Typically, this word has become a derogatory name for a guy or a girl who takes pride in the way they approach, and appear, in life. Common misconceptions about "preps" are that we are a bunch of cocky, New England elitist types who have more money than God, himself, and an inherent desire to flaunt it in the form of clothing, cars, housing, education and social standing.
First off: You don't have to be from the north to be a prep. Let me make this very clear. What prep initially implies is that you went to preparatory school, hence the word "prep" (I'll discuss later how it's a cultural identity). However, a deeper look into the history of the word will expose that its true origins come from the word "preposterous" (i.e. those madras shorts/yellow pants/pink and green combination are preposterous). There are plenty of good southern preparatory schools, which include Woodberry Forest, Virginia Episcopal School...you get the idea. There are good preparatory schools in every corner of this country, but it's the New England boarding schools that have assisted in establishing this stereotyped location.
Let's get on with true prep culture:
A prep's wardrobe consists of some expensive clothing, but they've had it for the better part of a decade--excluding the two Vineyard Vines polos they got for their birthday and the 50% off sale at Brooks Brothers--indicating the true preppy trait of valuing "classic" over "trendy". We don't buy into the Lacoste trend of now, but we will gladly wear a "handed down from dad" Lacoste polo shirt from the era when it still maintained an association with Izod, which was well before it became the token icon of a sold out, soulless and materialistic world.
And as far as the true prep's garage is concerned, you're more likely to find a boxy Volvo station wagon or sedan (ski rack clutching to the roof for dear life) than you are the Ferrari or Hummer that everybody seems to associate with a prep. You find cars like those in the garages of those obnoxious yuppies who liken themselves to human beings because of the sole reason that they have a body with blood (no matter how cocaine-laced) flowing through it.
Another typical misconception about preps is that we live in gigantic mansions on the 8th fairway of some country club to prove a point. Hell no. People who buy a big house with the sole intention of demonstrating that they have a lot of money are NOT preps. They are assholes or yuppies. The only time a prep will ever move into a big house (and even then, it will never be one that is likened to a McMansion)is if A) they have a large family or B) it was passed down for generations (refer to the "classic" versus "trendy" juxtaposition, because trust me, it applies right here). When it comes to housing, for a true prep, less is definitely more. A true prep will rent a studio apartment somewhere on the Upper East Side in lieu of purchasing a behemoth piece of architectural vomit on the links, even though both probably wind up costing the same.
This brings me to education. Preps spend money on an education for the sole reason of having the proper tools to become successfully established with relative ease upon graduation. It's not for bragging rights, because anybody who brags about going to Harvard because it's "Haaaarvard" and not "the groundwork for their future success" usually winds up the victim of some form of brutal sodomy. A prep's tendency with regard to education is to go to a top college or university (generally on the east coast, but there's always Stanford and UCLA should a prep choose to make a respectable deviation from the norm). Private institutions frequented by preps include, but are certainly not limited to: Middlebury, Bowdoin, Duke, Tufts, Davidson, Lehigh, LaFayette, Colby, Bates, and every single Ivy League institution ever established, save Brown...a prep wouldn't be caught dead there). If for high school, a prep found Choate, Kent or Andover to be too small, they might choose to attend any of the following public universities: UVA, UNC, Michigan, UCLA, etc.
Finally, to put an end to an abhorrent misconception that everybody seems to maintain: NO, true preps do not buy their social status. Maybe we'll hang out at a ritzy bar if a friend is getting married, but normally, we avoid those scenes until we're at least 45 years old and drink scotch. The young people who frequent those places are just plain trying too hard. A true prep knows where to find a classy joint that won't break the bank or the heart. An amazing night on the town for a prep consists of dinner at J.G. Melon (11$) followed by an evening of wasting away on well-bourbon at T.J.'s (25$), which is an incredibly fun and inexpensive joint, considering it's in Manhattan. If that were my night, which it has been before, I would have just spent less in six hours than the pretentious bastard across the street did in the thirty seconds that it took him to order the Escargot.
A true prep is a classy individual. We know where to go, who to know and we seriously believe in class, and the true ones of us refuse to buy into pop culture. We do the right things, whether it's holding the door for a lady, mixing our Gin and Tonic with the right proportions, or double-spacing after every period when we write our essays. Truly, "prep" is not a trend, it is a classic way of life.
The young man who graduated cum laude from middlebury college with dual bachelor's degrees went on to earn his law degree from the University of Virginia and is now working at O'Melveny and Myers, LLP. Note that even though he makes well over $400,000 in a year, his car of choice is a volvo wagon and he lives in a studio apartment in the upper east side. He is a true example of a prep.