Brandon Davis’ Princeton

Another college application season is over.  One more year of a couple dozen very worthy Staples seniors trying to knock down the admission walls of Princeton is done.

Meanwhile, Staples grad — and current Princeton sophomore — Brandon Davis is attacking his school’s walls from inside.

Brandon Davis

Recently, the Daily Princetonian ran an opinion piece by Brandon.  He described “self-doubt and crippling stress; the feeling of failure and rejection” that, he said, forces students to “power through Princeton without ever enjoying the process of learning.

“Maybe it’s preparation for ‘the real world,'” he added.  “Maybe it’s the way all colleges are, a post-adolescent malaise, or maybe it’s the essence of Princeton in particular.”

Using his and his friends’ descriptions — “nerves, fear… dishonesty, self-doubt, loneliness, isolation” — he lamented, “Rather than engaging with Princeton, so many of our peers want nothing to do with this place.”

Grade deflation — the practice of limiting the number of A’s — has made the school a hyper-competitive place, Brandon wrote.  Professors and administrators “seem to tower above us.

“Princeton is our school,” he concluded.  With a bit more humanity, “Princeton could be our home as well.”

Many students thanked Brandon for giving voice to feelings they could not — or did not want to — articulate, he says.

Some reactions on the paper’s website echoed Brandon’s feelings.

The first person to comment wrote:  “Somebody had better figure this thing out. Princeton is experiencing ‘colony collapse disorder’ now seen among the bee population.  It may have devastating consequences if not remedied soon.”

A 2010 graduate said:

This is a great article.  I certainly had similar feelings when I was at Princeton.  It is a place that can crush your self-esteem and leave you feeling very stressed. I was very focused on getting a great job, being awarded honors in my department, and running a large student organization on campus.

Looking back now, I really don’t believe I would have gone anywhere else, but I wish that I had the maturity to prioritize better, understand my strengths and weaknesses, and enjoy the amazing opportunities the school provided me.

Princeton is not supposed to be an easy school.  The JPs, the thesis, are extremely hard projects, and the overall standards socially, extracurricularly, and academically are unbelievable.  I may have been unhappy at times at Princeton, but I’m also not sure I could be happy with myself doing less.  Thus the dillemma of a type-A overachiever.

However, a senior disagreed:

I actually do not sense this at all.  I love being at Princeton, as do most of my friends.  Few of us “just want to get out of here” — talk to almost any seniors, and they’ll say they wish they were freshmen again so that they could re-live Princeton.

Of course, there are times of stress.  After all, this is school.  But in general I find that we help each other through it.  It can actually be fun pulling epic cram sessions with a group of close friends.

Of course the Daily Princetonian is going to focus on some negative aspects of our school.  After all, it wouldn’t be news otherwise.  And I’m sure that the segment of the Princeton population who comments on the Prince is generally inclined to complain. But that doesn’t change the fact that this place is awesome, and that everybody bends over backwards to pamper the undergrads.

We all go through times of stress, but I wish people wouldn’t project their individual unhappiness onto the entire campus!!

Brandon’s column appeared while admitted students were choosing between Princeton and somewhere else.  A few said that Brandon’s article caused them a bit of trepidation.

However, administrators did not mount an all-out attack, or even defend themselves or the school.  “They don’t comment on newspaper stories,” Brandon explains.

Princeton University. As at many colleges, everyone's experience is different.

As for his own future, Brandon will spend this summer in Brazil and Paraguay, writing about Muslim communities there.  “That’s the great thing about Princeton,” he acknowledges.  “You get to do things like that.”

A Near Eastern studies major, he hopes to go into journalism after graduation.

So, the $64,000 question (actually, much more):  Is he happy he applied to Princeton?

“I don’t know,” Brandon says.

“I think I’m getting a great education here, but it took me some time to block out all the noise — competition, overwhelming stress, and what I’ve seen to be a general culture of exclusivity and superiority. Some people thrive on that noise, but many students drown in it.

“It’s just not the best environment — for me, anyway.”

61 responses to “Brandon Davis’ Princeton

  1. C’mon, Brandon. You’re at Princeton. Welcome to the world, get to work and stop whining. I send you best wishes. Karl Decker

  2. I worry about that senior who says all the people he knows wish they could start over as freshmen again. I don’t recall anyone I knew in college (I was at another Ivy school) who wanted that. It’s time to move on, son.

  3. Princeton '82

    The competition is every where these days. If you thought you would find a Fitzgerald tranquil setting at an Ivy League school, you didn’t do your homework before applying. I sense the journalist in Brandon, however. Playing to an audience and it found an ear.

  4. The Dude Abides

    Sophomore jinx? Perhaps our bright Brandon is suffering from I-was-a-big-fish-at-Staples-and-now-a-minnow-at-Princeton syndrome?? Wait until he starts having sex his junior year. It will be a different world and much happier.

    • Competition? He hasn’t seen anything yet. If Princeton is daunting wait until he tries competing in a global arena. Maybe he should have saved his parents the expense. Junior year? That was an underachiever in the 1960’s.

  5. The Dude Abides

    As the immortal cowboy Sam Elliot once said: “Sometimes you set the bar and sometimes the bar sets you.” 1960’s at Amherst? You were probably pulling it more than jumping on it. You din’t even have women there, did you?

    • Smith and Holyoke, not to mention Umass and a Smith College Dr. who dispensed birth control pills to all who asked.

      • The Dude Abides

        Hmmmm . . . I dated a gal from Holyoke in the 60’s. Second base was a monumental task.

  6. “a Near Eastern Studies Major”


    Good luck with that!

    I hear there is a HUGE demand for those with that specialty in the Real World.


    • as a philosophy major, I take offense. I think it’s pretty obvious that at a liberal arts college, your major doesn’t really matter.

      • ..aaand, from a quick google search, it appears that Mr. Davis here has thoughtfully written on near Eastern issues.

    • John McCarthy

      Yes, because the world only needs engineers and bankers. Nothing else.

    • We’ve spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on misadventures in the near east, fighting wars for and against people we don’t understand. I don’t know if a more relevant major exists.

      • The Dude Abides

        I thought that was the mid-east? Isn’t the near east nearer than the mid-east which should not be confused with the Far East?

        • The near east is more of an archeological/historical term; middle east more of a political term. They are pretty much one and the same.

          • The Dude Abides

            So the Near East is not Bermuda? Now there would be a major!!

          • It is much easier to get rich alums to endow a chair in “Near East Studies” than it is in “Middle East Studies.” Especially after a round at Mid-Ocean.

          • The Dude Abides

            I prefer Port Royal since its revamp.

    • there is huge demand if he couples it with an MBA or JD, or MBA&JD he can go into investment banking as a specialist in that sector.

      likewise, if he couples it with MA &/or JD &/or MBA he can be a policy specialist for I-Bank or Congress/Senate.

      • Most of Wall Street doesn’t have their MBA. A waste say many. Very soon there will be glut of attorneys because the law schools are overstuffed now due to the economy so the JD is worthless. Better off with MA/MS in specific area.

        • Everyone on Wall Street above entry-level has an MBA. It is a filter mechanism, no more, no less, but relied upon by every major firm.

      • The Dude Abides

        Unless you practice law, a JD is a waste of time. You don’t learn the law in law school, you learn how to think like a lawyer. Big difference.

      • No, couple it with Arabic and join the CIA. By the time he graduates the entire Arabian peninsula will be ready to pop.

        • The Dude Abides

          Actually I am hearing that the CIA, as is the FBI, is looking for math guys i.e. accountants as analysts. This is infuriating the old gumshoes and giving a new twist to “intelligence.” Four Star Pete may change that though. He has a nasty streak.

  7. $64,000 question. What the (*&^ is this kid doing there?

  8. The best opinions for this are the toughest to find – it’s the graduates from 5 years ago who know whether their school served them well. A current sophomore can report on his own experiences, but lacks the perspective to know whether they are typical. Graduates from 30 years ago have no idea what their alma mater is like today, unless they have stayed very involved in the campus.
    As for why go to Princeton (or Cornell, Northwestern, Stanford, etc), unless there are strong reasons not to, you should always go to the best school that accepts you (and you can afford). Just don’t apply to schools that you aren’t interested in attending.

  9. I think Laz is right but things be changin’. I am told that many of the state schools have far superior engineering programs than some of the top private school as an example. With tuition as high as it is and the job market sucking, you will see students making more practical selections as to their school of choice. However, a degree (in whatever the major may be) from Princeton is a never a bad thing.

  10. Hey guys–Your points are all well taken, but doesn’t Brandon deserve some credit for having the courage to speak out? He’s just telling the truth as he sees it.

  11. Princeton '82

    I think Master Davis knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the column. He didn’t get in to Princeton for nothing.

  12. I suggest that the full article, as published in The Daily Princetonian, should be read more carefully by anyone interested in what Brandon really is saying. Dan Woog took some “journalistic licence” in his article. Although I usually enjoy Dan’s blog,this time he did Princeton and Brandon a disservice in selectively editing the original article.

  13. How long has “grade deflation” been going on? Not so long ago I was hearing complaints about the opposite.

    • Arthur Champlin

      They found out some years ago that everybody graduating from Harvard had an 3.9 average. I think the revelation started the spiral down. Plus, a woman runs Princeton. Some common sense going on there (along with Brown).

  14. This blog post misses the point of my column; I apologize to Dan if I gave him the wrong impression while talking last weekend. The problem I wrote about is not the kind of stress that accompanies schoolwork or other commitments. It’s about being so overwhelmed that you shut down. The problem is that Princeton breaks so many of its students to the point that they no longer care about learning. They stop taking risks because they don’t want to fail; they lose out on the school’s opportunities and just want to graduate. This, by the way, has not happened to me – it’s what I’ve seen happen to friends and acquaintances. No one wants to talk about it. I’ve gotten responses from many people, some who I’ve never met, thanking me for speaking out on this issue. The comments section on my “Prince” article might give you an idea about how other Princeton students feel.

    I talked to Dan so that people in my hometown, especially high school students and their parents, would know what college – or at least Princeton – is like for many students. I did not expect to be attacked personally. Though I must say, I am grateful for all the suggestions about how to use my degree to go to Wall Street. Westport hasn’t changed much since I left.

    If anyone is seriously interested in this issue, I encourage you to read my column. Feel free to send me an email,

    • 06880 Parent

      Brandon, this is a crowd that would throw snowballs at Santa Claus. They are jealous and attack the idea of you, not you personally. As a parent I appreciate the heads up. And for Pete’s sake stay away from Wall Street.

      • Whiners tend not to last in competitive environments. This is a gerneration that could not have gotten through basic training without their own personal shrink.

        • And what generation do you think got OBL? You think that was a bunch of 50 year olds?

          • The 50 year old CIA special ops planned the whole thing.

          • Exactly. Planned, not executed. Left that up to the 20-something SEALS.

          • Right; seals, not Princeton liberal arts majors.

          • He subsequently earned an M.P.A. in 1985 and a Ph.D. in International Relations in 1987 from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. That would be General Petraeus.

          • The General was born in 1952.

          • Google Spence Miller. President of the Princeton Class of 2002 (9/11 Class), one of 8 civilians chosen nationally for SEAL training that year, survived the 85% attrition rate to become a SEAL, and left the Navy after 5 years to attend Harvard with his fiancee. Also a “liberal arts major” (psychology). This is a guy who would respect Brandon and what he has to say, unlike the unfortunate few in his hometown.

          • Travis McGee

            How do you know what former SEAL Miller would say about Brandon? Your supposition is without merit and your Princeton ego has got the best of you. What branch did you serve?

        • Earl Stanley

          Indeed, the Tigers of Princeton seem clawless and much the pussycats these days. After Bradley left, never the same.

      • John McCarthy

        For the record, Santa was asking for it.

        • 06880 Parent: Considering that Santa represents Corporate America and then you tell Brandon not to go to Wall Street, your message is conflicted. Plus, Karl Decker taught at Staples for 30+ years. Hardly one to throw snowballs unless deserved.

    • replace Princeton with the top-ranked liberal arts college at which I am a student and you’ve got my college experience. we, too, have grade deflation policies and a cutthroat, overwhelming environment. sometimes I think I should have gone to a school like St. John’s College or Hampshire—somewhere with comparable academics but with a less cutthroat environment, somewhere conducive to intellectuality for the sake of intellectuality and learning. but we have all made our decisions, will have had and are having great experiences regardless. among the many things I think westport culture should reconsider is the set path of going to a prestigious college as a one’s sole goal. it wasn’t mine, at all—but somehow I ended up here.

  15. Carl Addison Swanson

    I did read the article and thought it well versed and a good summary of what EVERY college student in America goes through during finals week. I also think that Professor Woog gave a fair interpretation of your writing. Whether the comments are “throwing snowballs at Santa Claus” is subjective. During a week that we saw Seal Team VI do the heroic, unselfish act of taking out Osama, your writings of sensitivity rank very low on my GAF ratings.

    • “EVERY” not even close, and all caps doesn’t make it so.

      • Only Colgate

        I don’t know anyone at my school that doesn’t get nervous when finals come around and I just went through it. Princeton ain’t all that special.

  16. Great essay Brandon.
    Sorry about the personal attacks, but that is what you get on the internet from people who can only project their personal dissatisfactions onto others. I went to Princeton (77) and my daughter is at an Ivy League school. I thought she got a great education as Staples but even then I worried about how little time she had for anything other than school work. Her AP English class reacted with amazement when asked by her teacher what they were reading in their free time. Free time?
    At points in your life it will be meaningful for you to go against accepted advice. Near Eastern studies over engineering, or Teach for America over an internship at an accounting firm. I think it is great that you already recognize that the road you are on may not be for you, which is the first step toward taking responsibility for your life. Good luck and keep thinking (and writing).

    • Travis McGee

      Project their personal dissatisfactions on to others? At least we don’t blow our own horn up through the rectum. Geez, check your ego at the door.

  17. Pingback: Princeton: The Sequel | 06880

  18. Samantha Steinberg, SHS Class of '09

    What Brandon writes about is a significant problem. I can speak only for myself and my university, but there does come a point when students are just moving at such an incredibly intense pace and competing at such a high level, and it is easy to lose sight of why we’re even at these schools. Staples High School was no different, but on a smaller scale. Retrospectively, I can see all of the opportunities Staples and Westport has afforded me, but let’s be honest: the overarching goal was to get into [insert top 10 school]. Now we’re faced with trying to figure out what we’re actually supposed to do with these degrees and what it’s all for, and it’s overwhelming, and many times disheartening. As a fellow Ivy Leaguer, Brandon, I absolutely understand your column and appreciate your candidness. Universities seem to love hiding problems that students face, and these are things that no one could’ve prepared me for–not even Staples. College is a lot harder for all of the reasons no one tells you, and after a year or two at an institution, these things come to light. I get it. Thank you!