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Learning at Princeton

As you move from secondary school studies into Princeton’s academic community, you will most likely be challenged by new sets of expectations for learning across the curriculum. Courses will move at a rapid pace; you will be expected to solve problems in math and science at a higher conceptual level; you will read multiple unfamiliar texts that require distinct approaches and interpretations. You will encounter disciplines instead of subjects, and will be expected to learn the particular conventions and assumptions of multiple disciplines, often in your first semester at Princeton. If at times you feel that the study strategies that got you here are not as effective as they were in high school, this is perfectly normal. Anticipate setbacks; they are common on the path to success.

You have moved into a new phase, that of beginner in your area of concentration, and over the course of your four years at Princeton you will develop a more sophisticated understanding of what both learning and knowledge consist of. In fact, transition, adjustment, and giving up past approaches in favor of new ones are lifelong challenges. Eventually, you will join the experts in your field of choice through the work of your senior thesis. It is most important to keep in mind as a freshman that learning is a process that should challenge you and require that you adapt, for only through challenge will you grow.

Scheduling Your Time

Learning at Princeton requires students to plan, organize, and use their unstructured and out-of-class time in new ways. You may have many unscheduled hours each day, and you will need to use that time effectively. You will not get the most from your courses if you leave portions of your work until the last two weeks of the term. Reading period is designed for reviewing course material, and this review is vital to your success in Princeton’s demanding final exams.

  • Find a place where you can work effectively. If your room is a hub of social activity, plan to work in one of the college or University libraries. For accountability and support, make a weekly appointment to study with a friend or classmate.
  • Use your free weekday hours for study. Do not try to do all your studying in the evenings or put it off until the weekends. Many of us (undergraduates, graduate students, even faculty) think, incorrectly, that we need long, uninterrupted stretches of time in order to work in a concentrated fashion. When the opportunity arises to make use of small amounts of time, ask yourself, “How can I use this time to keep up with my coursework?”
  • Break up your study periods by working on two or three different subjects, particularly if you find yourself losing attention or interest. Take (short!) breaks.
  • The papers that are due at the end of the term can rarely be written the night before. They require substantial reading and research. When you get the assignment, enter a start date in your calendar and plan backwards from the due date, creating your own benchmarks.
  • Balance your academic commitments, your job assignments, and your recreational and extracurricular activities. Don’t expect that you can juggle as many obligations as you did in high school; research indicates that one or two regular extracurricular activities is best. If you are involved in sports or other regularly scheduled and demanding commitments, be especially careful about budgeting your time.
  • Get advice early and often!

Developing Effective Learning Strategies

You are not passive vessels into which knowledge is poured. In fact, if you expect to sit in a lecture for 50 minutes and simply absorb all that you hear, you will forget 80 percent of it within 24 hours. You need to be an active learner, as you take notes, read texts, do problem sets, and study for exams. You will find, for instance, that mere memorization is insufficient preparation for the learning tasks posed to you at Princeton.

  • Think like your professor: Understand the purpose, the specific learning goals, of an assignment (e.g., readings or problem sets) and seek to achieve them in your efforts.
  • Survey the whole reading assignment before you read it carefully. Read a few introductory and concluding paragraphs to get a general idea of the content of the chapter and the development of arguments. A quick survey of the table of contents or abstract may give you a good overview of the material in the book/article and help you establish a clear purpose. You will understand and remember more if you use the framework of the course to organize new knowledge.
  • Convert titles, headings, and subheadings into questions. Attempting to answer those questions will help focus your reading. Ask what the author intends to convey in the chapter or article and what points he or she is trying to make. When you finish a paragraph, ask yourself what the main topic is — jot down your answer if it is a key point. Through this kind of self-examination and reflection, you assess your understanding and practice recall.
  • Raise critical questions wherever appropriate. Has the author expressed his or her ideas effectively? Are they valid, well supported, well reasoned? What point of view do they present? What are the fundamental assumptions, explicit or implicit, on which the arguments are based? How does the text relate to other texts and to course themes, as well as to your life experience?
  • Underline or highlight just enough to make important points stand out. Put key words, phrases, or questions in the margin of the book or in your notes. Write down any questions you may have along with your own ideas and bring them to class.
  • Describe in your own words what you have taken away from the textbook or article. You are unlikely to really understand a new concept unless you can describe it in your own words.
  • Review what you have read. To review is not the same as to memorize. Concentrate on the main points. Prepare yourself to summarize, explain, and use these points in class activities.
  • Take good notes! Review your lecture notes as soon as possible after you have taken them, noting what you don’t understand so that you can follow up with the professor or graduate student assistant.
  • Working with a small group of fellow students can be extremely effective in both tackling weekly problem sets and reviewing for exams. Studying with your peers regularly provides opportunities to learn a variety of approaches to the material, and because everyone is an active participant, you learn more and retain what you’ve learned. Consult with your instructor in each course to determine the extent to which collaboration on assignments is acceptable.

Writing Papers

Writing at Princeton is in many ways different from writing in high school: papers are typically longer, and students are usually expected to formulate their own ideas and take them to a deeper level. Here are a few tips for writing effective papers at Princeton:

(1) Start early. If you want to write well, begin with enough time to put away your draft for at least a day and return to it with “fresh eyes.” How early is early enough? A good guideline is five days for every five pages you expect to write, giving you time both to plan and to revise your draft. Everyone has a unique writing process. Some writers, for example, outline before the draft; others, after it. The crucial thing is not to short-circuit your process. Allow time for it to unfold.

(2) Get feedback. Unless you’re writing a take-home exam or have explicit instructions not to share your drafts, get feedback before you submit your writing for a grade. Good prospects for readers are fellows from the Writing Center, someone in your class, a roommate, or a friend. Just keep in mind that, while readers are permitted to tell you what they find confusing or unconvincing, and even to make suggestions for revision, they may not edit or re-write your drafts. You should acknowledge their substantive ideas in a friendly footnote, in keeping with common scholarly practice.

(3) Focus on clarity and argument. All of your professors and preceptors value clarity — clear sentences and an easy-to-follow structure (not to be confused with simple sentences and a simple structure). Many also want to see a strong thesis — an interesting, arguable idea of your own — that you explore and substantiate through reference to one or more sources. Note that most of your papers will be far more complex in both conception and structure than the traditional “five-paragraph essay,” with its introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion.

(4) Use a style appropriate to the discipline. Conventions for writing vary from discipline to discipline. When writing about literature, for example, the convention is to quote sources directly; when writing in a science class, the convention is to use few quotations, if any. Ask your professor or preceptor to explain the elements of writing in his or her discipline. Also, skim a few relevant articles or books to see how writers in the discipline handle structure, sources, citations, and so on.

(5) Acknowledge your sources. Borrowing someone else’s words or ideas without acknowledgment — even if done unintentionally (through sloppy note-taking, for example) — is plagiarism, the most serious of all academic offenses. See Academic Integrity at Princeton, for guidance on using sources properly.

Consulting Your Professors

In order to get the most from your courses, and to be successful in them, you should seek out and engage opportunities for learning beyond those afforded by class time and in assigned texts. Meeting individually with faculty and graduate student assistants or preceptors in office hours is one essential resource.

Every professor schedules time to provide individual assistance to students, and most professors post their office hours. Students who visit their instructors will find them almost without exception interested and helpful. Many fail to take advantage of this opportunity because they are not sure what kinds of questions to bring to office hours. A learning consultant at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning can help you to frame course specific questions to ensure that your meeting will be productive.

Several departments have clinics or resource centers open to students on a walk-in basis. The help you will get there is often specifically related to the material of the course in which you may be encountering difficulties.

Do not hesitate to approach your preceptor or lab assistant for help. Some do not have individual offices, and you may have to make a special effort to locate them. They are, however, knowledgeable and willing to help, and you should not hesitate to seek them out.

Studying for Exams

Professors organize courses around specific objectives or aims; know the aims of the course and direct your learning to achieve them. Your notes from lectures and readings can provide a good basis for studying; make them purposeful throughout the term.

How is studying for exams different at Princeton? You will be examined less frequently on larger amounts of information; exam questions and problems will often be far more difficult than homework, and will require the application of concepts to novel situations. Your instructors’ standards will be exacting. To be successful, you will need to do more than merely review; you should be prepared to adopt new methods of study and forego familiar ones.

Studying — as distinct from reading or taking class notes — is characterized by organizing your knowledge, making connections among concepts, distinguishing the relative importance of information, and synthesizing and integrating what you have learned in order to demonstrate what you know on novel questions or problems.

Target your studying not only to domains of knowledge but to specific ways of thinking. Anticipate questions, including the type of thinking required (e.g., describe, trace, develop, compare and contrast, defend, or analyze). You will be expected to synthesize and apply your knowledge of a theory, principle, or concept to the solution of specific problems. Merely describing a theory is quite a different intellectual task than using it to solve a problem, and the methods of study to prepare for these tasks are equally different. Whenever possible, seek to practice the kinds of tasks an exam will expect of you. Practice is far more effective than review.

To practice on previous years’ exams is optimal. Try to complete these exams under authentic circumstances to assess your readiness. Analyze previous years’ and returned exams carefully to guide you in selecting which materials to emphasize in your study and how to learn and demonstrate your knowledge. Because specific questions will vary, combine facts and concepts differently, think up your own questions, and imagine other ways your professor might challenge you. For advice and tools to prepare for specific exams, arrange an appointment with a McGraw learning consultant at the McGraw Center.

Taking Exams

Do everything you’ve already learned to do: Be ready to start on time, follow directions, survey the whole exam before starting, and read questions carefully. On essay questions, take the necessary time to organize your response before beginning so that you can make a compelling argument, not simply list all that you know on a topic. Support your points with clearly explained evidence that your reader can follow. Expect questions and problems unlike those posed in homework and quizzes. In science and math courses be prepared for problems that combine course content in novel ways. You are not expected to “know” the answers to these problems in many instances, but rather to figure them out. To do so, think on paper as methodically as possible and leave a record of your work.

Utilizing Academic Support Resources

Princeton offers you an exceptional array of academic advising and support opportunities (all at no additional cost to you). The only mistake you can make is thinking that you are the only one who needs support, and consequently not taking advantage of the resources available to you. Keep in mind that it is normal and expected that you will be intellectually challenged in many aspects of your academic work. Even if you never needed “help” in high school, you have entered into a completely different learning environment, with a host of disciplinary expectations and demands that you may never have encountered before. Just as you may have received assistance in preparing for your SAT, seek out academic support here to enhance performance in your courses. Do not hesitate to approach your instructor or your residential college dean or director of studies for their advice on the kind of support that will meet your needs.

The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning

Princeton is a community of teachers and learners, and the McGraw Center on the third floor of Frist Campus Center is a resource for all undergraduates, as well as graduate students and faculty. The center offers workshops and individual consultations to support undergraduates as they make critical academic transitions, confront new academic challenges, and develop as learners. Workshops are process-focused and designed to teach you innovative techniques for purposeful and efficient learning. Individual consultations assist you in designing integrated sets of strategies that enable you to take full advantage of lectures, precepts, and readings. The McGraw Center works closely with residential colleges to organize targeted course support. It also supports individual tutoring and Study Hall@Frist (see below).

McGraw Study Hall@Frist

McGraw’s Study Hall offers academic support in introductory chemistry, economics, mathematics, physics, and statistics (in some disciplines). Experienced, trained, undergraduate tutors are available four evenings a week to guide students through learning strategies for course material, thinking through problem sets and the concepts underlying them, and preparing for exams. Rather than feeding students answers, tutors help students to discover them. Emphasis is placed on the development of strategies and techniques crucial to quantitative problem solving. Study Hall also provides a good space for study groups to meet, or for informal group work with classmates. It’s located directly outside the McGraw Center on the 300 level of Frist Campus Center and is open Sunday through Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. throughout the semester. No appointments are necessary. For a list of courses supported, visit

Strategic Learning Consultations

Juniors and seniors from a variety of disciplines are trained to collaborate with you to develop an individualized approach to learning that draws upon your unique profile of strengths and is tailored to the specific demands of each of your courses. Sign up for a one-hour, one-on-one session with a McGraw consultant at

Academic Strategies Workshop Series

The McGraw Center offers a series of hands-on, active, and process-focused workshops in which students learn and apply strategies designed expressly for the demanding Princeton context. Topics include organization and time management, managing large amounts of information, exam prep, effective reading and lecture notetaking, as well as overcoming procrastination. Students sign up for workshops in advance on the McGraw website,

Individual Tutoring

Assignments for one-on-one peer tutoring can be requested through your residential college dean or director of studies. Students are strongly encouraged to communicate with their professors, instructors, preceptors, or an academic adviser regarding difficulties they may be experiencing before seeking tutoring for a course. Keep in mind that it’s much more constructive to seek help early on, rather than waiting until you feel lost or overwhelmed. And remember that it is normal and expected that most students, somewhere along the line, will seek academic support.

Tutors are undergraduates who have been appointed by their residential college director of studies and trained by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Tutoring is provided most commonly in introductory-level courses in the natural sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, and economics. You may have up to 15 hours of tutoring per term per subject, and you may be tutored in more than one subject. You may be tutored throughout the term, including the reading period, but not during the final exam period. Tutoring is provided free of charge, and tutors are paid for their work through the Office of the Dean of the College. Ordinarily, you may receive tutoring only in those courses in which you are currently enrolled.

If you have difficulty reaching the tutor once you have been assigned, do not give up. Contact your dean or director of studies as soon as possible and you will be assigned another tutor.

Please note that students may engage only the services of tutors in the Princeton undergraduate tutoring program. Private tutors fall outside this program, and students are in violation of University regulations if they engage the service of private tutors (see Rights, Rules, Responsibilities).

Review Sessions

Review sessions (weekly or before exams) are offered in certain courses — particularly those in math, science, and engineering; students should ask their instructors. The McGraw Center normally offers review sessions in introductory chemistry (CHM 201, 202, 303, 304).

The Writing Center

The Writing Center offers student writers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on writing projects in any discipline. You’re welcome to bring writing in any form — ideas, notes, an outline, or an early draft. Writing Center fellows can offer advice about the writing process, from getting started to revising, and they can work with you on the essential elements of academic writing, such as thesis, organization, use of sources, and clarity of ideas and sentences. To make an appointment or to look up drop-in hours, visit

Personal Difficulties and Individual Growth

A significant percentage of all students use Counseling and Psychological Services (part of University Health Services) sometime during their four years at Princeton. While students bring a wide range of concerns, the most frequent complaints are depression and anxiety. Underclass students are often concerned about leaving home, adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, making new friends, coping with academic pressures, or deciding on an area of concentration. The struggles for autonomy, despite being painful, often lead to personal growth and maturity. Counseling can play an important part in helping you gain understanding and insight into your own development.

At the risk of repetition, we want to urge you as strongly as we can to seek help — academic or personal — whenever you may need it. In your four years here you are likely to have some difficult moments. You will deal with many of them yourself, possibly with the help of your friends, but you should remember at all times that there are many people at Princeton who are able and willing to help you.

Summing Up

This booklet contains a fair number of warnings, expectations, admonitions, cautions, and guides for making the most of your first two years at Princeton. But it also tries, in a relatively small space, to give you a sense of the rich and wonderful opportunities open to you. Opportunities cannot be translated into rules or formulas. They can only be pointed to. Reach for them and make your years here as rich, rewarding, and challenging as they were for all the generations who came before you.

We wish you the best of success.