Harvard Vs Princeton – Which School Is Better?

If you ask anybody where to find the most brilliant scholars and the most industrious students, their answers may involve the words “Ivy League.” 

Even though the term actually refers to an athletic conference, the Ivy League houses some of the oldest and most respected schools in the United States. 

These institutions trace their roots back to the birth of the country (and earlier, in some cases), training generations of business leaders, scientists, and artists.

Most know Harvard as the most famous of the Ivy League schools, but by many metrics, its New Jersey-based sister Princeton deserves equal acclaim.

Princeton began life in 1746 as the College of New Jersey and has only grown in esteem in the following centuries. 

The school’s influence can be felt worldwide, as it not only graduated Presidents James Madison and James Monroe, but also trained three of the nine current Supreme Court Justices – Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan.

Beyond its political contributions, Princeton’s research projects continue to shape the future. Thanks to its $37.7 billion endowment, Princeton can fund programs such as the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which collaborates with the titular government department to find new energy sources.

Established 100 years earlier in 1636, Harvard University is not only the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. but also its most respected. 

Eight American presidents have walked the halls at Harvard, ranging from John Adams to Barack Obama. Facebook came to life when founder Mark Zuckerberg was studying at Harvard, and Bill Gates used his knowledge to create Microsoft.

Thanks to an endowment of over $41.9 billion, Harvard is one of the wealthiest schools in the world. It uses that funding to launch innovative research projects and to maintain high-level facilities. 

Those facilities include Harvard’s several museums, which hold original works by Dutch Masters and German Expressionists. Among the 3.5 million books at the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, one can find an original Gutenberg Bible.

In short, both Princeton and Harvard are two of the best schools in the world. But which one best lives up to the Ivy League ideal?

Harvard Vs. Princeton – Academic Requirements for Admission

Princeton University
Public domain photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: it is extremely difficult to be accepted for admission at either Princeton or Harvard. 

As two of the world’s best schools, Princeton and Harvard can afford to be selective, accepting only those who meet the highest academic standards.

Both Princeton and Harvard require applications that consist of a completed Common Application, letters of recommendation, and transcripts. 

Neither school publishes its minimum accepted GPA, but one can rest assured that they only consider students with the highest grades. In fact, research reports that Harvard students have an average GPA of 4.18 (weighted), while Princeton students average a 3.9 GPA (unweighted).

To earn these types of grades, you must make all As in your high school work. Equally important, you must earn them in more challenging courses, such as AP and Honors classes. 

Although these GPAs do allow for an occasional B or two, those lower grades must not be in the most challenging courses or classes in your major.

Like most universities, neither Harvard nor Princeton currently requires that students submit standardized test scores.

While you certainly can submit them if you wish, and it may be advisable in the case of a weaker application, you should only do so if your scores match past averages.

At Harvard, the averages for the reading and writing SAT, and math SAT tend to fall between 720 and 780 and between 740 and 800, respectively. 

Princeton averages come in between 710 and 770 on the reading and writing SAT and between 740 and 800 on the math SAT. Both Princeton and Harvard students average between 33 and 35 on the ACT.

While these are unquestionably incredibly high standards, both Harvard and Princeton do offer students opportunities to supplement their lower scores. 

Letters of recommendation can put lesser grades into context, as can application essays. If your grades and scores fall at the lower end of the averages listed above, use the letters and essays to underscore abilities that grades cannot so easily measure.

Harvard Vs. Princeton – Ranking, Acceptance Rates, and More

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why even try to go to Harvard or Princeton?” Sure, the schools are famous, but is popularity worth the challenge of earning near-perfect grades and test scores?

That question gains even more weight when you look at the schools’ acceptance rates. As well-known and very elite schools, both Princeton and Yale receive tens of thousands of applications each year and yet extend letters of acceptance to only a tiny fraction of them.

In 2022, 57,786 hopefuls sent applications to Harvard. Out of that group, just 2,320 were accepted, a rate of just 4.1%

In other words, out of every 100 people who tried to come to Harvard, only four made it.

The situation is even direr at Princeton, as the school recently lowered its acceptance rates even further. 

Although it received 37,601 applications, it took in just 3.98%, sending out only 1,498 offers of admission.

In short, only a small fraction of those who want to attend these schools will get the chance to do so. So why do so many people try every year, despite the low odds?

To find that answer, we need to look no further than the rankings given to each school.

The highly-respected U.S. News & World Report ranks Princeton as the best university in the United States, with Harvard right behind it, tied only with MIT.

On the specialized lists from U.S. News, the schools stand out even more, with Harvard placing eighth for its writing across the disciplines program, its undergraduate research projects earning fourth place, and earning the third place ranking on the list of best value schools. 

Princeton takes fourth on the list of best value schools and best colleges for veterans, and third in best undergraduate teaching.

The schools come out even better on Top Universities’ world university rankings. This site puts only M.I.T., University of Cambridge, Stanford University, and the University of Oxford above Harvard, giving the school the number five slot. 

But Princeton isn’t far behind, tying at 16th place with the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and ahead of Yale and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Deciding Whether to Attend Harvard or Princeton

Harvard University
Public domain photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

While both Princeton and Harvard are among the world’s most significant institutions, neither is perfect for everybody. 

Even the most respected university falls short in some areas, making it a wrong choice for some students. Deciding between Harvard and Princeton means figuring out what you need from a college experience and finding the best school to provide that for you.

Future doctors and scientists will likely choose Harvard, and not just because Princeton is the only Ivy League university without a medical school. Harvard has one of the oldest medical schools in the country and one of the richest. 

With its $804 million endowment, Harvard Med invites students to engage in ambitious research projects, ranging in subjects from the global pandemic to gene therapy to the effect of environmental changes on personal health. 

Thanks to these attributes, Harvard Med has been ranked by U.S. News and other outlets as the second-best school in America for disciplines including pediatrics, radiology, and internal medicine.

If your scholarly interests are more spiritual in nature, then there’s the Harvard School of Divinity. Considered by some ranking outlets to be perhaps the best theological school in the country, Harvard Divinity operates according to a unique approach that mixes theological inquiry and practical application. 

Students learn not only how to ponder the divine, but also how to turn that into a real good with immediate benefits.

Not to be outdone, Princeton Theological Seminary has its own unique offerings. The M.Div degree prepares ministry professionals with its combination of classroom instruction and real-world service. With a curriculum based on classical theology and modern contributions, Princeton Seminary demands that students consider age-old questions through the lens of contemporary concerns.

RECAP – Which Is the Better School, Harvard or Princeton?

Honestly, you cannot go wrong studying at Harvard or Princeton. 

Any serious scholar would be proud (and frankly quite fortunate) to be accepted at either. But that fact doesn’t answer our primary question: Is Harvard better than Princeton, or vice versa?

When we start to look at the basic facts of either school, we see more similarities than differences between them. Both schools are incredibly exclusive, with Harvard’s 4.1% acceptance rate coming in only slightly higher than Princeton’s 3.9% acceptance rate. 

The two Ivy sisters deny the large majority of the thousands of people who apply each year.

Among those who apply, the schools accept only those with the highest GPA and test scores. Harvard and Princeton equally prefer students who earn nearly all As, especially in AP and Honors courses. 

Among those who provide standardized test scores, both Harvard and Yale accept those who come within the 25th percentile. 

That said, the two schools offer students opportunities to bolster a weaker application with letters of recommendation and application essays.

Not even ranking outlets help us distinguish between the two venerable institutions. Yes, Princeton comes in at #1 on the list published by U.S. News, but Harvard is right behind it, tied with MIT. And yes, Top Universities puts Harvard at number five, but Princeton’s number 16 is still incredibly impressive.

We only start to get a sense of differences when we examine the offerings of the two schools.

Harvard has one of the world’s best medical schools, an incredibly well-funded institution with resources that allow for cutting-edge research and the training of the world’s best doctors. 

Princeton does not have a medical school, but it uses its resources for a respected and unique Theological School, with degrees that take an innovative approach to one of the world’s oldest subjects.

In short, one cannot truly call Harvard better than Princeton or vice versa. They are both amazing schools that anyone would be proud to join.

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