Before I start this (rather lengthy) review of ASU, I have to disclose that I went there for ony 1 year, as an International Exchange Student, back in 2001. Most of what I write about will be almost naturally compared to what my University back home was like.
I'm from England and went to an English university.
The Campus - Wonderful! Gorgeous! Fantastic! And that's just the women! But in all seriousness, the Tempe campus is a spectacularly pretty campus. And it's BIG as well! You have to remember that the only thing I can compare it to is the University I went to in England. In England the campus was small, grey, wet, cloudy, drab and ugly. Tempe was the complete opposite: it was big (sprawling over 3 sq miles), the weather was always hot, the architecture was so pretty and expensive-looking, and there were palm trees everywhere. It was like being on holiday for a year! Seriously though, if you are reading this and you already live in California or Arizona or Texas, then yeah, Tempe probably looks like many a middle-class, pretty wealthy town. If you come from England or the east coast, then this will be almost entirely different than what you are used to. I think the key to enjoying ASU is being prepared to be thrown out of your comfort zone and in to the unfamiliar.
The Classes - I've read a lot of the negative reports here stating that classes can get over 200+ people in them, especially in the first year or two. I'm not going to disagree, I've seen it first-hand, and I bet those classes are a nightmare if you really want to engage yourself in the coursework. I was lucky though, as I joined in the third year and took nothing but 300 and 400 classes. My biggest class had about 40 people in it, the smallest had 8 people. My teachers had plenty of time for me, should I ask them for help, and in all honesty I found them all to be friendly, warm and sharp people. Some were better than others, but even then I couldn't really complain about the worst ones, as they were still pretty good. I couldn't comment on the difficulties of a freshman math class though.
The Dorms - I lived in Cholla and, well in 2001 anyway, it was arguably one of the nicer places. It had palm trees, a pool, a BBQ pit, a sand volleyball court... to a visiting Brit it was practically a hotel. When I lived there we had a Dominos next door, there was a Circle K, a Kyoto Bowl, a McDonalds, a Whataburger, a booze-store, and a great little music shop that imported British-only dance music. Just up the road from us was a very ugly nightclub called The Acme Roadhouse which I never walked in to sober, but always exited drunk! Further up the road still was Club Rio, and a 20 minutes walk from Cholla was Mill Avenue. There was also a Safeway supermarket and an OscoDrug a 10 minutes walk south. I suppose the best way of putting it is that if a parent could hand-pick what environment surrounds their child then they certainly wouldn't cherrypick the Acme or Greasy Tony's Deli, but I think that once they see their child settling in and enjoying themselves, they'll forgive Tempe its racous indiscretions. Living-wise though? In Cholla? I never had a problem. It's a calm dorm, very rarely got loud, and the dorms are big. The washing machines all work, the fridges in the rooms are HUGE, you get a balcony, and the leisure facilities are great. It's basically like living in a 2-star hotel.
The Students - Two things: I ever went to High School in the US and I also sport a British accent. And I'm not talking about an Ozzy Osbourne accent, or a David Beckham accent either. No, my accent is rather "Colin Firth-like" or, perhaps, "Christian Bale-like". I must admit it sounds good and goes down well in ASU!
I will admit that it can be pretty difficult to meet a lot of people though, and to start off with most people that I met were my dorm neighbours, but I suppose that's almost organic anyway. Most people will meet their neighbours firstly, I guess. The campus is just SO big and SO full of people that it can have a detrimental affect on meeting people, as a lot of people keep their heads down and get on with being private.
ASU is not, repeat NOT, filled with superficial, fake people; douchebags, hoes, pimps, brahs, skanks, trash, or whatever else I've seen people called here. Don't get me wrong, ASU has plenty of the above, but it also has so many nice, friendly, warm, shy, and chatty people too. It's filled with people who are just as nervous about talking to you as you are them. You've just got to say hello now and again, you know? Like I said before, come out of your comfort zone for a few moments and say hello to that person.
Is there a lot of inconspicuous wealth at ASU? Honestly, not a huge amount. I didn't see too many people who were obviously millionaires or from millionaire families. I didn't see obviously wealthy people ostracising obviously poorer people. Sure, I saw 18 year olds driving Hummers and Corvettes, but I also saw 30x the amount of people driving regular cars, and thousands more walking everywhere. To me, it was just a good mixture of people on a huge campus. That was 9 years ago though, but I doubt THAT much has changed.
The Faculty - I can only really say good things. Coming over from the UK and joining in the third year, from a curriculum that was far, far removed from the American; I technically couldn't just register for ANY class because I had not taken any of the 100 and 200 pre-requisites. This meant that for every class I wanted to take I had to speak with the head of department, the class teacher, and even the dean. From what I saw there, everyone was just so friendly and switched on and helpful. That's all I can say, really; everyone went out of their way to make sure I wasn't taking an unsuitable class, or wasting my time.
The Surrounding Area - Tempe is, by and large, a pretty bland town. It's 4 miles across and 11 miles long and about 38 of those square miles could be the background of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Dull, repetitive, low-rise, dull, repetitive, dull and repetitive. However there are about 3 square miles of spectacular prettiness!! The campus is gorgeous! Mill Avenue, 5th and 6th, Tempe Beach Park, College, Myrtle and Rio Salado are all just so lovely. Stuffed in to these parts are bars, restaurants, shops, coffee-places, delis, a beach, a mountain, Corporate HQ's, about 3 stadiums, a Golf Course, and lots of stunning, cutting-edge new high-rise condos. It's a marvellous little square mile-or-two, and the town hall is an upside-down pyramid!
Your first year will be spent living in a dorm, and I doubt you'll ever need a car. After your first year you may want to find a new place to live; all I can heartily recommend is that you try, try, try to stay within walking distance of campus. If you can keep it so you're walking to ASU every day then I really do think that "car frustrations" that people have in Tempe (and they're genuine - mainly OTHER drivers and lack of parking spaces) will be avoided.
For breaksfast go to Harlows or IHOP; for lunch go to Ruby Tuesday; for dinner you can go to Oreganos, PF Chang, Uno, Sammy's Woodfired, The Bamboo Club or, if you have a car, The Claim Jumper.
There is Arizona Mills mall a short drive or bus-journey away; the ever-amazing Scottsdale Fashion Square is the same distance north; Mill Avenue isn't wanting for nice shops either. Plus there's Phoenix Zoo, and Phoenix itself obviously (although Tempe and Scottsdale are far, far nicer than Phoenix).
The Nightlife - You know, the nightlife in Tempe (when comparing it to the UK) was the biggest let down. The legal age for drinking in the UK is 18, which means that you can drink legally in your freshman year. In the UK, in college towns, the streets are literally jam-packed with pubs and bars and nightclubs. In the UK, the campus itself is usually packed with bars and pubs too!
In the USA the rules changed; you still joined as a freshman at 18, but now you couldn't drink until you were 21! People have commented on just how strict the bars on Mill are, and they'd be right. If you're 20 and 363 days, then you ain't getting served. You just ain't. Don't even try it. I suppose for parents reading this, this is a good thing.
The bars themselves are pretty decent though; Gordon Biersch is a nice place on a Sunday afternoon; Hooters and The Library are your typical college joints, with hot girl waitresses, long legs, peroxide and chugging beers whilst watching sports and trying not to get a boner; places like Bandersnatch, Dos Gringos, Long Wongs and Mill Ave Cue Club are your more dark, moody and boisterous studenty places; and you can let your hair down at Acme, Rio or Bash on Ash. All excellent places.
If you just can't get served then you've got to look for a house party or a frat party, and this is where that largish circle of not-that-close friends come in. Certainly, I know that many a weekend I ended up at a house somewhere, partying. Someone I knew knew someone, who knew someone who was throwing a party, and, hey presto, there I was too. It was just a bit like that, I guess. Try not to become too worried about who's party you're actually going to. Just turn up and talk to people. If you don't want to drink, then don't drink; if you don't want to take drugs, then don't take them; if you're not ready for sex, then don't do anything. Don't let things like that stop you from meeting and talking to people who may choose to do those things though. They may be Hummer-driving Scottsdale Princesses called Crystal; they may be steriod-taking aggressors called Brandon; they may be long-haired rockers call Tom; or they may be hard-working scholars letting their hair down like you. Just say hello to them, for crying out loud!
"Greek" - I must admit, I'm still not entirely sure what "Greek" is all about. I didn't like the look of it all, I must admit, but that didn't stop me from ambling along to the odd party every now and again. Perhaps things have changed drastically since 2001, but I keep on reading that if you are a boy and you are not in a frat, and you turn up to a frat party then you are not getting in. I can only speak from experience but this never once happenned to me!
I never "rushed", and certainly never "pledged", but I definitely "ended up at" the Sigma Neu frat house on more than one occasion. I'm not a particularly aesthetically pleasing man to look at, but I do sport a fine accent, making me a massive threat to frat guys in Tempe, seeing as the women did like talking to me a lot, and seemed to coo whenever I spoke to them... anyway, back to reality, I turned up on my own, or with one other person (also British) to these frat parties and we were welcomed in warmly each and every time. We didn't bring beer or women, but Sigma Neu welcomed me like a brother anyway. I must have been a massive exception to the rule, or perhaps Sigma Neu is a teerrible Grecian, I don't know.
Other Stuff - Enrole for a sports class, definitely. Go to at least two football games at Sun Devil Stadium, they are fantastic spectacles! Go to Vegas. Go to The Grand Canyon. Go to Sedona. Visit Scottsdale (a lot). But most of all, try to stick around campus for 4 years, avoid buying a car, and have a great time doing whatever you call a great time. I guarantee that even if you start to become sick of the place as soon as you leave you'll want to go back.
Summary - I left Tempe in summer 2002, having spent a year there. I've been back once in 2004 and again in April 2009. Not a great deal has changed since I was living there, but certainly a lot of the places I mentioned (above) have closed down and/or moved elsewhere, making a lot of what you have just read utterly irrelevant. The key thing is, though, I have been back twice and am very seriously considering buying a second home in either Tempe or Scottsdale, just so I can visit a couple of times a year. It's a strangely compelling place to be: you don't want for anything unless you go thre and decide that you don't want to do anything. If you go there already not liking it then Tempe isn't the kind of place that's actively going to try and change your mind. If you go there lookig to have plenty of fun, and get your work done too, then Tempe can and will provide for you in abundance.
As another reviewer mentioned: it's not Harvard, but at the same time it doesn't pretend to be. If you think you should be in Harvard but find yourself at ASU, then chances are you shouldn't be in Harvard. It's just a big, hot, attractive, busy campus with lots of people with lots of stories.The downtown is exceptionally attractive, and generally is very safe indeed too.