How have college admission standards changed over time? Quite a bit, it turns out. For an interesting historical perspective we take a look back through the last 300 years on admission standards in the United States. We focus on a variety of very well regarded colleges and universities to get a sense of how admission standards have changed over time, looking at source materials including old catalogs the school's published and their own stated criteria.
The biggest changes have been:
- The classics in Latin and Greek are no longer a core criteria for admission
- Having an interest in divinity and being of good moral character are gone as criteria
- Legacy admissions as a criteria has declined substantially
- The movement away from each school developing their own test, to a standard set of tests administered by third-parties
- The rise in athletics and sports as a criteria for admission
- The massive increase in the number of students applying each year, leading to very selective admissions, driven by: The G.I. Bill after World War II, the widespread admission of female students in the 1960s, the admissions of minority groups over the last 30 years and the large increase in students from outside the U.S. applying
The 18th century
Admission to college in 18th century America was reserved for the children of the wealthy, although as Ruth L. Woodward notes about students attending the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1786, "Class placement was determined by examination and required thorough training in the classics." It is also important to remember that early universities in the U.S. were largely setup to teach theology. Half of Harvard's graduates in the early years went on to become ministers. Similarly, Princeton's early students had to pray twice a day and religious education was a core part of the curriculum. In fact, the Presbyterian influence was so strong at Princeton that the school's Trustees mandated that the president had to be a Presbyterian minister. That remained the case until 1902 when Woodrow Wilson became for the first Princeton president who was not a minister.
Legacy admissions were a part of going to elite universities from the beginning. 21% of Yale's admissions in the later half of the 18th century were a man whose father had attended Yale.
The mid 19th century
A strong understanding of Greek, Latin, and classic literature, as well as a good moral character, were the main criteria in the mid 1800s. In addition to these fundamentals, the prospective student also had to pass an exam administered by the school.
To get admitted in 1854 at the University of Pennsylvania into the freshman class for the Department of Arts a student had to be "at least fourteen years old and qualified for examination on the following subjects and authors: Caesar (first three books of the Gallic War), Ovid (Excerpta), Virgil (First six books of the Aeneid), Cicero (Four Orations against Catiline), Horace (First Book of the Odes), Xenophon (Anabasis), Homer (First three books of the Iliad)."
Admittance into Dartmouth College in 1855 was similar to that of Penn. although there was a qualifier around your moral character: "All candidates for admission must present satisfactory testimonials of good moral character; and if from other colleges of unexceptional standing. Candidates for the Freshman class are examined on the following books: Xenophon's Anabasis, five books; Homer's Iliad, three books; Greek Grammar, including Prosody. The whole of Virgil; Cicero's Select Orations; Sallust; Andrews and Stoddard's Latin Grammar, including Prosody; Writing Latin; Arithmetic; Chase's Algebra, through Equations of the first degree."
MIT's admissions in 1881 were based much less on the classics and more on what we would call STEM today, "To be admitted as a regular student of he first year's class, the applicant must have attained the age of sixteen years and must pass a satisfactory examination in: Arithmetic (including the metric system), Algebra, through equations of the second degree; Plane Geometry; French - Grammar through irregular verbs; and the first two books of Voltaire's Charles XII or an equivalent; English grammar and composition; Geography; In general training given in the best high schools and academies will be a suitable preparation for this school. An examination for admission to the first year's class will begin at 9 A.M. on the Thursday following the first Tuesday after May 28th and continue two days.
The New York Times published Harvard's entrance exam from 1869 and it would be pretty difficult for most of us to pass today. Below is the algebra page:
Click for the full: Harvard Admissions Exam 1869.
The late 19th century
A strong understanding of both Greek and Latin were required in the late 1800s, but also an equally strong understanding of English, Geography, French, and Mathematics, with an exhaustive set of required readings required for admission, although an examination to get in could be bypassed if you went to an approved preparatory school for at least three years. Jerome Karabel makes the case in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton that the requirements for Greek and Latin were to keep admissions limited to those graduating from private schools, who taught the classics far more than public high schools.
The plus side of this system is that you knew exactly what you needed to study and master.
Dartmouth laid out its extensive criteria for admission in 1890, "Candidates will present themselves with their credentials at the President's Room at either of the following hours ..." Examinations for admission are held in Commencement week, June 23 through the following day." Candidates for the Freshman Class are examined in the following books and subjects, or their equivalents:
Greek I - Xenophon's Anabasis, Books i-iv; Homer's Iliad books i, ii; Greek Grammar, including prosody; Writing Greek -- Jones's Greek Prose Composition, twenty exercises. Or as an alternative --
Greek II - Translation at sight of average passages from Xenophon and from the Iliad; Translation into Greek of simple sentences; General questions on Greek grammar and prosody.
Latin I - Sallust's Jugurtha, or Catiline (or either Caesar's Gallic War or Caesar's Civil War); Cicero, six orations; Virgil's Georgics, or Ovid's Metamorphoses, 4,000 lines, and Virgil's Aeneid; Latin Grammar, including prosody; Writing Latin - Abbott's Latin Prose through English Idioms. Or as an alternative --
Latin II - Caesar's Gallic War or Caesar's Civil War; Cicero's Orations against Catiline and for Archias, with question on the subject-matter and on grammar; Virgil's Aeneid, with question on the subject matter and on prosody; Translation at sign of average passages from Caesar, Cicero and Ovid; Translation into Lain of a passage of connected English narrative.
Mathematics - Arithmetic, including the metric system; Algebra, to quadratics; Plane Geometry.
English - The examination will consist in the criticism of specimens of incorrect English, together with a short essay, correct in spelling, punctuation, division into paragraphs, grammar, and expression and on a subject announced at the time of the examination. In 1890 the subjection will be taken from one of the following books:
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Midsummer Night's Dream; Macaulay's Essay on Lord Clive; Coleridge's Ancient Mariner; Longfellow's Evangeline; Thackeray's English Humorists; Webster's first Bunker Hill Oration; Scott's Quentin Durward; George Eliot's Silas Marner; Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. In 1891, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice; Coleridge's Ancient Mariner; Longfellow's Evangeline; Macaulay's Essay on Lord Clive; Webster's first Bunker Hill Oration; Irving's Alhambra; Scott's Old Mortality; George Eliot's Silas Marner; Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables.
History and Geography - Outlines of Greek History and of Roman History (to the death of Marcus Aurelius); American History Outlines of Ancient Geography; Modern Geography.
French - The French language is not required for admission, but will be accepted.
The Emergence of Standardized Tests
Columbia University took the initiative of establishing an industry-wide standardized test rather than having each school do their own test. The advantages were many: 1) It was a reduced cost for each school, who no longer had to administer such tests. 2) Students no longer had to travel to their prospective school for two days to take the test. 3) It created a benchmark and standardization process to be able to compare students without the idiosyncratic quirks of each school's test.
The idea for a standardized exam was created in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 2, 1899, by representatives of 12 universities and three high school preparatory academies, calling themselves by the awkward title of the Association of College and Preparatory Schools in the Middle States and Maryland. Among the founders were the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Union College, Columbia University and Cornell University. The College Entrance Examination Board (C.E.E.B.) was created at a meeting held at Columbia University on December 22, 1899.
The College Board decided on ten subject areas to test students on: Botany, Chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Mathematics, Physics, and Zoology. Although the test would be a standard and would move academia away from individual school tests, the tests were very much along the lines of those given by Dartmouth in 1890, with almost all the English, Greek and Latin books referenced used as a basis for the testing in those areas. By 1916 Harvard, Yale and Princeton had all dropped their own exams in favor of the College Board exam.
The first College Board exam score sheet from 1900
The early 20th century
When the Leland Stanford, Jr. University opened in 1891 they did not employ a testing system, rather one of "free election," as explained in a 1903 book about college admissions requirements. English was the only required subject, otherwise a student could pick from 21 different subjects and satisfy that they studied at least 10 of them in high school to get into Stanford. The subjects were: 1) English; 2) Elementary Algebra; 3) Plane Geometry; 4) Solid geometry and trigonometry; 5) Advanced algebra; 6) Physics; 7) Chemistry; 8) Physiology; 9) Botany; 10) Zoology; 11) Freehand drawing; 12) American history; 13) English history; 14) Grecian and Roman history; 15) English literature; 16) Spanish; 17) French; 18) German; 20) Latin; 21) Greek. Obviously from its founding Stanford was clearly less of a liberal arts school based on the model of most schools on the east coast and was much more of a school focused on math and the sciences.
Prep schools have always had a big influence on admissions into elite colleges. Two-thirds of Yale's admissions in 1909 came from preparatory schools. The seven elite boarding schools founded in the late 19th and early 20th century were Groton, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, Choate, St. George's, Middlesex and Kent.
During the World War in 1916, Yale admissions requirements were as follows: "Candidates are admitted to the Freshman class of Yale College and of the Sheffield Scientific School upon passing an examination in the subjects listed in detail below, or upon passing with satisfactory grades the equivalent subjects set by the College Entrance Examination Board." The subjects are:
1. English I - Grammar and Composition
2. English II - Literature
3. Latin Grammar
4. Latin Composition
8. French or German
9. Algebra, Elementary I
10. Algebra, Elementary II
11. Plane Geometry
Whereas in the 1800s a prospective student had to travel to the college of their choice to sit for exams, by this time they started to offer students the ability to take tests locally. Yale offered locations throughout the country where students could sit for their exams. The exams, however ,were grueling. For the 1915 year the exam began on a Friday at 8:30 am and weren't completed until the following Tuesday at 1:15 pm. There were 32 different segments to the exam each scheduled for between 30 minutes and 90 minutes.
Latin and Greek wane as entry requirements
The requirements to study classic literature started to wane as an admission requirement. Princeton was the first elite school to drop Latin and Greek from it's entrance exams, beginning in 1919.
We may think in our current Covid era that requiring vaccines is a new requirement. It is not. The University of Pennsylvania's admissions requirements in 1922 required students to present proof of a smallpox vaccine.
"To be admitted as a regular student, a candidate must obtain at least 15 units of credit, either by the submission of satisfactory credentials, from a school or college, or by passing entrance examinations; the 15 units include at least 11 1/2 in English, History, Economics, Foreign Languages, Mathematics, and the Sciences. Typewriting, music, stenography, military training and physical education are not credited at all."
The first S.A.T. Test is administered by the College Board, in 1926. Their description of how it differed from their prior "College Entrance Exam:" "Unlike the College Boards, the SAT (administered in June) is designed primarily to assess aptitude for learning rather than mastery of subjects already learned." Greek and Latin are nowhere to be found.
A page from the first S.A.T. exam
A full copy of the first five page 1926 S.A.T. test can be found here.
The early part of the 20th century saw unprecedented immigration to America from Europe, including a large number of Catholic and Jewish families. Harvard added a question to its application for the first time in 1922 asking for an applicant's "Race and Color," and "Religious Preference." Jerome Karabel makes the case that this was not a magnanimous gesture on the school's part, but rather a way to screen out Catholics and Jews. They also had two additional questions to try to weed out candidates that didn't meet the standard Harvard profile, "Birthplace of Father," and "What change, if any, has been made since birth in your name or of that of your father?"
Yale's president, James Rowland Angell, explained the school's admission philosophy in the mid 1920s, "While the credible passing of the entrance examinations is a sine qua non it is by no means the whole story. Yale was also in search of boys of really fine personality." Also in the mid 1920s at Princeton the Chairman of its Admission Committee said that "personal impression gained in the personal interview is frequently the deciding factor." Karabel cites both as evidence that both universities were implementing policies to exclude students based on their religion.
Classics are out, graduating high school is in, provided a sufficient G.P.A. is attained.
University of California Berkeley admission requirements for 1931:
1. If the applicant is a high school graduate, but has not attended an institution of collegiate rank admission is by certificate or by examination. The applicant must present evidence that he has completed, in a manner satisfactory to the board of Admissions, the 15 units of prescribed subjects.
2. If the applicant has not been graduated from high school -- Admissions only be examination in the required subjects.
The High School program:
a. History = 1 unit
b. English = 3 units
c. Mathematics = 2 units
d. Science; a third- or fourth-year subject with laboratory (chemistry, or physics, or biology, or zoology, or Botany, or physiology) = 1 unit
e. Foreign language (in one language) = 2 units
f. Advanced mathematics; or chemistry or physics) = 1 or 2 units
g. Unrestricted electives = 4 or 5 units
Total = 15 units
Beginning August, 1931, a graduate of a high school or other secondary school may enter the University in freshman standing, without examination, provided the school was accredited to the University of California.
The requirement as to grades, which is based on a system of four passing grades (A, B, C, D), provided that no subject that the applicant has received the fourth (D) or lowest grade may be counted in the fifteen units required for admission.The applicant's records must show that he has attained first or second grades (A or B) in at least ten units of the subjects.
Stanford's admissions requirements for 1938 note that the "total number of women students attending the University at any one time is limited to approximately 40 percent of the total student enrollment," which is a crafty way of saying that 10 percent of each new class would be female. Stanford also required a College Aptitude Test: "Two tests, either one of which is acceptable, are used: the Stanford Aptitude Test given in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii; and the Scholastic Aptitude Test for applicants from other states and countries." In addition to the aptitude test students had to present their complete high school record and two statements of personal qualifications (presumably, recommendation letters).
The 1940s saw a dramatic increase in applicants to all schools as soldiers returned from the Second World War. This was because the new G. I. Bill payed for most or all of college. As an example, Yale's student population rose from roughly 6,000 before the war to over 9,000 after the war.
Whereas in the past schools were testing to determine whether a candidate was qualified, for the first time they had to begin weeding out applicants because there were so many. Princeton's admissions process was indicative of what the common at the time. The Daily Princetonian explains that Princeton's criteria, "focused on SAT scores, schoolwork grades, teachers’ recommendations, and an interview with an alumnus or admissions officer."
The first S.A.T. preparatory classes emerge, allowing students to begin to "game the test."
The Mid 20th century
Standardized exams go mainstream. Classic languages are still important.
In 1952 the application for admission to the Freshman Class of Harvard College should be made to the Chairman of the Committee on Admission early in the candidate's senior year at school. The requirements for admission include:
1. Successful completion of work leading to a secondary school diploma. The recipient of the school diploma cannot depend upon latter success in College. Acceleration in school is not advised.
2. The attainment of college certifying grades in at least two-thirds of the courses taken from the ninth grade through the twelfth.
3. The satisfactory passing of the single-day examination series given by the College Entrance Examination Board. In the morning series, the Scholastic Aptitude Test containing a verbal and a mathematical section is required. In the afternoon series, a candidate selects three Achievement Tests in the subjects which he is carrying in his final year of school.
4. Testimony from the headmaster or principal that the applicant is believed ready to do college work.
The major part of a student's program during his secondary school years should consist of English, mathematics, a foreign language, science, and social studies. His total program must contain either three years of Latin (or two of Greek) or a third year of secondary mathematics. Certain special subjects, such as music, art, shop, navigation, radio, will be accepted as a part of the candidate's school record.
Legacy admissions continued to be a strong part of the admissions criteria. Between 1920 and 1957 legacy admissions made up between 25 and 30 percent of admissions at Yale. It wasn't until 1971 that it dropped to 11%. The average SAT score for a student admitted to Yale in 1956 was 602 for Reading and Writing and 634 for math.
The 1960s saw a sea change in college admissions because the barrier to women going to college were being removed around the country. While west coast schools and public schools long allowed in women (The University of California, Michigan, and Stanford in the late 1800s), elite schools begin to now offer equal access. Princeton first admitted women in 1963, Yale in 1969, and Dartmouth and Notre Dame in 1972.
ACTs were introduced in 1959 as an alternative to the SAT. Because of surging applicants the standards for admission kept being tightened. For example, the average S.A.T. score for students admitted to Yale in 1975 was 654 for Reading and Writing and 673 for Math.
The Late 20th century - the College Admissions Arms Race
The latter part of the 20th century can best be characterized as the beginning of the collegiate Arms Race. In 1980 Penn began the decade with an admission rate of slightly greater than 40% of its applicants. Today Penn's admission rate is 9%. In 1978, the average combined SAT score for Penn’s future freshmen was 1230. By 1981, this number had climbed 30 points and was on the rise. Today it is 1560.
In 1983, U.S. News & World Report published its first "America's Best Colleges" report, a significant contributor towards students (and their parents pushing them) wanting to go to the "Best Colleges." The reason that competition has become so stiff to get into good colleges is pure math. In 1905 only 4% of high school students went to college. Most went into trades, to work on the family farm or in manufacturing jobs. Today 66% of high school students go to college. The dramatic increase in the number of women, minorities, and students from abroad have also increased the pool of applicants dramatically.
The 21st century
The final death blow to classic languages is dealt. In 2021 Princeton removed the requirement to study Latin and Greek even for students majoring in the classics. Also, many schools have begun to drop standardized tests as an admission criteria because of alleged bias against different classes of applicants. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Who knows, maybe moral character will return one day as a criteria for admissions?
1. Catalogue of the Trustee, Officer, and Students of the University of Pennsylvania Session 1854-1855.
2. Catalogue of the Officer and Students of Dartmouth College 1855-1856.
3. Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1881-1882.
4. Catalogue Dartmouth College 1889-90.
5. University of California Bulletin : Circular of Information Undergraduate Division at Berkeley 1930.
6. Official Register of Harvard University : A Pamphlet About Harvard for the Prospective Undergraduate, January, 1950.
7. WOODWARD, RUTH L. “Journal at Nassau Hall: The Diary of John Rhea Smith, 1786.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 46, no. 3 (1985)
8. Statistics about Yale admissions take from a Yale Book of Numbers : Historical Statistics of the College and University 1701-1976 by George Pierson.
11. First S.A.T. test from Smithsonian Magazine.
12. Stanford University Register for 1938-1939
13. A Historical Perspective on the Content of the S.A.T. , The College Board Research Report 2003-3
14. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton by Jerome Karabel
15. A Historical and Critical Discussion of College Admission Requirements by Edwin Cornelius Broome, 1903