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The first in a series of posts dedicated to a deeper-than-usual dive into the college admissions process.

By Jenny Umhofer


How to get into Harvard in 3 easy steps, 300 years ago:

  1. Read Virgil and Cicero in the original Latin
  2. Demonstrate a working knowledge of Greek.
  3. You’re in.

Three hundred years later, Harvard is still hard to get into, but not because you have to speak Greek.  The truth is, college admissions has changed a lot over the last few centuries, and a little historical context can go a long way in helping students who are grappling with getting into college today.

College, Colonial Style
Three hundred years or so ago, the new American colonies were just getting started in higher education, and a handful of schools dotted the eastern seaboard.  Those schools—Harvard first and foremost among them—filled their desks with students from a handful of fancy feeder high schools (think Exeter).  The students attending these high schools catered to the richest and most influential families in America at the time, making college a luxury available to only a select few.

For those lucky few, Harvard set the admission standards by requiring a set of skills considered essential to higher education at the time.  Greek and Latin were among the first set of admissions requirements, but over the years, the list of college prerequisites expanded to include “arithmetic,” grammar, sciences, and other languages.  The requirements were rigid and unforgiving, and reinforced the exclusivity of higher education in America.

Developing Diversity
But as Americans shed their colonial shackles and formed the United States of America, and the nation’s population grew, so too did its education options.  Public school systems cropped up, and public universities began to take shape.  Students started coming to college from different places, leading colleges and universities to break out of the rigid list of prerequisites and adopt a diverse set of admissions requirements in 1800s.  Many exclusive schools developed their own entrance examinations to maintain control over their admissions standards.  The admissions process had gone from a nearly universal set of admissions standards to a myriad of different requirements that varied from school to school.

Tests as Admissions Measuring Sticks
The varied approach to admissions in the 1800s led to a push for standardization in the 1900s, largely in the form of standardized admissions tests.  By 1926, the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” (SATs) became private colleges’ preferred exam, aimed at capturing applicants’ aptitude for learning, rather than subject-specific knowledge.  Public colleges would slowly embrace the SATs, and the ACTs—with their focus on subject-areas rather than aptitude—emerged as well.

Tough Questions: Race & Religion
As standardized tests offered an objective measure across the range of applicants, some prominent schools became alarmed at the increasing diversity of their applicants.  Some Ivy League schools became particularly concerned about the number of Jewish students gaining admittance, and instituted admissions policies designed to identify and exclude Jewish students.  Those admissions policies included application questions about religious affiliation, race, parental background, etc.  While background questions are now common on college admissions practices, their discriminatory roots have given rise to a long series of disputes about the role of race in college admissions—disputes that persist to this day.

Key Tensions: Standardization and Variety
The tensions in the history of college admissions—between exclusivity and inclusivity, standardization and variety, subject-matter knowledge and scholastic aptitude—form the foundation of college admissions today.  Modern college admissions combines a lot of standardization in the application process itself—common applications and a handful of standardized tests—with an incredible amount of diversity in the admissions decision-making—with schools applying a wide variety of criteria to select the newest members of their student bodies.

So what does all this mean for college applicants today?  Well, applicants can certainly be thankful they don’t have to read Latin to get into UCLA.  But more to the point, the history of college admissions can help students understand the challenges colleges face in deciding among so many different applicants, and the many different tools colleges have tried to use to improve their admissions decisions.  And, hopefully, this sense of college admissions history gives students applying for college these days an appreciation for the incredible array of higher education opportunities available to them, and the many paths to college that exist today.