied with your education at either school. You’ll also have access to plenty of extracurricular opportunities at both universities.

 

Looking for guidance on getting into your top choice college, whether it’s Princeton, Harvard, or another school? CollegeVine offers a school search tool and chancing engine for learning your chances of admission, creating a balanced college list, finding out how to boost your chances of acceptance, and more. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today — it’s completely free!

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.