I wouldn't really say the club system is like the Greek systems at other schools; it's just the most common comparison Princeton students use in trying to describe the clubs to other people. Both systems allow the student body to structure itself into a set of groups, and there are a few commonalities - the clubs host parties and field intramural teams, and the Interclub Council is similar to a Pan-Hellenic council - but there are many key differences, some of which have been pointed out already.
1. The majority of Princeton upperclassmen are in a club, but there aren't many universities that are more than a third Greek.
2. We don't have rush. Instead of having all potential rushees go around to many houses during the first week of school (or spring semester at other places), Princeton students have a year and a half to try to figure out what club(s) suit them best. Bicker can be compared to rush on some grounds, but from what I can tell it's far less superficial.
3. We don't have pledges.
4. Only the officers live in the clubs.
5. The clubs not affiliated with any national organizations.
6. We're all co-ed.
7. It's possible to switch clubs.
8. University financial aid can help cover club dues.
A closer comparison to a standard Greek system would be Princeton's fraternities and sororities (they do exist and are mostly chartered with nationals), which are almost exactly like a normal Greek system other than that they don't have houses and that the University doesn't recognize their existence.
It's definitely possible for someone who doesn't drink to be an active club member - I have several friends in my club who have never touched alcohol. The vast majority of the time upperclassmen spend at their clubs is spent eating, studying, and hanging out during the day. Each club spends about six to ten hours per week open for parties. Several clubs also like to emphasize quality over quantity when it comes to parties and hold wine tasting events for members and serve good beer on the weekends. The party scene is totally your call, but it's a great way to meet club members, and no alcohol consumption is necessary to have a good time. Just ask the varsity athletes who can't drink in season but still go out and have as good a time as anyone.
As others have pointed out, between the colleges, co-ops, and going independent, there are plenty of other very good eating/social options that aren't on Prospect Avenue. I just think it's pretty cool to be able to come back for your 25th Reunions, head to your club, and hang out with current members and all the alumni in between.
Personally, I felt kind of turned off by the idea of the clubs when I was a freshman, but now I'm in one!
I knew that I would never want to bicker a club on principle -- it just sounded totally un-fun to me. But the sign-in clubs are actually more popular now, I think. I joined a sign-in club. I've found that it's totally possible to not drink / drink very little (I have pretty low tolerance...) and really enjoy myself; at least among the sign-in clubs I've found a very laid-back atmosphere that's all about actually enjoying yourself and meeting new people.
At first I was wary of the idea of eating clubs -- what was the point? I'm not a big partier and they just sounded not-so-fun. But I like hanging out with people; I wanted to meet new people, a few of my friends were joining, the club I ended up in is super-relaxed and I had fun at the sophomore events. So my friends and I figured, what the heck, and we signed in! There was no hazing, no social judgment, etc, and it's been fun.
As I'll be a junior, I haven't really experienced whether or not the clubs will divide my friend groups yet. However, I'm on a shared meal plan -- basically you pay the same club dues as normal, but in addition to meals at your club you get to eat in the normal dining halls and live in a residential college! Talk about awesome. Also this is supposed to encourage socialization outside of one's own eating club.
I also have a few friends who have gone independent -- it seems like a fairly popular thing. And it makes a lot of sense for a lot of people. (If you don't join a club, the University still increases your financial aid, so a lot of people on finaid go independent and then use that extra money. And some people of course just don't find a club that they like.)
My verdict: the eating clubs are weird, but kinda cool. I like them. I REALLY appreciate that we don't really have major greek life.
Just throwing in my two cents from... The Princeton student body is very diverse, so that fact that most people end up bickering or signing into an eating club should show you that the eating club experience is very diverse as well, and that there really is a place for everyone! It's the kind of thing you feel out naturally when you get on campus and make a choice that's right for you!
As for the drinking thing, I was in TI a few years ago, which was considered the "animal house" and had two friends who couldn't drink and one who chose not to who still had a great time. Also athletes tend to stick to rules that mandate no drinking 48 hours before a game. I spent plenty of time hanging out sober at my eating club during a sports season. When it came time time to join clubs, I'd say about 60% of my friends bickered TI, and the rest either did other clubs or chose to be independent. And everyone was perfectly happy with their choice.
It's a good thing you're doing your college homework ahead of time, since the eating clubs ARE an important part of Princeton culture. But don't fret too much about them, you really won't know how you feel or what you want to do until you're on campus experiencing what they have to offer.
KeDIX - thank you very much for posting the EXACT questions I would also like to learn more answers about. I hope more current students will add their input. (Also, anyone that prefers to pm me any info, that would be welcomed as well).
Alumother, I would have pm'ed you but as a new member, this site's rules don't allow it, so I will post publicly. Hopefully, you can either pm me the answer or are willing to reply publicly and hopefully help many others in doing so.
Can you please tell us what you meant when you said TI and Terrace were as different as 2 clubs could be? Did your children belong to them, and if so, was this fairly recent? What TYPE of differences were there, and can you please elaborate at all on what you have heard regarding any of the other clubs? Thank you!
ProudNJMom - I found your post interesting as it may have cleared up a misconception that I had. Can you (or any current students) please clarify though? I thought the location of the eating clubs made it MORE convenient for students to eat there before or after class and that it was a further trek across campus to eat in the dorm's dining halls, but you seemed to state otherwise. Can anyone comment on this?
I had a child at TI and a child at Terrace. TI (Tiger Inn) is a club for extroverts. Lots of dancers and athletes, known for wild antics and wild parties. Viking-themed, in some cases. Terrace is more "alternative." known for a great live music program.
Both kids loved their clubs.
In terms of a quiet kid majoring in math, at first guess they'd be happy at Charter? Maybe? If I'm generalizing from a distance? On the other hand, lots of kids go lots of different places, and it's really up to who they become friends with and how they like to socialize. Kids can be quite happy when they don't do the Clubs at all.
Oops, I'm late, but: I'm in Terrace if that helps anyone.
@hsmom: as an engineer, the eating clubs are WAY more convenient for me in terms of location. When I started getting lunch at Terrace sophomore spring it made the difference between having a lunch and...not.
Thanks alunother and tiger14. Both of your information is very helpful. (Also, your two back to back responses sort of interestingly and ironically "broke the stereotype" of an engineer - in that apparently engineers can also be extroverts and/or enjoy "wild parties". Or is that a stretch?
Any other current students willing to give input about which clubs might be best for a "social introvert"? I "get" someone doesn't need to join a club at all, BUT given how large a % apparently do, I would think a student considering Princeton needs to first figure out if there even MIGHT be a "place" for them there -- or if not, if perhaps there might be a school better suited to their needs?
hsmom, most clubs are on tap 2-3 times a week, and on-tap hours are typically in the range of 11pm-2am. Some clubs have systems that require each member to help with cleanup a few times each semester, but the club's officers are generally responsible for cleanup.
From what I can tell, Charter, Quad, and Colonial are probably the most introvert-friendly clubs on the Street, and I do believe every Princeton student will fit into at least one club. Just keep in mind that people change at Princeton. When I arrived on campus as a relative introvert myself, I thought there was no chance I would bicker - the whole process sounded too snooty and exclusive for me. However, I felt comfortable enough to open up more here, and now I'm in a club that, based on reputation alone, I never would have imagined myself in as an incoming freshman.