How Getting Into College Became Such a Long, Frenzied, Competitive Process

A history of the college application, from 1856 to today

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

College admissions officers in the mid-19th century had it pretty easy. Since higher education was only a possibility for a small fraction of American teenagers, admissions decisions were more about who could foot the bill than who could do the academic work. Students from top high schools were granted admission as long as they were in “good standing,” and other privileged students just needed a check and a decent grasp of ancient Greek. More than a hundred years would pass before admissions officers needed to implement more sophisticated ways of evaluating applicants from across the socio-economic spectrum.

So how did the college admissions process turn into the lengthy, complex system it is today? Here are a few samples of Tufts University undergraduate applications from the last 150 years that illustrate the evolution.

1856-1857: Latin, Greek, and 'Good Moral Character'

No rakes need apply: the requirements for admission in 1856 begins, “Applicants for admission must produce certificates of their good moral character.”

Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

To be admitted as a freshman, an applicant had to take an exam in the following: Latin, Greek, mathematics, and history. The college listed the key textbooks in each field that every student should be familiar with, and offered entrance examinations twice a year: on the day after Commencement and on the Tuesday before the start of the fall semester. If these applications went well, a bond of $200—about $5,000 in 2013 dollars—turned an applicant into an official Tufts student.

1905-1906: Automatic Admission to Students at Select 'Schools of New England'

Fifty years later, in 1905, the requirements for admission had become longer and more detailed. A complicated entrance exam involved accumulating a certain number of points by passing multiple subject tests in areas like physiology, trigonometry, and advanced Latin. While the entrance exams in 1856 asked students to be familiar with key textbooks, exams in 1905 asked students to perform translations and write essays on literature and history.

The rules governing these entrance exams were extremely confusing, but perhaps only a few students were even taking them. Students who attended the “schools of New England” that had been approved by the the New England College Entrance Certificate Board could send in a certificate “covering the preparatory work” they had done in high school instead of taking the elaborate Tufts entrance exams.

Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

1925-1926: Limiting the Number of Students Who Get In

The requirements for admission had shrunk down to their 1856 length, but the entrance exams remained similar to their predecessors in 1905. One major difference was that Tufts set a limit on the number of students who could be admitted: 900 total, 650 men and 250 women, who were admitted to Tuft’s all-girls sister school, Jackson College.

Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

Students at schools approved by the New England College Entrance Certification Board were still able to skip the entrance examinations. Under “Methods of Admission,” the requirements for admission explain: “In order to make the transition from the school to the college more direct, Tufts College has an arrangement with certain high schools whereby students of good standing may pass from the high school directly into the College without the formality of examination.”

For the students who did not attend one of those pre-approved schools, Tufts administered exams in subjects ranging from biology, botany, and zoology to advanced Latin, English, and ancient history.

Deadlines for admission were quite close to the start date of school: Students who wished to begin college in September, 1926, were asked to turn in their applications as soon as possible, but no later than June 1. Students did not know where or if they would attend college until well into the summer: “No decision concerning admission will be rendered before July 1.”

1946-1947: Standardized Tests and Recommendation Letters

The modern-day application began to take shape by the 1940s. In 1946, students were asked to submit references, a letter from their principal, and complete an admissions interview. Standardized testing is now part of college admissions; for applicants to the School of Liberal Arts and Jackson College, “the College Board tests serve as entrance examinations.” The admissions materials no longer mention exemptions for students from pre-approved high schools.

Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

2013-2014: 'What Does #YOLO Mean to You?'

Today, the admissions committee asks students for a broad range of information, from extracurricular activities to financial-aid information. SAT and ACT scores have taken the place of Tufts entrance exams, and school transcripts provide information about an applicant’s-high school coursework.

The modern-day Tufts application has come a long way from its roots in Latin and Greek examinations, but it recently asked applicants to consider some ancient Roman history in an application essay prompt: “The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase "Carpe diem." Jonathan Larson proclaimed "No day but today!" and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO).  Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow?  Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?”