In my pompous English private high school, the importance of excelling in yearly exams was impressed upon us from age 13. I remember on my first day of physics class in the equivalent of freshman year, the teacher stood gravely in front of us and uttered the words: “Last year, all 23 of my students received A*s. Do not be my first A.” A* was the equivalent of an A+—the highest grade you could get.
In England, nationally standardized tests in every subject come around sophomore, junior and senior year, increasing in difficulty every year. Unlike the SATs, you only get to take them one time. There is no multiple-choice and no exam strategy tricks except the pure memorization of knowledge. Of course, since these exams are part of the national curriculum, schools train their pupils as best they can in exam-taking skills. Basically, this means memorizing the right answers for the whole year leading up to the exam. We studied from mark-schemes (the reference sheets external examiners use to grade exams) to pinpoint which exact, specific words they would be looking for when grading hundreds of exam papers. We were told to make their job easier for them by standing out by writing “model responses.” Of course, with this kind of strategy, success at these formulaic high school exams was inevitable. But I would be hard-pressed to say I actually learned anything; I just learned how to regurgitate information when given the right cue.
But when I began high school (a similarly prestigious and, again, private school) in America during my junior year, I noticed right away that the end of year exams in most subjects were graded by the teacher that had actually taught the course. This meant grading was subjective; a concept I panicked about at first because there was no “model answer” I could give that would be universally accepted. Teachers encouraged us, even expected us, to think critically and to come up with our own ideas and opinions. For the first month of junior year, I was totally lost. But when I turned to my classmates for inspiration, to learn the art of thinking for oneself from them, I began to see right through this carefully constructed façade.
I had come across an integral difference between the UK and US education systems: levels of expectation versus levels of encouragement. When I listened carefully to what my classmates were saying, most of it was meaningless and what we technically term “BS.” But teachers didn’t care. As long as the students seemed engaged and showed a glimmer of interest and originality, they were happy.
The quality and correctness of the opinion ceased to matter, and most teachers (especially of non-AP/honors classes) were satisfied with a menial attempt at an idea, and seemed not to expect its completion. It became so easy to express “critical” opinions such as, “I think it’s interesting that this character’s actions reflect his troubled childhood,” because, much unlike in England, students were never told that they were wrong or that their answer was imperfect. They were only asked to expand on what they meant, and a simple reference to Freud would usually suffice. As I’m sure many people did throughout high school, I quickly mastered the art of this halfhearted charade, which was usually greeted with unconditional acceptance from teachers who didn’t want to discourage our participation.
Then, after jumping through every hoop high school required me to, I got to Princeton. Course loads were intense and Writing Sem quickly diminished any faith I had in my high school performance. It was evident professors were not fooled; they expected more.
Throughout freshman year, it became clear that Princeton’s approach to education combined principles that had stood out in the UK and in the US. Expectations for results were high, but critical thinking was also essential; professors did not want us to give them a memorized answer, but an original one that we had developed by thinking deeply about the question at hand. Annoyingly, they rarely spoon-fed us information that was objectively “right”—they seemed to want us to guide ourselves towards the answer. Princeton required originality and dedication—qualities I had never been expected to possess on the same side of the Atlantic. However, that in no way meant that there weren’t still hoops to jump through.
The fact remains that all of us were driven enough in high school to want to come to Princeton, where we knew it was going to be tough. This is what we signed up for. And while it may seem, even to us, that we are thinking more critically and BS-ing less than we did in high school, most of us have probably just gotten better at faking it. It’s only natural for us to adapt to Princeton’s expectations by using tried and tested coping methods. It’s most likely because we are still so aware of the remaining hoops we have to jump through even to graduate, let alone get that prestigious internship. But now that we’re surrounded by students who are just as driven as the next, the whole process has intensified. Suddenly jumping through hoops actually requires effort. Not only that, but there are hundreds of other people jumping through the same hoops and trying to get to the same places you are, and they’re just as talented as you. No high school could have prepared you for the moment you sit down in a small seminar class and realize quickly that you’re not the smartest person in the room; you are simply average.
High school may have instilled a rigorous work ethic and the stamina to pull a couple of all-nighters during finals week, but its real lesson was to encourage us to develop a survival strategy. The differences I noticed between the English and American education systems cease to matter now that I’m here, but they go to show that every system has its own tactical approach. England required memorization whereas America appreciated abstract thinking. Princeton simply requires a more complex strategy than most of us are used to, but by the time we get here, we have had plenty of practice to be able to adapt.
As for a successful survival strategy, there are plenty of loopholes in Princeton’s structure that we should all be taking advantage of. I would recommend switching out of B.S.E. if you haven’t already, and trying to make time for human contact every day, even if it means meeting up to study with someone. Don’t spend hours on your readings, you’ll never be able to retain the detail anyway; a thorough skim is usually enough. Obviously, remove yourself from those who are stressed about work: stress is more contagious than meningitis, and much less curable. Study abroad—do it. Finally, use your free time strategically; join clubs that are social and that you enjoy, but make sure you have time to yourself to relax every day. Being tactical about how we navigate Princeton, or any system for that matter, will make jumping through hoops seem slightly more enjoyable until we can finally decide what to do for ourselves.